European Super League: What can the government do to stop the breakaway competition?

The UK government has vowed to “do whatever it takes” to prevent football’s controversial new European Super League from coming to fruition.

Both the prime minister Boris Johnson and the culture secretary Oliver Dowden issued firm statements on Monday condemning the plot among 12 of Europe’s major clubs, which includes the Premier League’s ‘big six’ of Manchester United, Manchester City, Liverpool, Chelsea, Arsenal and Tottenham. 

The plans would see the 12 clubs breakaway from Uefa’s Champions League and form a new Super League in which the founding members were rewarded with protected rights to play in the competition every year, concentrating power and money to a select few and undermining the notion of fair and open competition.

The government has promised to step in if football’s authorities fail to bring down the project, which is fiercely opposed by the majority of fans. But does the state really have the power to intervene? The options appear limited; here we examine some of the possible routes the government could take.

Taking sides

Initially the government will pile pressure on the clubs involved by backing key governing bodies which oppose the plans, like Uefa and the Premier League. Uefa has threatened to ban clubs from their European competitions, meaning Chelsea and Manchester City could be expelled from the Champions League semi-finals due to take place later this month. A Uefa member said that he expects this drastic punishment to be voted through in an emergency meeting later this week.

Mr Dowden told MPs he had met the Premier League, Football Association and head of Uefa, Aleksander Ceferin, and MrJohnson suggested his government would work with football’s governing bodies in thwarting the Super League. 

“We are going to look at everything that we can do with the football authorities to make sure that this doesn’t go ahead in the way that it’s currently being proposed,” the prime minister said, on a trip to Gloucestershire. “I don’t think that it’s good news for fans, I don’t think it’s good news for football in this country.

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“These clubs are not just great global brands – of course they’re great global brands – they’re also clubs that have originated historically from their towns, from their cities, from their local communities. They should have a link with those fans, and with the fanbase in their community. So it is very, very important that that continues to be the case.”

Pulling up support

The only direct option immediately available is to remove some of the supporting structures the state currently provides. Withdrawing public services such as policing at grounds and traffic controls has been suggested as a possible measure which would hurt Super League clubs. The government could also intervene in footballing matters such as denying work permits for foreign players applying to play in the Super League, withdrawing licenses to stage matches, or by enforcing pandemic travel restrictions which are currently waived for elite sport.

Downing Street did not rule out pushing for a German-style system of fan ownership of clubs or clawing back support loans worth £295m extended to Arsenal and Spurs during the Covid pandemic.

Asked what specific strategies the government might target, Mr Dowden told MPs: “What the government does to facilitate matches, and facilitate those clubs, and looking at whether we should continue to provide that support.”

Parliamentary scrutiny

Mr Dowden announced that the government is launching a fan-led review into sport governance, chaired by the former sports minister Tracey Crouch. Ms Crouch promised fans that she would “work with you, and for you, to consider how we keep the traditions of integrity and fair competition at the heart of the sport”.

The “root and branch” examination will cover financial sustainability, governance and regulation, and could recommend an independent regulator for the game. If the review was accelerated and the government was able to bring senior Super League figures in front of a Select Committee, a very public parliamentary grilling would feasibly increase the pressure on the clubs involved.

Competition law

Another option is a legal route. The Super League plans to ringfence many of the financial benefits of European football for a select few clubs, regardless of merit, and one possibility is to explore whether this could fall foul of competition law by creating what pundit Gary Neville has already described as a “monopoly”.

“We are concerned that this plan could create a closed shop at the very top of our national game,” Mr Dowden said. “Be in no doubt: if they [football’s authorities] can’t act, we will. We will put everything on the table to prevent this from happening. We are examining every option from governance reform to competition law, and mechanisms that allow football to take place.”

Ultimately, though, it seems the government does not yet know the full extent of its armoury in the battle ahead. “We are considering a range of options,” the culture secretary said. “I’m not able to set out full details at this point. We’ll set them out in due course, once we’ve considered all possible options.”

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