Regressive. Protectionist. A closed shop. European football's largest ever scandal. Club officials threw these criticisms at UEFA following the European football association’s decision to change the format for the Champions League in 2018.
This year the number of guaranteed places for the top clubs of Europe increased from 22 to 26 out of 32, with the most influential clubs continuing their stranglehold on the multi-billion euro contest.
Four places were reserved for the powerful footballing nations of Europe - Spain, Italy, Germany and England -, leaving two for France and Russia, and only one place each for Portugal, Ukraine, Belgium and Turkey, along with the Europa League and Champions League winners.
Valid for three seasons, the changes ensure that the richest clubs in Europe - Bayern Munich, Manchester United, Barcelona and Madrid - will almost never miss out on the cash and glory of the Champions League, even if they slip from the top of their domestic competitions.
Meanwhile winners of domestic leagues in the majority of European countries must struggle through qualifying rounds before securing one of only six spots against the royals of football.
This creates a competition dominated by the giants of the game, and deals a further blow to east European football.
To draw up the new format, UEFA took into account only the recent success of clubs, not the historical progress and victories of teams such as Red Star Belgrade and its 1991 win in the European Cup, Steaua Bucuresti and its defeat of Barcelona in 1986, and Dynamo Kiev almost making the Champions League final in 1999, before crashing out to a Bayern comeback.
Outrage at the changes came from France, which only has half as many teams in the competition as its large European neighbours.
“This is the biggest scandal in the history of European football. This is a reform that was decided in secret,” said Bernard Caiazzo, president of AS Saint-Etienne and of the union of Ligue 1 clubs. He denounced “the huge influence“ of the European football club’s union, and “of the German-Italian axis, on UEFA”.
This may sound like a paranoid conspiracy theory, but it was close to the truth.
In 2016, a secret coalition led by four of Europe's biggest clubs, created a plan for an elite private league to break away from national competitions and the Champions League
Such a move would enrich the top names from Spain, Italy, Germany and England, at the expense of smaller clubs and footballing nations.
From confidential documents obtained by Der Spiegel and shared with members of the European Investigative Collaborations (EIC) Network, we show the method for “reforming” the Champions League was achieved by a plan to split not just from Europe's premier competition, but from UEFA itself.
Bayern, Juventus, Real Madrid and Barcelona joined together in what resembles a cartel to examine the possibility of creating a private European “Super League”, and they were joined for part of the journey by Manchester United, Arsenal and AC Milan.
The plan was for the super-clubs to free themselves from UEFA and soak up all the profits from TV rights and sponsorship deals in a competition between the leading brands of European club football, where every game would have the cachet of El Clasico.
This “secret society” of footballing heavyweights appeared to use this project as leverage to persuade UEFA to reform the Champions League in favour of the mega-clubs, and UEFA seemingly capitulated.
But the concept of a pan-European league where the giants of the game face each other every season for eternity is not dead.
Now the covert alliance may have almost reached its goal. According to a confidential memo dated 22 October 2018, 16 top clubs seem to be preparing to sign a document establishing a similar league for 2021.
Here is the inside story of foul play among the footballing elite.
December 2015: The Concept - Big clubs could see revenues triple
Clubs and footballing officials have debated the introduction of a European Super League for more than 30 years. Secret projects with obscure names such as 'Parsifal' and 'Gandalf' were devised, with the aim of seducing the wealthiest kings of football, such as then-AC Milan patron Silvio Berlusconi and Real Madrid backer Florentino Perez.
On 17 December 2015, influential U.S-based football tournament organiser Charlie Stillitano sent an e-mail to two Real Madrid executives: general director José Angel Sanchez and the team's head of marketing. Attached was a discussion document, offering the Real Madrid executives the following option for a full-season Super League:
- The 17 teams with the strongest TV presences from England, Spain, Italy, Germany and France would compete permanently in a European league
- The 18th participant would be one team from a knockout group of top clubs from Portugal, Russia, the Netherlands or Turkey. [But this option seems to be only lip service to the rest of Europe, as the document states the reasons for allowing only one club from outside of the big footballing nations are for “local TV interest” and to “limit pressure from the fans the EU”]
- The league would run for 34 weeks, with matches on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Saturdays
- There would be a knockout round at the end of the season
In his presentation, Stillitano calculated that each of the top clubs could gain annual revenues of “500 million Euro plus”. By way of comparison, the 2016 Champions League winner received around €60 million from UEFA. The American sports executive forecasted that in a Super League in which only the top teams competed against each other every week, the clubs could see their total revenues triple.
January 2016: The "Cartel" is Set-Up
Real Madrid's General Director José Ángel Sánchez emailed one of Stillitano's Super League presentations to the club's second-in-command and noted: “This document needs to be analysed.”
The Spanish club, together with six top counterparts, assembled a task force to examine the establishment of a Super League. In the months that followed, Real, FC Bayern Munich, Juventus Turin, FC Barcelona, Manchester United, Arsenal FC and AC Milan would go behind the backs of UEFA and other clubs to work on the option of leaving their national leagues and football associations.
February 2016: The Bayern Munich Contradiction
International football was deep in scandal. The global federation FIFA was rudderless after a wave of raids and arrests hit its top management. UEFA also saw its president Michel Platini ousted from office because of a multi-million-euro payment by former FIFA boss Joseph “Sepp” Blatter.
Meanwhile the legal department head at Bayern Munich, Michael Gerlinger, began a conversation with English law firm Cleary, Gottlieb, Steen and Hamilton, instructing the lawyers to examine what would be the legal implications of a Super League, especially if Bayern withdrew from existing European competitions, and from the Bundesliga.
On 9 February in Paris, the European Club Association (ECA), a global alliance representing more than 220 teams, gathered to discuss changes to the formats of international football competitions. The ECA chairman was the Bayern Munich CEO and a former forward for the Bavarian club, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge.
More than 150 high-ranking representatives of top European football clubs discussed FIFA, UEFA and a possible reform of the Champions League. According to the minutes of the meeting, Rummenigge stated that ECA and UEFA were striving for an “evolution of the competitions.” To this end, he added, there would be an “exchange of ideas…at different levels” and a few “informal working groups” in ECA would address the issue.
But there was a contradiction here. While the Bayern CEO was talking of “evolution” in ECA and UEFA, a law firm in Britain was busy working on behalf of his club's legal counsel to draw up a plan to scrap everything that ECA was trying to reform.
March 2016: Super League Faces Legal Hurdles
On 1 March, Bayern Munich received a confidential memorandum from lawyers Cleary, Gottlieb, Steen and Hamilton that demonstrated the legal impediments to the foundation of a Super League. They showed that neither UEFA nor FIFA could penalise the top clubs for withdrawing as this would represent a violation of “EU competition law.”
The lawyers moved on to a so-called Memorandum of Understanding (MoU), which ECA had signed with UEFA in 2015. They noted, however, that this agreement on objectives was not binding because the MoU, in which the clubs committed themselves to UEFA and its competitions, was not signed by the individual clubs, but only by ECA itself.
The irony here is that it was Bayern Munich's Gerlinger himself who had taken a leading role in negotiating this MoU with UEFA – and was authorised a bonus of €25,000 from ECA for his efforts.
The lawyers also anticipated problems if the clubs were to withdraw from their national associations: On the one hand, the clubs would likely still have to continue to allow their players to play for the national team, because the World Cup and the European Championship enables players to increase their value and salary. Denying players that opportunity could result in a lawsuit.
However Bayern Munich in particular would face a serious problem if it were to withdraw from the Bundesliga. Its players' contracts contain a clause that binds them to the Bundesliga.
But this did not seem to deter the Bavarians. In the following months, they would continue working together with the other conspirators to clear the way for a private Super League.
"We need to avoid at all costs the perception of a cartel"
In late February, Stillitano visited the five top clubs in the Premier League: Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester City. The meeting took place at a luxury hotel in London.
Shortly after the meeting, the British tabloid The Sun ran a cover story under the headline: “Top Secret European Super League Summit Revealed.” But aside from the information that the club bosses had met at the hotel and talked to Stillitano about some sort of competition, nothing was revealed.
Nevertheless, the top English clubs panicked. The Manchester City press office, as the Football Leaks documents show, wrote the following message to the club's CEO Ferran Soriano: “We need to be very careful moving forward and avoid at all costs the perception of a cartel”. Soriano replied by saying that the clubs would have to find a more private venue for future meetings.
In early March, top officials from Real Madrid travelled to Munich. At 11:00, they were picked up from the airport by a driver sent by Bayern Munich and taken to a high-end restaurant in the city. There they met with Rummenigge, Gerlinger and Stillitano.
The American, who referred to the secret society simply as the 'Big Seven', presented a revised concept for how to exit the national and international leagues and associations. Gerlinger would later ask Stillitano to email him the plan.
Secret meeting with ultimatum: "Revolution or Evolution"
On 31 March, the 'Big Seven' club bosses met in secret in Switzerland, with Gerlinger ready to present Stillitano's ideas.
The leaders convened in a hotel in Zurich, where they used conference rooms booked in the name of an inconspicuous travel agency. The presentation, 'A Super League Scenario for Top European Football', was shown to the club presidents. It raised sensitive issues: Should the clubs leave the national leagues completely or only turn their backs on UEFA? And what would UEFA have to offer to prevent them from doing so?
The top executives discussed whether teams could qualify for this league or whether there would only be a fixed field of participants with no risk of relegation. The officials heard they were losing around €400 million due to UEFA's organisational expenses and the revenue-sharing agreement with smaller clubs.
At the end, the presentation offered two options: “revolution” or “evolution“. In the case of revolution, there was a need for a “timeframe and parameters for break-away from leagues and federations” including a communication plan, a marketing strategy and an independent company. At the same time, the clubs could explore the possibility of “evolution,” staying in the UEFA and the leagues. From that point on, Gerlinger, Barcelona director Raul Sanllehi and Stefano Bertola of Juventus Turin would be responsible for negotiating with UEFA on behalf of this secret society.
But there were still a few issues to overcome before they could meet with UEFA.
First came a scheduled ECA meeting in Amsterdam in 19 April. At this discussion, some of the smaller clubs wanted to know what plans were afoot for reforming the European competitions. Raul Sanllehi took the floor. According to the minutes of the meeting, he explained that UEFA was thinking about introducing a third competition above the Champions League, stating that it would act “as a revenue driver.” Rummenigge added that “the big clubs have some ideas on the format.”
Not a word was said about a possible withdrawal from national leagues, and there was no indication that some of the top clubs had already worked out concrete concepts for a private league.
Indeed, it appears that the sole function of ECA meetings was to reassure small and medium-sized clubs as a way of keeping them silent.
Six days after the meeting with the clubs, Gerlinger sent out another e-mail to the representatives of the secret society. The first item in the email read: “Creation of a Swiss Company”.
Gerlinger explained that there had been a telephone conference with the English lawyers on the subject of how the clubs could set up their own company to manage the economic rights of the Super League, should it come to fruition. Such a company would increase the “pressure and power” on UEFA, the email noted. “UEFA is clearly fearing that we could market our rights ourselves,” Gerlinger wrote.
Meanwhile, the secret society was intensifying its talks with UEFA.
May 2016: Further Development of European Competitions "A Necessity"
On 2 May, a few members of the Big Seven flew to Budapest for a meeting with senior UEFA officials. Four days later, Bayern Munich sent out an e-mail signed by Rummenigge and his Juventus counterpart, Andrea Agnelli, summing up the Budapest talks. “Not one of the… expectations were met.” According to the two officials, UEFA was not capable of making quick decisions. They argued that the top clubs, “which are unanimously acknowledged as the drivers of the system,” were now facing “global threats,” making the further development of European competitions “not an option: It is a necessity.”
The two angry club representatives wrote that they had agreed to remain in the Champions League, but only under the following conditions:
- the league would only include 24 teams in the future
- revenue-sharing distributions to smaller teams would be reduced
- clubs that had been extremely successful in the past would receive more income in the future
- some European competition matches should be held on weekends and more matches must be scheduled for time slots convenient for broadcast in more TV markets worldwide
- the clubs had to be given the power to control the competition together with UEFA.
Rummenigge and Agnelli were demanding a complete shift of power and revenue in favour of super-clubs.
Not surprisingly, UEFA expressed shock in its response, complaining that the meeting had been called merely as “a first face-to-face” among senior executives on the issue and there had been “no clearly defined objective” before the talks.
No decisions could be made under these circumstances, UEFA wrote, adding: “We would be grateful if you could inform us about the group of clubs that you represent.”
The email was UEFA's last serious attempt to push back against the dominance of the top clubs. In the ensuing weeks, the secret society's plans to withdraw from UEFA competitions became concrete. The clubs' lawyers were checking into whether they could set up their company in Brussels or London. Their executives reached agreement on a format for the Super League, and they also developed a formula for revenue distribution.
July 2016: The Final Push Forward
On 14 July, the leaders of the 'big seven' met in Barcelona at the Camp Nou stadium to evaluate the latest version of the Super League project. The list of clubs had been refined: there would be sixteen permanent members, including none from eastern Europe, and eight “invitee” clubs. The presentation concluded with what remained to be done: inform the other clubs who would join the group, manage the divorce with UEFA and the impact on relations with the leagues, as well as developing a “public relations plan” to present such a controversial project.
But the 'big seven' did not take the plunge. Following the Barcelona meeting, the Super League was taken off the field and put on the bench. The three most recent members of the cartel, Manchester United, Arsenal and AC Milan, seem to have distanced themselves. They are no longer included in the copy of emails that appear in Football Leaks.
But the four remaining clubs - Bayern, Juve, Real and Barça - resume negotiations with UEFA, and they are rewarded for their tenacity. The Secretary General of Bayern explains, in an email of 4 August sent to the bosses of the other three clubs, that he has managed to help reduce and cap the “Solidarity” payments UEFA gives from Champions League revenues to smaller clubs and national leagues. They increase slightly in absolute value, but much less than the Champions League revenues, which are planned to increase from €2.2 to €3.2 billion per year.
He adds that: “The revised access list as proposed by UEFA would allow a guaranteed 4th spot for the first 4 associations” and “less teams” would qualify through the preliminary stages, meaning greater access to the Champions League for the major clubs from the largest countries.
August 2016: A compromise that rewards the elite
At a meeting of ECA in Monaco on 25 August, Chairman Karl-Heinz Rummenigge declared that “the big clubs received big offers to create a super league and that UEFA then called for a meeting with representatives of some of these big clubs a couple of weeks ago with a proposal to keep European club football united.”
The Bayern boss said that his group has reached a compromise with UEFA on limiting the Champions League participation to 32 clubs, while the association had wanted 48 teams.
A critical examination of Rummenigge's comments to the ECA, though, show there is more to the story.
The “compromise” with UEFA benefits primarily the top clubs. Thanks to the new regulations, they will receive more money than ever before. The tradition clause, which allots greater revenues to those clubs who have found success in the last ten years in the Champions League, will generate over €34 million for a major club such as Bayern, starting with this season. This money is guaranteed even before the club plays its first game.
Furthermore, the reform will increase the monetary prize owed to the winner of each game, which also benefits the top teams. Proportionally, it translates into less money available to the second-tier Europa League and less money for solidarity with the leagues – and a growing gap between top clubs and the rest. The impact will be even greater in the national leagues, where real competition will become impossible with such a vast financial gap between the top and bottom teams.
But perhaps that no longer matters.
Because the top clubs received something else as well. Their representatives will occupy three of the four director slots in a new joint company between ECA and UEFA dedicated to the future commercialisation of club competitions. Thus the secret society's three negotiators, Gerlinger, Sanllehi and Bertola, will become part of the firm 'UEFA Club Competitions', and over the course of the next three years, will be able to examine all of UEFA's balance sheets, sponsorship deals and rights agreements along with the association's administrative, organisational and operational costs. They will learn everything they need to know to plan their own competition, if the necessity arises.
“This is a big mistake by UEFA and we oppose that,” reads an email from Lars-Christer Olsson, president of European Leagues (then called EPFL), an association tasked with protecting the interests of 28 national leagues. According to Olsson, the joint ECA-UEFA company is “a first step towards a private super league in Europe.”
Olsson further elaborates that the changes in the distribution models will lead to “an increasing gap between the “rich' and those who have less.”
A few days later, the EPFL Secretary General sent out a memo on the subject which contained an even more drastic view of the reforms: “These amendments were the result of the pressure and threat posed by the top clubs which have been in [a] position to profit from the power vacuum at UEFA and impose their reform with the help of UEFA apparatchiks.”
When EIC Network approached UEFA concerning the process of the Champions League reforms, the association stated: “Only small changes were made [to the Champions League], which were meant to strike the best balance possible between open access and appeal of the competitions.”
UEFA added that due to the decisions on changes to the Champions League format and structure, “the unity of European football and the well-known structure of European club competitions were safeguarded and more money was raised than would otherwise have been possible, meaning that both in solidarity payments and participation fees, European football as a whole - including clubs that do not participate to the UEFA competitions – benefitted from these new arrangements.”
October 2018: "The Plan was Never Serious"
In a recent interview with EIC Network, Gerlinger says his primary concern throughout the negotiations was the clubs' self-determination. It was an important achievement, he says, and he is optimistic that cooperation with UEFA in the joint company will be “outstanding.”
What about the plans to leave the Bundesliga? It was an option that was looked into, says Gerlinger, because the teams had to be prepared for all eventualities. But no one was serious about the idea, and it was soon “completely off the table”. The attorney goes on to argue that the Super League could be a competition with “brands” playing against each other. “If there is the Super League, Bayern must be there,” he adds.
But Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, he argues, was clearly uncomfortable with the idea of such a privately organised competition. Rummenigge was also the one, Gerlinger says, who said that they should come to terms with UEFA.
Is the Super League dead? The format is “as far away as it has ever been” says Gerlinger. Discussions with UEFA are currently underway for formats starting in 2024, he says. There is no reason “to be afraid” of a Super League, he adds.
November 2018: The Super League Lives Again
But on the night of 22 October, Real Madrid received an e-mail addressed to club president Florentino Pérez. The message was from Madrid-based Key Capital Partners, which advises corporations working on huge projects.
A document attached to the email bore the title: 'Draft of an Agreement of the Sixteen'. This is the draft of a 13-page 'binding term sheet' of 11 European top clubs for the establishment of a Super League. If everything proceeds in accordance with this document, the Champions League will cease to exist as of 2021.
Instead, the continent's 11 most important clubs will break away from UEFA and begin a new elite called the “European Super League”. The eleven “founders” would not be at risk of relegation and would be guaranteed membership for 20 years, as long as they abide by their own rules. Another five clubs will be included as “initial guests,” making a total of 16 teams.
The project, the document states, is subject to the utmost secrecy. The date for the signature of all 16 club representatives under the 'binding term sheet' is set for November 2018, but the specific day has been kept open.
The 11 clubs listed as “founders” are Real Madrid, FC Barcelona, Manchester United, Juventus Turin, FC Chelsea, FC Arsenal, Paris Saint-Germain, Manchester City, FC Liverpool, AC Milan and Bayern Munich. All seven clubs in the secret society are represented. The five “initial guests”, according to the document, are Atlético Madrid, Borussia Dortmund (BVB), Olympique Marseille, Inter Milan and AS Roma. This will reduce European football's elite tier to only five countries - Germany, England, Spain, France and Italy.
The eleven founding clubs, according to the document, plan to register a company in Spain to market, organise and execute the European Super League under its full control. The competition will have two phases: a group round and a knockout round. There is also the possibility for the establishment of a second league, where the best teams at the end of the season could play a series of matches in an effort to win promotion to the Super League.
The document even lists the ownership stakes held by the individual clubs in the joint European Super League company, with Real Madrid holding 18.77 percent, Barcelona 17.61 percent, Manchester United 12.58 percent and Bayern Munich 8.29 percent.
There is no mention of UEFA in the entire draft contract.
When contacted, Real Madrid, the company Key Capital Partners and Borussia Dortmund CEO Hans-Joachim Watzke all declined to comment on the document in question.
But the fact that discussions about the Super League are currently ongoing, says Watzke, “is clear, and I also believe that a few of Europe's large clubs are clearly working on it.” Still, the BVB boss says, such plans are apparently “not very concrete“ yet.
There is still the decisive question. Should the Super League take place in addition to, or instead of, the Bundesliga? “That is the firewall,” says Watzke. “For as long as I carry responsibility around here, BVB will not leave the Bundesliga.”
In response, Bayern Munich stated that the club does not know about the existence and the content of the 'binding term sheet', PSG claimed it had no knowledge of the paper, while Barcelona and Juventus would not comment.
Asked about the realisation of a super-league, ex-president of FIFA, Sepp Blatter, says that he does not believe it should happen.
“This does not fit into the culture of football in Europe,” he adds. “The possibility of going up and down is very important. In such a league, this is closed. There would be a loss of interest in the national championship, and the national championship plays a big role in each country.”
Opening picture: Champions League Final In Madrid, Real versus Atletico, 2014 (Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images) via Guliver