UK prime minister Boris Johnson has vowed to block an attempt by 12 of Europe’s largest football teams to create an elite “super league”, in the latest sign of the increasing political backlash against the initiative that threatens to upend the sport.
“The prime minister confirmed the government will not stand by while a small handful of owners create a closed shop,” said Johnson’s office on Tuesday. “He was clear that no action is off the table and the government is exploring every possibility, including legislative options, to ensure these proposals are stopped.”
The PM’s stance adds to widespread condemnation from governments including France, Spain, Italy and Greece against a proposal that would undermine the current European championships and hurt smaller clubs. Clément Beaune, France’s Europe minister, called the plan “against nature”, and said France could take action when it took over the EU presidency next year if the situation had not been resolved by then.
“This is the consequence of a system where money is king, and that excludes merit and solidarity,” he said on Tuesday, arguing that it would severely damage grassroots football. “We must exclude this type of closed competition founded on money, end of story.”
Beaune’s comments followed reports at the weekend that President Emmanuel Macron, a football fan, would support football authorities’ initiatives to block the plans.
Out of the 12 teams that have signed up, six come from the English Premier League, three from Italy’s Serie A and three from Spain’s La Liga. But France’s Paris St Germain and Germany’s Bayern Munich, two of Europe’s wealthiest and most high-profile teams, have not joined the initiative.
The plan would allow member clubs to compete against one another without running the risk of being relegated and therefore would ensure a steady stream of revenues. But political leaders, supporters and existing football authorities said it would kill the meritocratic aspect of European football, which is built on a system of domestic leagues where clubs compete and can be promoted or relegated based on their performance.
The breakaway initiative has caused dismay among the other teams in Europe’s top divisions, which would stand to lose out on lucrative TV rights deals should the competition go ahead.
“The proposal from a few wealthy European clubs to form a closed league totally cuts against the history and tradition of the game. It is wrong — plain and simple,” said Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the Greek prime minister, on Tuesday. “Fans will not accept it.”
The Italian government of Mario Draghi said on Monday it would “resolutely support the positions of the Italian and European football authorities to preserve national competitions, meritocratic values and the social function of sport”.
Aleksander Ceferin, president of Uefa, the European football governing body, has called the plans disgraceful and threatened to prohibit players who join the league from playing in international competitions, such as the World Cup.
Nasser Al-Khelaifi, chair of Paris Saint-Germain, the French club owned by the Qatari state, pledged to remain in the Champions League, the existing continental club contest run by Uefa.
“We believe that any proposal without the support of Uefa — an organisation that has been working to progress the interests of European football for nearly 70 years — does not resolve the issues currently facing the football community, but is instead driven by self-interest.”
Al-Khelaifi is also owner of Doha-based beIN Sports, the broadcaster that has spent billions of euros to acquire the TV screening rights to football competitions across Europe, including the Champions League.
The jury is out over whether governments will be able to prevent the plan from materialising despite mounting pressure and public outrage. Simon Chadwick, a professor of Eurasian sport at EMLyon Business School, said that in spite of anger from many capitals European governments could struggle to intervene.
“Countries or the EU could make threats to exclude players or ban teams but for me this is just empty rhetoric,” he added. “It’s a bit like Amazon and tax in the past decade — European countries have tried and failed to control corporations that are uncontrollable in many ways.”
In Italy, other football club owners reacted angrily to the announcement. Urbano Cairo, an Italian businessman who is chair of Torino football club, called the teams that were planning to break away from Serie A “judases”.
“They should be ashamed of themselves. The super league project will not succeed, but even thinking about it means making an attempt on the life of Serie A.”
The plan was “a grave insult” to European football culture and an “existential threat” to clubs, said France’s football supporters’ association on Tuesday.
The Spanish government has also come out against the plans, which involve three teams from La Liga: Real Madrid, Barcelona and Atlético Madrid.
Fabrizio Zaccari, head of the Brussels supporters club for Lazio, one of Rome’s two big teams, and which has not joined the initiative, said it would ruin the integrity of the sport he loved.
“It will completely distort the system, creating a model that comes close to American show business and only helps the teams that will participate,” he said. “But we should not be surprised. For years economic interests have been leading the sport to ruin.”
Additional reporting by Daniel Dombey in Madrid, Eleni Varvitsioti in Athens, Davide Ghiglione in Rome and Erika Solomon in Berlin