It was only on Saturday morning that a senior executive of one of European football’s biggest clubs realised that the long-rumbling talks about the breakaway European Super League were suddenly – in his words – “about to go nuclear”.
For months, clubs had batted round proposals for a €6bn (£5.2bn) breakaway league, that would see 15 founding clubs receive between €89m and €310m immediately for signing on the dotted line. But while each of them had been given documents, contracts, and asked to come back with ideas, Uefa appeared to have blocked the plan by agreeing to a reformed Champions League, involving 10 group games in a Swiss-style format, which they were due to announce on Monday.
That all dramatically changed over the weekend. One by one the “maybes” were told that the breakaway was on, others had signed up, and if they didn’t become “definites” they could be left behind.
“Things that usually take years were done in hours,” the executive told the Guardian. “The upfront cash was being dangled like bait. All clubs need money – and if you’re told that everyone else is involved, you don’t want to be left without a chair when the music stops.”
Others tell of frantic calls between rival clubs and leagues, and of nobody truly trusting each other to share all their cards, before news broke on Sunday that 12 clubs – including six from the Premier League – were backing the breakaway. Multiple sources told the Guardian that the Juventus chairman, Andrea Agnelli, was a key player, supported in particular by the Premier League clubs with American owners – Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester United – and Spain’s big three.
Their urgency was understandable. On Friday Uefa had contacted the media to confirm that its president, Aleksander Ceferin, was about to confirm the new-look Champions League format, which the organisation promised would “make for a more exciting competition where ‘Every. Game. Counts’”. The breakaway clubs had to strike fast and hard. And they did.
On Sunday evening came the announcement that 12 clubs had indeed decided to create a super league – Milan, Arsenal, Atlético Madrid, Chelsea, Barcelona, Inter, Juventus, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United, Real Madrid and Tottenham Hotspur all joining as “founding clubs”.
“Usually the threat of a super league is a bargain chip, and about leverage,” says one source with direct knowledge of the talks. “But this is the furthest its ever gone by considerable distance.”
The move is not only about a short-term injection of cash, but long-term control. Europe’s biggest clubs not only want to ease their debts but to run the Champions League instead of Uefa. That was a fight that Europe’s governing body wrongly had thought they had kicked down the road, until they were blindsided over the weekend.
One source said that Ceferin thought that Agnelli was going to stand with him and condemn the proposals but “he just stopped talking to him on Sunday”.
The €6bn question is what happens next. If the 12 clubs hold the line, which they at the moment look like doing, it will inevitably head to the courts.
“On a meritocratic basis, people will say: ‘How could you even think about owning a competition that you only qualify for on a season-by-season basis?’” a well-positioned source asked. “But from a business perspective you can see why the big clubs are trying to go down that route. And this time round they have brought a bigger bat than ever.”
Others, however, are far more sceptical – especially given the immediate backlash among fans and leagues. They predict that Uefa will be able to chip away at the breakaway 12 and, with big clubs such as Bayern Munich or PSG against it, it may take only two or three more to pull out to make the plan dead in the water. “This is almost existential for Uefa,” says one senior executive. “They will fight it with everything.”
One thing is for sure, European football is unlikely to ever be the same again.