Less than two weeks after they became partners in a European Super League that would have cast aside the structures and organizations that have underpinned soccer on the Continent for nearly a century, a group of the sport’s biggest clubs are now engaged in a new battle behind the scenes.
This time, their fight is with one another.
At the heart of the new battle are two documents. One, a so-called club commitment declaration agreed to by nine of the Super League’s dozen founding clubs and released on Friday, formally renounced the Super League project and recommitted the breakaway teams to Europe’s existing system.
In a statement welcoming back the nine clubs, European soccer’s governing body, UEFA, said the teams “acknowledge and accept that the Super League project was a mistake and apologize to fans, national associations, national leagues, fellow European clubs and UEFA” for taking part in it. It also said the nine teams had pledged never to try a similar breakaway again.
The humbling recommitment by the teams — Arsenal, Chelsea, Tottenham, Liverpool, Manchester United and Manchester City; Inter and A.C. Milan; and Atlético Madrid — came with a cost. The nine clubs agreed to donate a total of 15 million euros (about $2 million per team) to a UEFA youth charity; surrender five percent of the revenue they would have received from Continental competitions this season; and pay a fine of 100 million euros (about $121 million) if they ever again join an unauthorized competition.
UEFA had demanded that the league’s founding clubs sign the commitment declaration, which would complete the formal demise of the Super League, as a condition to the clubs’ return to the formal structures and bodies that run European soccer.
But in agreeing to the terms of their reinstatement, the nine teams set up a significant — and potentially expensive — fight over the second document: a letter sent on Thursday by the three Super League holdouts threatening to extract millions of dollars in damages from any club that walks away from the project.
The holdouts — Real Madrid, Juventus and Barcelona — say they are refusing to let the Super League die. Doubling down, they said this week that they would pursue legal action and financial penalties against their former partners, and press a broader argument against UEFA’s influence over club soccer in the European court system.
The Super League, announced by its 12 founding teams in a late-night news release on April 18, collapsed 48 hours later amid a popular and political backlash. In the days and weeks since that humiliating retreat, club presidents and owners of some of the teams have held emergency meetings with leaders of soccer in their own countries and with UEFA to try to limit any punishment they might face for being part of a breakaway that would have devastated the value of leagues and clubs across Europe.
UEFA had said it would treat repentant clubs more kindly than those that refused to back down. Those that refused, it warned, risked the most severe penalty available to the organization: a two-year ban from the Champions League, Europe’s richest and most high-profile competition.
Documents, messages and conversations with executives involved in the talks this week suggested that eight teams of the 12 original Super League members had agreed to sign the declaration, one short of the number required to force through the liquidation of a company set up in Spain to run it. The ninth club committed on Friday, but all now expect a long and expensive series of recriminations.
The dispute between the founders, and UEFA’s efforts to isolate or punish any holdouts, is an indication of just how badly and how quickly relations between the top teams have soured. It also underscores how even after its brief life and sudden death, the Super League continues to tear at the fabric of European soccer.
Several top club officials, including Liverpool’s John Henry and the Glazer family that controls Manchester United, have issued public statements of contrition in the wake of the Super League fiasco. On Friday, less than a week after angry Manchester United supporters stormed their team’s stadium, forcing the postponement of a game, the team’s famously distant co-owner Joel Glazer wrote to fans and vowed to hold talks with them on a series of contentious topics and make a series of new investments in the club.
The Super League started to wobble even before the formal announcement of its creation. Within a day, some of teams started to make private entreaties to UEFA, acknowledging that agreeing to join had been a mistake.
Less than 48 hours after the league was launched, Manchester City became the first team to officially announce its intention to withdraw. That started a cascade, with all six Premier League teams releasing public statements revealing their plans to withdraw.
The defections left teams in Spain and Italy acknowledging the league was no longer viable in its original form, but not formally declaring they would not try to revive it.
Despite the popular backlash to the project, opinions have hardened among the three clubs — Real Madrid, Juventus and Barcelona — that were the most committed backers of the project. In their letter, sent on Thursday, the clubs accused the teams that had publicly declared their intention to leave the Super League with committing a “material breach” of the founders agreement.
All breaches of the shareholder agreement, they wrote to the departing founders, “have caused us significant damages, which continue to accrue.”
They also vowed to press ahead with legal action to prove that soccer’s current rules are incompatible with competition and free trade laws.
Yet their options now may be limited. According to the Super League contract, the withdrawal of nine clubs can force the liquidation of the entity that was created to run the competition. That dissolution was one of UEFA’s requirements to put the entire chapter to rest for the clubs involved.
The breakaway efforts continue to roil soccer on a domestic level, too. In Italy, the national association has introduced new regulations aimed at preventing any new breakaways, while in England discussions are taking place over similar rule changes and also about how to punish teams whose actions threatened the interests of the Premier League.
The Premier League is expected to announce the result of its consultation within days. One plan involves securing long-term commitments from member clubs not to join any unsanctioned competition, or to withdraw from the domestic competition, with severe penalties — including fines of more than $50 million — if they do.
Finding a suitable punishment is proving difficult, however. Soccer’s leaders are aware that the collapse of the Super League owed much to the public opposition of fans of the English teams that had agreed to join it; punishing the teams in ways that do not anger those same fans is now the goal.
That means clubs are unlikely to be hit with sporting sanctions, but rather with financial penalties aimed at the owners that backed the Super League plan. For now, one tangible response has been ostracism: Officials from the six breakaway clubs have been removed from the league’s internal committees.