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UEFA fury at ‘snakes so close to us’ in a game of betrayal

Moves to form a European Super League have been taking place behind the scenes for years

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UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin. Photo: Rafael Marchante/Reuters

UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin. Photo: Rafael Marchante/Reuters

UEFA President Aleksander Ceferin

UEFA President Aleksander Ceferin

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UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin. Photo: Rafael Marchante/Reuters

‘Human values evaporate,” said UEFA’s ashen-faced president yesterday as he described a call he will never forget from Manchester United’s Ed Woodward.

On Thursday night, the smooth-talking ex-banker rang Aleksander Ceferin to tell the administrator everything he wanted to hear about his Champions League plan. “He called me in the evening saying he’s very satisfied with the reforms,” said Ceferin, still reeling with shock at the bombshell breakaway.

Woodward had been identified by UEFA as a potential chief protagonist in a rebellion, having waged concern just two weeks earlier over commercial rights in the 2024 competition carve-up. However, to Ceferin’s surprise and delight, Woodward assured him he “fully supports the reforms, and that the only thing he would like to speak about is Financial Fair Play”.

Little did he know that the call was a strategic move by the rebels to put European football’s leaders off the scent of one of football’s biggest betrayals.

The next morning, as promised, Woodward, Andrea Agnelli of Juventus, Ivan Gazidis of AC Milan and Pedro Lopez Jimenez of Real Madrid maintained their Machiavellian act, giving the UEFA plans their formal thumbs up during a meeting of the European Club Association. But, in reality, the quartet were buying time for their clandestine, but long-awaited, Super League deal to be finalised. By Friday night, a “dirty dozen” that also includes Manchester City, Tottenham, Arsenal, Liverpool and Chelsea were all signed up. Following the disastrous failure of Project Big Picture last autumn, former Downing Street adviser Katie Perrior was called in to help with an announcement.

It had been agreed for weeks that the plan would go live on Sunday, but figures within government first learnt of a potential plan by Friday night.

Frantic exchanges then took place between senior sporting figures on Saturday morning, before word got back to UEFA headquarters at Nyon, Switzerland, that, despite Woodward’s warm words, a breakaway was back on the agenda.

A disbelieving Ceferin immediately got on the phone to Agnelli, the Juve chairman and then still head of the ECA. “These are all only rumours – don’t worry, nothing is going on. I’ll call you in one hour,” Agnelli said. No phone call arrived. Instead the Italian, who chose Ceferin as godfather to his daughter, turned off his phone.

“He’s the biggest disappointment of all,” the UEFA chief said yesterday. “I’ve never seen a person that would lie so many times, so persistently, that he did. It was unbelievable.”

“We didn’t know we had snakes so close to us,” is Ceferin’s summary of the sorry saga, but the clues had been there for months, if not years. Sources close to the competition say the idea can be traced back to the creation of the Premier League.

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England’s top tier is on shaky ground accusing the Super League of greed, the plotters say, given club ambitions over commercial and TV income were what sparked the first domestic breakaway in 1992.

Wrestling commercial control from the governing bodies for a European competition was initially championed at Real Madrid and Barcelona, where record Champions League revenues have failed to prevent the clubs racking up enormous debt in recent years.

Florentino Perez, the Real Madrid president, has for the past decade been the most outspoken proponent, and his announcement as chairman of the new competition rewards his central role as an architect. In recent months, he seized upon Covid-19 turmoil and the fallout surrounding Project Big Picture last autumn to entice the elite to join him in signing up for what would amount to the most significant restructuring of elite European football since the 1950s.

In English football, figures at Premier League HQ had been suspicious since last October. United and Liverpool had raised eyebrows by meekly accepting defeat to rival club opposition after their proposals for revolution in domestic football were disclosed.

Oliver Dowden, the UK Culture Secretary, threatened a fan-led review at the time, and, yesterday agreed English football had now surrendered its last chance.

“So today I have been left with no choice but to formally trigger the launch of our fan-led review of football,” he said.

However, his warnings may do little to put off at least the American ownerships at Liverpool, United and Arsenal.

A “closed shop” NFL-style league, where franchise owners enjoy reliable profits and the valuation of teams rise steadily over time, was eagerly seized upon, particularly by United’s co-chairman, Joel Glazer, who becomes vice-chairman of the new competition.

The backing of US investment firm JP Morgan, which previously employed Woodward as an executive, also emboldened the clubs to go public, and, under a financial tie-in, which also includes guarantees from broadcaster DAZN, the clubs involved receive €3.5 billion “to support their infrastructure investment plans and to offset the impact of the Covid pandemic”.

After years of secret talks, the clubs involved are now adamant this is more than an idle threat – and they seem intent on having their day in court. Experts say the Super League’s plan to exempt 15 of the 20 clubs from relegation could be barred by European Union competition law. The financial might of the world’s biggest clubs will ensure a box-office legal battle is in store to force through the plans.

A solidarity package worth up to £10 billion over 23 years exceeds any equivalent packages from UEFA and the Premier League. Unlike Project Big Picture, which was dead in a week, this potentially devastating saga for the English game could rumble on for years.

Telegraph Media Group Limited [2021]


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