0-0 after extra time: Super League hearing gets technical

LUXEMBOURG — Despite juicy ingredients — including glitzy football clubs and powerful tournament organizers — the Super League hearing at the EU’s top court Tuesday rested primarily on the technical complexities of EU competition law.

European football’s governing body UEFA and the European Super League wrapped up their legal arguments in an arcane hearing that has the potential to remake the historic organization of football in Europe, as judges at the Court of Justice of the European Union mulled arguments over UEFA’s role in running European football.   

At issue was the Super League’s contention that UEFA and world football governing body FIFA have an illegal monopoly over the organization of international football competitions. At stake is the Super League’s ability to resurrect its controversial competition, which died a quick death in April 2021.

The court’s advocate general said he would deliver his opinion on December 15, which is often — but not always — followed by the court. Luxembourg’s 15-judge Grand Chamber took the case, registered as C-333/21 European Superleague Company, because of its significance across Europe.

After a heated introduction Monday — in which the Super League accused UEFA of crushing competitors and UEFA called the Super League a “cartel” — the hearing restarted Tuesday in a more sedate fashion, with pleadings from EU member countries and the European Commission.

The Commission’s lawyer delivered a nuanced argument outlining that UEFA could have “legitimate objectives to restrict competition,” but added that “any defense of the European sports model must respect European law, particularly regarding competition law and fundamental freedoms” and that UEFA “may have a conflict of interest when authorizing competitions organized by third parties.”

Any argument that the Super League is a cartel would need to be examined at another time, the Commission added.

The litany of European countries backing UEFA’s position on various grounds — financial solidarity, open competition, Europe’s social fabric, regional cohesion — continued throughout the morning, after which the judges took over, peppering the legal representatives with questions.

They zeroed in on issues around solidarity payments, sporting structures, conflicts of interest and potential antitrust exemptions.

The court’s advocate general, Athanasios Rantos, echoed some of FIFA and UEFA’s language, asking the Super League whether it was attempting to “have their cake and eat it” by trying to set up its competition inside the established football ecosystem.

In one heated moment, Judge Nils Wahl from Sweden took the Commission to task for failing to provide clear guidance on whether UEFA was concretely in breach of EU antitrust law. Wahl blasted elements of the executive’s argument, which attempted to straddle the fence, as “incoherent” and told the Commission’s lawyer to stop shaking his head.

Wearily noting that “we’ve already heard too much,” court President Koen Lenaerts threw it back to the Super League and UEFA to sling some final rocks at one another in closing arguments.

UEFA has a “radical” conflict of interest” because of its dual role as regulator and operator, argued the Super League’s lawyer. That accusation is a “mirage,” UEFA’s lawyer hit back — adding that the Super League collapsed “because European fans like the current system and the values of sporting merit that it represents.”

Earlier, Romania’s representative contended that the Super League represents the “certain death of open competition and solidarity” in Europe.

Whether the EU’s top court agrees remains to be seen.