The legal issues facing European Super League clubs

The 12 European Super League clubs could face a number of legal issues
The legal issues facing European Super League clubs

James Cox

The football world was sent to the brink of meltdown on Sunday evening when news broke of the so-called European Super League.

Twelve clubs, including six Premier League sides, blindsided managers, players and supporters with proposals for a breakaway competition which could end European tournaments as we know them and threaten domestic leagues.

The universal reaction from fans has been one of disgust, particularly towards the six Premier League clubs involved: Manchester United, Manchester City, Liverpool, Tottenham, Arsenal and Chelsea.

There has been all sorts of rumours about sanctions, from Premier League expulsion to players being banned from international duty.

Sports lawyer Jonny Madill, of Sheridan Sports, spoke to about the contractual obligations of the clubs and players involved and what the legal ramifications could be.

“There is a whole raft of complex legal nuances at play here, but my view is that this is probably more likely to be resolved through political negotiations, if you like, between the stakeholders rather than being played out in a legal dispute,” Mr Madill said.

“That’s not to say that these legal issues aren’t incredibly significant, and also whether it’s UEFA, the Premier League or clubs, using their legal position of leverage to enhance their negotiating position will see the legal arguments being used, but I think the idea that we’re going to see anyone bring legal action against clubs, players, we’re not at that stage yet.

“This is unprecedented, so nobody knows how it will play out, so it could end up with disputes in courtrooms, but I think at this stage the clubs have made it very clear that this is their intention [the European Super League].”

While Mr Madill feels the issue can be resolved outside of courts, he pointed to the resignation of Manchester United executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward from the European Club Association (ECA) as an indicator of how serious clubs are about the plan.

He also pointed to UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin’s criticism of Woodward and Real Madrid president Florentio Perez (also European Super League president) as a sign of how difficult any negotiations will be.

“They’re saying, ‘we are pretty far down the line here’. Relationships are frayed with people resigning from the ECA, the president of UEFA’s relationship is done with club officials who he had very good relationships with.

“It’s either a bluff from clubs, and they’re playing a game, or actually they are so far down the line that they don’t intend to go back. If this is the case, the legal issues will become a lot more important.”

UEFA President Aleksander Ceferin has criticised Ed Woodward and Florentino Perez.

Mr Madill pointed out that the regulatory and contractual framework of the Premier League and UEFA does allow for punishments as severe as expulsion from competitions and point deductions.

However, he pointed out that any rash moves could rule out the possibility of a resolution that would be best for the sport.

“The Premier League rules make it clear that clubs have to comply with their rules and FIFA statutes, if clubs were to join this Super League they could end up in breach of the Premier League’s regulatory framework. The Premier League then has the option to impose sanctions on those clubs, expulsion being the most extreme move we could also see point reductions or a fine. UEFA would have similar rights.

“That would be a monumental step to take for the Premier League.

“Kicking clubs out of competitions at this stage, what goal is that achieving? Of course, you would be protecting sporting merit and fairness of competition, but what is the ultimate goal?

“I think the ultimate goal is to find a resolution to this, so if you’re the Premier League or UEFA that is a big consideration to weigh up before you pull the trigger on taking these actions.”

Player contracts

He pointed to a less covered issue that could also have a huge impact on clubs, player contracts.

“If you look at the contract that exists between a Premier League player and his club, obviously there are a lot of obligations for the player, but there are also obligations on the employer, the club.

“Clause 6:1 of the Premier League employment contract basically says the club has to comply with the rules and regulations of FIFA, UEFA, the FA and the league.

“It also says that the club cannot do anything that prevents a player from playing for his national team. The interesting thing there is if these players become Super League players, UEFA have indicated they will be ineligible to play at the Euros or the World Cup because effectively these players have breached their obligations.

“If those players are unable to play in the Premier League, Euros or World Cup, then their agents may say ‘hold on, we’ve been forced into doing this and prevented from playing for our countries because of the clubs’.

“That’s a whole web of issues which is also completely unprecedented.

“Agents are going to be thinking about their players wanting to play in the Euros or World Cup, but also when it comes to signing a deal with United, Liverpool etc or get them a move to another club.

“Given the pot of revenue that is going to be distributed among these Super League clubs, if you’re an agent for a big player at one of those clubs, you’ll be arguing that your player’s value has been increased, and they deserve a slice of this increased pie.”

While the reaction from fans, players and pundits against the proposals has been significant, Mr Madill feels it will mean little to the owners involved.

My understanding is there is nothing legally binding in what the clubs have signed.

“The owners and decision-makers at these clubs are effectively asset managers, they’re not football people. Do they really care about the ethical side of sporting merit and competition? Are they really bothered about the grassroots game? Are they bothered about the fans? Their sole focus here is on addressing the debts of their business and increasing their revenue streams, that’s what this Super League is designed to do.

“They don’t even see these clubs as football clubs, they see them as global entertainment brands that are all about increasing their global revenue streams as businesses rather than football clubs. That’s almost the elephant in the room, we’re talking about the entertainment industry, not the football industry.

“Their clubs are no different to an Apple, Disney or Amazon to them.”

While the situation remains wholly uncertain, Mr Madill pointed out that what will get the owners' attention is the legal issues mentioned in relation to player contracts and possible sanctions.

Leeds United players wearing 'Football Is For The Fans' shirts during the warm up prior to kick-off of the Premier League match at Elland Road, Leeds. Picture date: Monday April 19, 2021.

With this in mind, he pointed out that the European Super League proposal is more of a statement of intent, and is not legally binding for any of the clubs involved.

“My understanding is there is nothing legally binding in what the clubs have signed, so it’s like a letter of intent, but that is not legally binding so if Liverpool, Manchester City or Arsenal turn around and say, ‘this is a big mistake’, they can probably back out without too many consequences.”

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