26 August 2022 - 1:00 PM
Exclusive: No fines paid by Super League rebels; do they also still retain an active interest in the European Super League company?
- Sixteen months after nine of Europe’s biggest clubs pulled out of the European Super League, questions remain about their interest in A22 – the company behind it.
- Off The Pitch understands that no fines have been paid to UEFA after the fiasco, with questions also raised about whether the £22 million “contribution” to good causes agreed with the EPL has been paid.
- Off The Pitch contacted all nine clubs asking if they had given up their shares in A22 – and received zero comment.
- Why it matters: Clubs, ECA and UEFA are in the early stages of post-2027 discussions on the future of European club competition. A22, via its active legal and lobbying efforts, will have a discernible impact on these talks.
- The perspective: Parties interested in the future of European club competition have repeatedly spoken of their concerns that UEFA and other bodies have not seen through pledges to punish the rebel clubs.
Sixteen months after leading clubs publicly stepped away from a breakaway European Super League, serious and unanswered questions have been raised about their involvement in future iterations of the project.
Following a public outcry, nine of the continent’s biggest clubs – Arsenal, Atletico Madrid, AC Milan, Chelsea, Inter Milan, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur – all renounced their involvement with the ESL within days of the project being made public in April last year. Barcelona, Juventus and Real Madrid remain active members.
But 16 months on, it remains unclear whether any of the nine repentant clubs have given up their shareholding in A22, the Super League Company.
Off The Pitch wrote to all nine clubs last week to ask whether they had succeeded in divesting itself of its shareholdings in A22, or any company related to a breakaway league.
Not a single club responded.
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Earlier this month, when Off The Pitch interviewed Liverpool CEO Billy Hogan, he refused to take questions on the ESL “as it is a legal issue”.
Moreover, a source has confirmed to Off The Pitch that no fines have been paid to UEFA following litigation by A22 in the Madrid Commercial Court.
The Madrid court initially blocked the disciplinary process, forcing UEFA to stay punishments in September last year. However a judge reversed this decision in April. Despite this the disciplinary process remains halted.
The Premier League declined to comment when we asked if a collective £22 million “contribution” rebel clubs agreed to pay last June to good causes had in fact been paid, further raising questions that clubs have entirely escaped sanction.
A22 remains active, having partaken in a case at the European Court of Justice last month attacking UEFA’s commercial and regulatory control over European club competition. It has also engaged with a high profile Brussels-based lobbying group to work on its behalf.
Sources close to negotiations on the future of European club competition have repeatedly spoken of their concerns that UEFA and other representative bodies have not seen through pledges to punish the rebel clubs.
One source said: “In the wake of the ESL coming out, [UEFA president] Aleksander Čeferin was really impressive in leading a counter offensive. Unfortunately he hasn’t seen through his words. It’s almost like UEFA gave up after clubs pulled out. Ever since the ESL was blocked there has just been this continual slide back into a situation where the biggest clubs haven’t been held accountable and are calling all the shots again.”
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The source warned that European football could be heading for a repeat of the stand off between UEFA and the big clubs that ultimately culminated in the Super League crisis.
“That was more than several years in the making. UEFA will decide on the future of club competition post-2027 in the next eighteen to twenty four months. The fighting has already broken out. The big clubs always want more. They’re as strong as ever.”
Asked why leading clubs might retain shares in A22, another well-placed source said: “There’s no imperative for them to give them up.”
“Their strategic interests are aligned. A22 may never lead a breakaway league, but they chip away at the authority of UEFA. That means more power to the big clubs, a bigger say in the direction and format of club competition, and ultimately more money.”
However, Stephen Rigby, partner at London law firm Norton Rose Fulbright, says that being in possession of a share do not in itself mean an active interest in a venture.
“You probably could say I'm ripping up a share, I want nothing more to do with this, I’m not going to exercise my votes or put more money in,” he said. “But you would still be that shareholder until you transferred the share to somebody who wanted it. Or the nine clubs [that pulled out] could transfer their shares to the three remaining clubs – that would be the logical thing to do.”
Alamy | Florentino Perez, president of Real Madrid
Company registration documents filed in Spain show no change of ownership since the affair broke out last year. They show a combined share capital of €3000 but offer no details of how shares are split. Anas Laghrari, an associate of Real Madrid president Florentino Perez, and John Carl Hahn, an American asset manager, are listed as “Apoderados” – or representatives.
Lack of teeth
Last June the Madrid commercial court issued an injunction stopping UEFA and the EPL from issuing punishments relating to clubs’ involvement in the ESL. This forced UEFA into announcing a stay on punishments.
Off The Pitch estimated at the time that all twelve ESL clubs collectively benefited to the tune of €30 million from the action. When we asked the clubs then if they disassociated themselves from the action none would do so.
Although the Madrid court reversed its decision to stop sanctions in April this year, neither UEFA nor the EPL have ever confirmed whether any of the “contributions” agreed with the nine clubs have been paid.
UEFA, the ECA and EPL initially “purged” its committees of members linked to the rebel clubs. These included the likes of ECA chairman Andrea Agnelli, and former Manchester United CEO, Ed Woodward, who sat on the board of both the ECA and the UEFA European Club Competitions Committee, which shapes the future of European club competition.
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Yet this appears to have been a short term state of affairs. Just sixteen months after the ESL drama, Atletico, Tottenham and Inter all have board representation on the ECA, while the Arsenal CEO, Vinai Venkatesham, and former Man United CEO, David Gill, sit on the UEFA Club competitions committee. The EPL has always refused to say who sits on its sub committees, but last month revealed that Venkatesham was part of a four-person committee that selected the league’s new chair, Alison Brittain.
Super League’s re-emergence
Nor has A22 gone away. In April it hosted an event at Brussels’ Stanhope Hotel billed as a chance to “exchange thoughts on key features of the European sport model, including competitive balance, transparency, solidarity along with investment in grassroots football”. The discussion, which was held under Chatham House Rules, also focused on “the interest of fans and viewers and football’s economic potential in the EU”. According to a report by Press Association, Anas Laghrari was listed on the invitation.
Fans Supporters Europe (FSE) warned at the time that the Brussels meeting demonstrated that the ESL’s billionaire backers had not gone away but were merely “biding their time”.
In July, A22 challenged UEFA’s commercial and regulatory monopoly in the European Court of Justice (ECJ). The case threatens the biggest shake up in European football since the Bosman ruling, and an interim “opinion” is expected in December, with a full judgement in 2023.
Off The Pitch can also reveal that A22 has engaged Flint Global, an influential Brussels lobbying group, to work on its interests. Flint “work with … clients to align their commercial objectives and priorities with the public policy goals of the decision-makers across the EU institutions and in national capitals.” Flint did not return our request for comment.