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The legal issues around a European Super League

Posted on 20 April 2021

On Sunday, 12 of Europe's biggest clubs announced plans to join a breakaway league, which aims to rival the UEFA Champions League as the continent's biggest club competition.  

Simon Leaf, Head of Sport, says; "All those involved in the wider football industry will be closely monitoring the hugely significant news. Broadcasters and sponsors, for example, will be keen to ensure that rights they have already secured and are presently negotiating will not be adversely impacted - as clearly this could seriously devalue the worth of the Premier League itself. Owners of other clubs will also be concerned - particularly those that have recently changed hands and may see the value of their clubs significantly reduced as a result. 

Players and their agents will also be keeping a keen eye on things. Recent case law from the world of ice-skating offers them hope against potential exclusion from international competitions - and we expect that the big name athletes will take whatever steps are necessary to ensure they are able to compete at the highest level internationally.

All in all, there’s plenty at stake and as a result the spectre of legal challenges looms. As anyone involved in these types of issue will attest, the immediate future is incredibly uncertain for all those involved as the issues are far from straightforward. However, sport is all about relationships and the damage inflicted by these proposals may take a long time to heal."

Neil Baylis, Partner and competition law expert, says; "The legal issues are stark.  Perhaps the biggest question is: can FIFA, UEFA and national football league associations prevent the formation of this new European Super League? The new league would undoubtedly draw revenues from existing competitions and reduce the availability of the member clubs and their players for existing national, regional and global competitions.

Each footballing body will be seeking to enforce their respective rules intended to prevent such rival leagues appearing: FIFA, UEFA and national football league administrations all have rules requiring consent to be obtained prior to a member club forming or joining a new league.  The footballing bodies are threatening to use their disciplinary powers to exclude the clubs and their players from their competition. For example, UEFA has stated it will ban the clubs from the Champions League and the FIFA has said players will not be entitled to participate in the World Cup.  

One of the main legal arguments available for the European Super League and its clubs will be competition (anti-trust) laws. There are a number of different competition law arguments that may be made.  First, the European Super League may argue it is an abuse of the associations' dominance as regulators to seek to prevent rival leagues/competitions entering the market. They may also argue that the members of those associations are engaging in a collective boycott by excluding clubs or players from refusing access to the associations' competitions.  Finally they may argue that preventing players from participating in rival competitions is a restraint of trade.

We understand the European Super League has already issued protective proceedings in one or more courts to seek to prevent disciplinary steps being taken by the football authorities.  If it progresses with its plans, litigation certainly seems likely given the sums of money at stake."

David Parsons, employment lawyer, added; "The proposals also raise interesting questions about the employment relationship between the breakaway clubs and their players.  Can a player be forced to remain under contract with their club, where doing so would cause that player to forfeit their ability to represent their country in international competitions?  Quite possibly not – the law of constructive dismissal allows an employee to walk away from their contract of employment where their employer has seriously breached their duty of trust and confidence. 

Of course, sacrificing a lucrative playing contract in what will probably be the biggest club competition in the world would be a big step for any player, but those who genuinely value their international careers may have no choice. The clubs have presumably factored this risk – i.e. losing their biggest players (for no transfer fee) – into their thinking.

Playing contracts will also need to be renegotiated.  Most players at the clubs in question will have bonuses linked to performance in the domestic leagues and competitions.  Agents will be looking on with interest."

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