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European Super League case heads to ECJ in hearing that pits elite soccer clubs against Fifa and Uefa

Ruling could impact competition law on formation of breakaway sports leagues.

11 July 2022 PA

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The European Super League (ESL) hearing at the European Court of Justice (ECJ) will begin today in Luxembourg, with the decision set to have significant implications on the soccer world.

The controversial competition was launched on 18th April last year but collapsed within three days after nine of the original 12 clubs involved withdrew amid political pressure and fan backlash.

The remaining ESL founders sought to assert a in the courts that European and world soccer’s governing bodies, Uefa and Fifa, had abused a dominant position under European competition law in first blocking the formation of the competition and then in their efforts to sanction the clubs involved. A Madrid commercial court referred the matter to the ECJ in May 2021.

Success for the ESL founders at the ECJ has the potential to pave the way for third-party tournament organisers to operate in competition against established European sports governing bodies, without the threat of sanction from them.

Defeat for the Super League, in a court with no further avenue of appeal, surely spells the end for the project for generations.

The case, which has the reference number C-333/21, will be heard by a ‘Grand Chamber’ of 15 ECJ judges, which is an indication of how potentially significant and complex it is thought to be. Often, cases referred to the ECJ are heard by chambers of three or five judges.

Written submissions in this case have already been sent to the court, including from 16 European Union member states. From 11th July, the participants in the case are expected to make oral submissions to the court.

On one side are the European Super League Company SL and A22, while on the other are Uefa and Fifa. LaLiga and the Spanish Football Federation (RFEF) have joined the case in support of Uefa and Fifa, while 20 or 21 European Union (EU) member states with an interest in the case have indicated their intention to make oral submissions related to the case. Each submission must last no more than around 15 minutes.

After each submission, the judges will question the participants throughout the day on 12th July. It is expected that only lawyers will speak on behalf of the rival parties and major protagonists in the Super League saga such as Real Madrid president Florentino Perez are not expected to appear.

Sources close to the Super League say they are confident of success and in the ECJ’s independence from political pressure despite the number of member states lining up to make oral submissions.

Once the hearing concludes on 12th July, the next step is the publication of an opinion by the Advocate General, a judge related to the court.

This opinion is not expected to be published until September at the earliest, however, due to the court’s summer recess.

On average cases last more than 16 and a half months from referral to final judgement, with the referral in this case made in May last year.

The ECJ judgement will be an abstract interpretation of EU law, rather than a specific judgement on this case. However, the Madrid commercial court is then obliged to apply the ECJ ruling when it considers the case.

At the heart of the case are three clubs – Real Madrid, Barcelona and Juventus – who remain supportive of the Super League concept, arguing that the current model of European soccer governed by Uefa is unsustainable.

The subject matter of the main proceedings is described in the referral document from the Madrid court to the ECJ as follows: ‘By preventing the organisation of the European Super League, the applicants (Uefa and Fifa) engaged in concerted practices and abused their dominant position in the market for the organisation of international club football competitions in Europe and the market for the marketing of the rights associated with such competitions.

“The applicant further seeks the adoption of interim measures aimed at enabling the organisation and development of the European Super League.”

The referral then lists six questions related to EU law which it wants the ECJ to consider.

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