A select group of wealthy European clubs worked in 2016 at a private Super League, a private elitecompetitie. This forced them even more money and power. And now there are new plans on the table.
Thursday 25 August 2016. In the Méridien Beach Plaza Hotel in Monaco, there is something in the air. Everything in the Atlantic East Meeting Room feels Michael Verschueren that there is a lot on the game …
Thursday 25 August 2016. In the Méridien Beach Plaza Hotel in Monaco, there is something in the air. Everything in the Atlantic East Meeting Room feels Michael Verschueren that there is a lot at stake: the Champions League nights at the Constant Vanden Stock stadium, the home of Anderlecht. The elitist kampioenenbal is even more exclusive.
Verschueren at that time, already four years a board member of the European Club Association (ECA), the federation of European football clubs. He is our only countryman in the highest cenakels of the European club football. That there is in Monaco already decided would be surprised the son of the iconic ex-manager of Anderlecht, Michel Verschueren. He knew that the talk was about the rules for the most important football tournament on the continent. But such far-reaching change he had not expected. Still not as fast.
The new Champions League is not good for Anderlecht and Belgian football. The Brussels traditieclub hear for decades not in the best of the best. But now threatens them even further behind, realizes Verschueren.
The new format make the teams from the smaller countries less chance to qualify and they will share less in revenue – a loss of tens of millions of euros. A reverse Robin Hood effect so. Like the hero of Nottingham money, and would steal from the poor to the rich.
What Michael Verschueren that Thursday in August of 2016 does not know, is that seven of his co-directors in the room a double agenda. Although they are in the ECA, the federation which is officially the interests of all European clubs are supposed to represent, they worked secretly for months on a private plan. The reform of the Champions League on that day on the table, is for them not more than a compromise. Actually, they had a very different model in mind.
Seven rich European clubs – Arsenal, Manchester United, FC Barcelona, Real Madrid, Juventus, AC Milan and Bayern – broedden on the establishment of a private elitecompetitie appears from the documentation that Der Spiegel got hold of, and through the network of EIC shared with The Standard. An exclusive and separate competition for the best clubs in Europe, so they have no time and money would need to waste to matches against lesser gods, such as Anderlecht or Club Brugge.
Behind the reform of the Champions League in 2016, so a different, cynical narrative. A story of power, money and betrayal, of a months-long battle in the back rooms of the European professional football. The seven clubs emailed, argued, conferencecalls, saw each other in obscure venues on Swiss airports, and wiped a large law firm in order to hone their masterplan.
Their plan for a elitecompetitie they used, ultimately, to their wants to themselves in the official reform of the Champions League. Wanted the European voetbalunie (Uefa) not to risk that the biggest clubs for themselves would begin, she could them but better to respond with more money and more start tickets in the Champions League.
More still, from documents recently in hands came from Der Spiegel and EIC, it appears that the threat is still a long way off. The number of clubs that wants to split off, it seems today will only become bigger and bigger (see inset).
Michael Verschueren feel that all longer to arrive. Since he is a place in the European Club Association, he sat on the drawing board at nearly every major commercial and financial decision-making in the European football. Verschueren takes part in meetings in which Anderlecht, and by extension the Belgian football, it is increasingly difficult for the voice to resonate.
In the course of the Constant Vanden stock stadium hang still nostalgic photos of European achievements from the distant past. But today, the proud, the Brussels club has a long Rensenbrink, Lozano or even Vercauteren more in the ranks. Other countries dictate the football: Spain, England, Germany, Italy.
‘You must also set the economic reality”, said Verschueren about it this summer (DS is 30 August). “The tv channels of the big countries pay almost 60 percent of all the tv money in the Champions League pot is deposited.’
The Champions League is a droompodium, with 3.2 billion euros in prize money, nearly 400 million tv viewers in more than 200 countries. From Madrid to Moscow: anywhere Mastercard and Gazprom on the boarding and players receive the same hymn for the kick-off to hear:”That Meister! The Champions!’ And yet, that is for some voetbalbestuurders not enough.
We can call?
One of those directors is Michael Gerlinger, legal director of Bayern Munich, and since 2016 is also a member of the secret club of seven European clubs who consider themselves ‘The Big Seven’. In February of that year looking for Gerlinger per mail contact with a lawyer from Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton. “I may be an interesting project for you. We can call?’
On behalf of the seven clubs – Arsenal, Manchester United, FC Barcelona, Real Madrid, Juventus, AC Milan and Bayern – will Gerlinger legal advice on the intent of a potential Super League. The clubs want a separate tournament with more teams from top countries’ and ‘less teams from weak countries, “so that they” more games that matter’.
The questions that the lawyers must answer: can they legally out of their national leagues? And out of the European football federation? And would their players than from the national selections excluded can be?
It is clear that ‘The Big Seven’ no taboo out of the way to go. Not even that the players who would participate in the Super League, would not be allowed to come out for their national team. The Spanish league without Real and Barcelona? The Red Devils are without stars such as Romelu Lukaku, Marouane Fellaini or Thibaut Courtois? For us it seems unthinkable, but for the voetbalbonzen not.
At the end of march to discuss the clubs first findings. In a room on the eighth floor of the Radisson Blu in Zurich, anonymous, booked under the name of a tour company, they take the legal analysis of Cleary Gottlieb. That contains especially good news: legally allows them nothing in the way to set up a private league to organise. All sounds by noting that the national teams are an important showcase and the value of their players increase. That players ban is legally dangerous.
At that meeting, new issues on the table. Which clubs are allowed to participate? They choose for a closed model with fixed clubs? Or a semi-open model, where a part of the places through qualification is given? And for those who are the hard places?
Verschueren is not involved in those secret discussions. All he could in the spring of 2016, however, already suspected that something was going on. In the British tabloid The Daily Mail published when the photos of English clubbestuurders in a London hotel a secret conversation about a elitetoernooi would have fought. But that leads only to what is whispering in the wings.
The subject passes also sometimes during the meetings of the ECA, but according to the minutes only in general terms. Officially there is the cartel of seven. And also, ECA chairman Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, chairman of Bayern Munich, says there’s never anything on. There is, however, the discussion on the official reform of the Champions League. It is, in short, a shadow play.
The first, tentative tug-of-war came in april, at an ECA meeting in Amsterdam. ‘In terms of income, the ceiling is in sight. (…) The format urgently needs to change, throws the man of FC Barcelona. Which Rummenigge moments later, casually observes that ” the big clubs have their idea about a new format’.
The Champions League brings at that time every year to 2.4 billion euros, largely due to the sale of broadcasting rights. That it is again about money, surprised other clubs. ‘Last year everyone was still satisfied with the income, now apparently no more’, comes Verschueren between. In the name of Anderlecht, Club Brugge and some other top clubs from smaller countries (including PSV, Ajax and Celtic) he launches an alternative proposal to earn more money. “What if we make the Champions League expanding from 32 to 48 clubs?’, he speculates. But that plan is quickly off the table.
The top clubs know that their Super League a bomb is under the European football. Especially if they not only have the Champions League exit, but also their own leagues. Though there is also a doubt. “I believe that we get good pr advice to consult before we take this controversial step,” writes Arsenal director Ivan Gazidis a month later, on may 19.
The clubs discuss in the meantime, how the Super League market. Through a foundation? A private company? And where: in Brussels, Luxembourg or Switzerland? Gazidis suggests that a company in London, with a discreet name and stooges as a director, is also an option. He wants only one thing: to pr-prevent damage.
In the following weeks to get the plans are still taking shape. Discreet they are barely more. “It is the intention that this company have founded’, e Bayern-lawyer Gerlinger on his complotgenoten. That green light seems to give to the plan publicly as drukkingsmiddel to use.
At the same time, the Uefa is in motion. There, one senses the danger. Who wants to show the European football look like the biggest clubs have their own circus? Moreover, does it affect solidarity in European football. The big clubs are the driving force behind the revenue of the Champions League. Uefa distributes them across all the European clubs. Not only those who are in the Champions League final, the participants in the Europa League, the European league, and the clubs below to get money. Annual flows of tens of thousands of euros to clubjes in the farthest corners of Europe: from Wales to Albania. Money which some clubs are very dependent.
The European football association, which is a spin-off of the top clubs want to avoid it to slide ever further in to the wishes of the big clubs. Beginning of August is a crucial step. During a secret meeting at the airport of Geneva is organising the Uefa a ‘handshake meeting with three members of the cartel. For the informal agreement to seal.
The denouement, or what it should continue, follows on 25 August 2016, in the Méridien Beach Plaza Hotel in Monaco. This is where the board of the European Club Association and the reform of the Champions League. The ECA has officially nothing to say about it, but if there is within the federation no support, then Uefa will observed it folds. The kartelclubs are all present. They have eight of the fifteen votes, and dominate the ECA. Protest is pointless.
With a straight face presents ECA chairman Rummenigge earlier on the airport of Geneva, it was agreed between Uefa and the three members of the elitekartel. The main lines are predictable: the top countries (again) more money out of the pot and more direct passes for the Champions League. And, even more importantly, they force the tournament to be operational in the hands of a new joint vehicle, equally composed of representatives of the Uefa and the ECA. Three of the four members in it are the representatives of, yes, Bayern (Gerlinger), Barcelona and Juventus. So get the kartelclubs direct access to all the figures of the European kampioenenbal: of tv-rights to organizational costs. Information of value of gold for the further elaboration of their plans.
At the end, says Rummenigge regrettable that ‘the communication with the clubs was not ideal’, but that Uefa’s ‘strict confidentiality’ had asked. The many questions and concerns find no echo. There will not be voted, but simply determined that the board unanimously agree. Just as, later that day, in the Uefa meeting. The revamped Champions League was born.
It Was blackmail of the Uefa? Was the betrayal by the big clubs? Does that matter?
The irony wants that clubs like Anderlecht and Club Brugge two years later, the financial benefit of the reform where they are in 2016 still were against. “It is not that all the money now to the big clubs is flowing. Also the small clubs to earn more’, defends Michael Verschueren today the reform. A reform that emphasizes the Belgians, the income from the Champions League did rise from 2.4 to 3.2 billion euros.
For a separate elitecompetitie – a Super League is Verschueren still not afraid. “I am convinced that there is for 2024, not much will change. The format of the Champions League is to then largely fixed. I see the English clubs, for example, of their national league steps, their heavy tv contracts run until 2022.’
For the subsequent period dare Verschueren his hand in the fire to cross. ‘What is there after 2024 will happen, I don’t know. About that we are only now beginning to talk. But we can’t ignore the fact that the soccer global, and that we in Europe, us it will have to adapt.’
In response, sets the Uefa in Monaco everything according to the rules has expired. The ECA, Barcelona, Real Madrid and Juventus do not give any comments. PSG says nothing of a Super League to know.
This story was produced in collaboration with Der Spiegel and the NRC.
European Super League with sixteen clubs starting in 2021?
“No need to be afraid of a Super League,” said Michael Gerlinger, the lawyer of Bayern Munich, in early October in a response to journalists of EIC and Der Spiegel. That idea is ‘further away than ever’. But despite these reassuring words, the new tug-of-war between Uefa and the European clubs may come more quickly than expected.
Mid-October received Real Madrid an e-mail from a Spanish remuneration consultancy company, that all years for the Royal works. Subject: ‘Conceptovereenkomst of the 16’. The appendix contains a document of thirteen pages in november must be signed. On the final pages are sixteen lines for the signatures of sixteen clubs.
If they all agree, and there are specific conditions are met – such as pre-agreements on tv rights – then there is what concerns them starting in 2021, a ‘European Super League’. The rights will be transferred into a separate company, the word ‘Uefa’ in the document. The largest shareholder is Real Madrid, with 18,77%. Followed by Barcelona, Manchester United, Bayern Munich, Chelsea, Arsenal, Juventus, PSG, Manchester City, Liverpool and AC Milan.
The cartel of seven seems to be so extensive. The eleven founders according to the conceptovereenkomst for twenty years, and a fixed place in the League. Five other clubs are allowed as ‘guests’ to join in: Atlético Madrid, Borussia Dortmund, Olympique Marseille, Inter Milan and AS Roma. The document also mentions the possible to create a second European league, which the winners can compete for promotion against one of the five gastclubs from the Super League. The format is based on the Euroleague in the basketball, that is so designed that it legally complies with European competition rules.
Real silent, Dortmund not
Or this is going to be a first, provisional version, or a discussed document, is unclear. Faced with the leak, wanted Real Madrid to not respond to it. Paris Saint-Germain and Bayern Munich, to say nothing of a binding agreement to know. The Bavarian club adds as a matter of principle, ” never something about confidential conversations’ to say.
Only gastclub Borussia Dortmund says to journalists of EIC, that it is ‘clear’ is that there are talks of walking on a Super League. But according to Dortmund who calls ‘not very concrete’. If the ceo Han-Joachim Watzke on it, is a possible breakaway from the national league, the Bundesliga, a breaking point. “As long as I boss am, Dortmund, the Bundesliga will not leave.’
Advanced or not, Michael Verschueren and co. can their chest are already wet.