European Soccer’s Super League Faces Legal Tangle at Kickoff

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European soccer’s biggest and most controversial upheaval since the post-war era is riddled with legal pitfalls for its creators as well as critics trying to kill the plan, sports lawyers warned on Tuesday.

The proposed Super League risks violating European Union antitrust law by forming a “closed shop” without relegation or promotion, said Katarina Pijetlovic, an associate law professor at Manchester Metropolitan University, whose neighbors City and United are among the project’s dozen founding members.

Just as problematic could be the reaction from European soccer’s body UEFA that said Super League clubs would be “banned from playing in any other competition at domestic, European or world level,” with players potentially refused from playing for their country.

Ben Van Rompuy, an assistant professor of competition law at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands, said “the mere threat could already be construed as anti-competitive.”

Sports’ restrictive rules have several European court and antitrust decisions to draw on. These include a key 2006 case that says sport isn’t immune from competition scrutiny and a 2017 antitrust order that says sports bodies go too far if they ban athletes from participating in some events.

A commercial court in Spain already issued a ruling temporarily barring soccer’s governing bodies, including UEFA, from sanctioning the clubs joining the Super League, as well as players, El Pais reported on Tuesday.

The European Commission has so far been reluctant to get drawn in, saying most sports disputes are best resolved by national courts or arbitration. It has already been sent one complaint from an Italian consumer group asking it to probe the super league and Italian clubs for potential abuse of dominance.

FIFA referred to a statement saying it disapproved of a super league. UEFA’s press office and a representative for the Super League didn’t respond to a request for comment.

The U.K.’s Competition and Markets Authority said it will “be carefully considering any competition aspects” of the super league, warning that it was a complex issue. The U.K. government said it doesn’t “want this to go ahead in the current form” and is “exploring a range of options, including legislative ones,” Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s spokesman said on Tuesday.

Some of the issues aren’t entirely new to the EU. It’s currently weighing a complaint filed last year against basketball’s EuroLeague, which represents 11 of the sports’ big clubs.

ULEB, an association of leagues, says excluding competitors allows EuroLeague and its clubs to grab most of the media rights revenue and allow the big clubs recruit better players, higher sponsorship deals and attract no fans. This puts huge strain on smaller clubs, it says.

Pijetlovic, who wrote a book on breakaway soccer leagues, sees bigger problems for this week’s plan.

The Super League “made a massive mistake right at the start because they just picked up and left instead of following the procedure” of asking UEFA for approval, she said.

Doing that would have exposed UEFA’s vague rules that just say approval is needed without setting out any clear grounds, she said.

“This Super League” in its current guise “will never happen. It can’t get past the legal test,” she said.

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