Europe’s biggest football clubs have been flexing their muscles with talk of a so-called European Super League and criticism of the international calendar ahead of the general assembly of their umbrella group ECA in Paris next week.
The ECA meeting on Monday and Tuesday could show whether the elite clubs are seriously considering a power grab, or have merely been posturing to pressure European governing body UEFA into granting them a larger slice of the proceeds from their lucrative competitions.
Last month, ECA chairman Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, whose association represents more than 200 clubs including all the major ones such as Real Madrid, Barcelona, Juventus and Bayern Munich, said a European League could be created in the next few years. He said it could be organised with or without UEFA.
The idea was also discussed in private in European Club Association meetings in Switzerland in January, sources close to the clubs said.
Another idea that was floated was to create captive places in the UEFA Champions League for the biggest clubs.
This would mean that the richest clubs would take part in the competition no matter where they finished in their domestic league, avoiding a scenario where teams such as AC Milan and Liverpool miss out because of a poor season.
The idea alarmed the world players’ union, FIFPro.
“The clubs are acting through pure self interest, supported by governing bodies who do their utmost to limit the influence of players and fans in how the game is run,” it said in a statement to Reuters.
“We want as many players and fans as possible to enjoy competitions such as the UEFA Champions League. Access must not to be restricted to the fans of a small oligarchy of clubs.”
“Commercial interests are threatening football’s rich history.”
Proposals for a so-called European Super League have come and gone over the years – but with world governing body FIFA in disarray over multiple corruption investigations that have hollowed out a slew of top officials, clubs may see an opportunity to exercise their power and press for change again.
In 1998, Milan-based sports marketing company Media Partners held talks with leading clubs including AC Milan and Manchester United as they sought to build support for a breakaway league.
Then FIFA threatened national associations, clubs and players with suspension if they linked up with the proposed Super League and UEFA finally killed the plan by expanding the Champions League and upping prize money.
Meanwhile, Juventus president Andrea Agnelli, who sits on the ECA board, has complained about the amount of time players spend with national teams for international matches.
National team competitions depend on a calendar, agreed between FIFA and the clubs, that obliges clubs to release players to play for their countries on certain dates.
The calendar has been agreed until 2024 and if the clubs, were to pull out, it could throw international football into chaos.
It would be an extreme move but cannot be ruled out after ECA, angry at being left out of discussions over how to reform FIFA, said in December they were “leaving all options open”.
Criminal investigations into FIFA are under way in Switzerland and the United States, where 41 individuals and entities have been indicted.
FIFA’s own Ethics Committee has banned officials including outgoing FIFA president Sepp Blatter and UEFA boss Michel Platini, barred for eight years each. Both deny wrongdoing.
The ECA did not comment on Agnelli’s idea but said it was “something to be possibly brought up next week in Paris as part of a wider discussion”.
Simon Chadwick, professor of sports enterprise at Salford University in England, suggested the clubs might be sabre-rattling.
“My view is that there will always be a negotiated route forwards and that clubs, national associations and international governing bodies will reach some form of consensus,” he said.
“Failure to do so would create a schism in the world game that would be counterproductive to its own health.”
He said that Rummenigge’s comments were part of “posturing” by European clubs “in response to uncertainties in their own operation environments”.
Daniela Wurbs, spokeswoman for the Football Supporters Europe, a network of football fan groups, took a similar view and criticised the clubs seeking more prize money.
“The idea of a European Super League has come up several times in recent years and it usually ended with UEFA providing the big clubs with more money,” she said.
“From the perspective of many football fans … there is nothing healthy in a one-sided development leading to big clubs getting more and more money whilst the smaller clubs lose out.”