Top European Soccer Teams Agree to Join Breakaway League

LONDON — A group of the world’s richest and most storied soccer clubs has agreed in principle on a plan to create a breakaway European club competition that would, if it comes to fruition, upend the structures, economics and relationships that have bound global soccer for nearly a century.

After months of secret talks, the breakaway teams — which include Real Madrid and Barcelona in Spain, Manchester United and Liverpool in England, and Juventus and A.C. Milan in Italy — could make an announcement as early as Sunday, according to multiple people familiar with the plans.

The timing of the announcement appears designed to overshadow Monday’s plan by European soccer’s governing body, UEFA, to ratify a newly designed Champions League, a competition which would be decimated by the departure of its biggest teams.

At least 12 teams have either signed up as founding members or expressed interest in joining the breakaway group, including six prominent teams from England’s Premier League, three from Spain and three from Italy, according to the people with knowledge of the plans.

The group has been trying to get other top teams, like Germany’s Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund, to commit, but to date those clubs — and others — have declined to turn their backs on the decades-old domestic structures and Continental competitions that have underpinned European soccer for generations.

The French champion Paris Saint-Germain, for example, has been invited to join but has so far resisted the overtures. Its president, Nasser al-Khelaifi, sits on the UEFA board and also heads beIN Media Group, the Qatar-based television network that has paid millions of dollars to UEFA for the right to broadcast Champions League games.

The teams committed to the super league plan are, for the moment, limited to almost a dozen clubs from Spain, Italy and England. A cohort of six teams from the Premier League — United, Liverpool, Manchester City, Arsenal, Chelsea and Tottenham — represents the biggest grouping from a single country. Atlético Madrid is the other team from Spain that is said to have endorsed the project, while the Milan rivals Internazionale and A.C. Milan would join Juventus as Italy’s representatives.

The New York Times contacted a number of clubs involved in the breakaway plans but all declined to comment or did not respond. A UEFA spokesman did not immediately return a request for comment.

UEFA and the top European leagues, though, are bracing for the breakaway announcement. Officials spent the weekend in discussions about ways to block the plan, including potentially banning the breakaway teams from domestic leagues and from next season’s Champions League, with the breakaway scheduled to begin in 2022.

The repercussions of that type of breakup would be seismic for all involved; without the top teams, UEFA and the leagues would face demands for millions of dollars in refunds from the broadcasters who pay billions for television rights to tournaments, and the clubs would lose revenue streams that could cripple their budgets as European soccer continues to emerge from the financial wreckage caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Among the most notable teams involved in the breakaway group is Juventus, the serial Italian champion. Its chairman, Andrea Agnelli, also leads the European Club Association, an umbrella body for more than 200 top division clubs, the majority of which will be left out of the proposed Super League. He is also a member of UEFA’s executive board. When asked by The Times this year to discuss his role in the talks of a breakaway league, Agnelli brushed off the idea as a “rumor.”

Still, according to documents reviewed by The Times in January, plans for the breakaway league had gathered pace since the summer. Top clubs sought to take advantage of uncertainty in the soccer industry caused by the pandemic to forge a new path that would ensure a degree of financial stability for them but would also almost certainly lead to a significant — and potentially devastating — loss in value and revenue for teams excluded from the project.

Each of the would-be permanent members of the proposed super league are being promised 350 million euros, or $425 million, to sign up, the documents said.

Under the proposals reviewed at the time, the super league, which would play its matches in the middle of the week, sought to secure 16 top soccer franchises as permanent members and to add four qualifiers from domestic competitions. The clubs would be split into two groups of 10, with the top four teams in each group qualifying for the knockout stages, culminating in a final that would take place on a weekend.

The event would, according to the documents, generate hundreds of millions of dollars in additional revenue for the participating teams, which are already the richest clubs in the sport. (An alternative version of the plan proposed 15 permanent members and five qualification spots.) The group had entered into discussions with JPMorgan Chase & Co. to raise financing for the project, according to people with knowledge of the matter. The firm has so far declined to comment.

UEFA found a powerful ally in opposition to the plans in FIFA, soccer’s global governing body. FIFA warned that any player who took part in such an unsanctioned league would be banned from appearing in the World Cup. The statement came after UEFAs president, Aleksander Ceferin, demanded support from his FIFA counterpart, Gianni Infantino, amid mounting speculation that the breakaway would have FIFA’s backing.

European soccer leaders huddled on the telephone and in video conferences over the weekend to forge a counterattack. However, finding a solution to the potential loss of the biggest brands in soccer is not an easy task. The Premier League, for example, would lose much of its sheen — and almost certainly a lot of the commercial appeal that has turned it into the richest league in soccer — should it move to banish its top six teams.

As member-owned clubs, Barcelona and Real Madrid would likely require the support of the thousands of their supporters before formally joining, and any German clubs that agree to take part would face similar obstacles. All can expect heavy internal opposition; fan groups from across Europe had already voiced opposition since details of the plans for a super league emerged earlier this year.


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