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Superleague: the CJEU opens up competition between organisers of European competitions

In a ruling handed down on 21 December 2023 in the “European Superleague Company” case, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) ruled that FIFA and UEFA’s rules on the prior authorisation of football competitions, such as the Super League, were contrary to European Union law.

The dispute arose from the desire of twelve major European clubs (including Barcelona, Real Madrid and Juventus) to create a new European Football League based on the model of the closed North American leagues. The idea was simple: to create a semi-private European interclub competition to compete with the Champions League and other competitions organised by UEFA, with no relegation system based on sporting performance. 

UEFA and FIFA had threatened sanctions against the twelve major clubs supporting the project. The two highest governing bodies of European football had envisaged excluding all players taking part in the Super League from international competitions. The European Superleague Company had brought an action against UEFA and FIFA before the Commercial Court in Madrid, claiming that the rules governing the prior authorisation of European competitions and the exploitation of media rights infringed European Union law.

In its ruling, the CJEU considers, in accordance with previous case law, that the organisation of interclub football competitions and the exploitation of media rights are economic activities. As such, the exercise of these activities must comply with EU competition rules and freedom of movement. It also notes that FIFA and UEFA also organise football competitions in parallel with their powers to authorise European competitions.

The Court also considers that where an economic operator holding a dominant position on a market also has the power to determine the conditions under which competing undertakings may enter the market and pursue their activities, that power must be accompanied by criteria which ensure that it is transparent, objective, non-discriminatory and proportionate.

It concludes that since FIFA and UEFA do not have any such criteria, the two bodies are in a situation of abuse of a dominant position. Given their arbitrary nature, the rules on authorisation, control and sanctions must be described as unjustified restrictions on the principle of freedom to provide services.

Finally, the Court considers that the rules of those two bodies relating to the exploitation of media rights are such as to be prejudicial to European football clubs, to companies present on the media market and to consumers.

However, the Court considers that a project such as Super League does not necessarily have to be authorised, and it does not take a direct position on this specific project.

Following this ruling, A22, the company behind the Super League project, immediately announced the creation of a new competition format with 64 men’s teams divided into three leagues, and 32 women’s teams, this time with a promotion/relegation system.

Finally, it should be emphasised that this decision does not have unanimous support. While a number of clubs welcome the decision and consider that UEFA’s monopoly has been brought to an end, opponents fear that the decision will sound the death knell of the current system and create a real rift between small and large football clubs.