The email that could lead to the greatest revolution in the history of European football begins with a completely harmless sentence: “Hi Romano, I would have another interesting issue where we would like to mandate you.” The message was sent by Michael Gerlinger on Feb. 3, 2016. Its recipient: the international law firm Cleary Gottlieb.
Gerlinger, 45, heads up the legal department at FC Bayern Munich and is more or less the team’s behind-the-scenes brain. He rarely appears in public, but team CEO Karl-Heinz Rummenigge hasn’t made an important decision without him in over a decade.
Gerlinger’s mail is explosive. It concerned nothing less than the future of European football. In it, Gerlinger instructed the lawyers to examine whether FC Bayern Munich could withdraw from the German league, the Bundesliga, and whether the team would have to allow its players to play for the national team in the future.
The Bundesliga without Bayern Munich? The national team without Mats Hummels, Joshua Kimmich or Manuel Neuer? It seems almost unimaginable.
But in 2016, anything seemed possible. That year marked something of a turning point in the realm of top-level, international football. FIFA, the international football federation, seemed leaderless and aimless after a wave of raids and arrests. The European umbrella association UEFA also saw its president Michel Platini ousted from office because of a multimillion-euro payment by former FIFA boss Joseph Blatter. At the same time, the next TV rights for the Champions League and Europa League were soon to be awarded. Revenues for the two competitions almost tripled between 2007 and 2017 and stood at more than 2.2 billion euros by the latter.
The battle that erupted after Gerlinger’s mail for all the European tournament money and for the power in elite-level football could almost have been written by a scriptwriter for “House of Cards.” All the sleights of hand, the relentlessness and the backroom conversations can be reconstructed with the help of a data set that the whistleblower platform Football Leaks has made available to DER SPIEGEL and its partners in the international research network European Investigative Collaborations (EIC).
The documents provide a sense for who the actual decision-makers in the football business are. They lay bare just how ruthlessly and shamelessly these individuals amass their power in order to pursue their greed for even more money. They also reveal why national — and, more recently, international — competitions have become so predictable, why leagues from the Champions League, to the Bundesliga on down to Italy’s Serie A are monotonously won by the same teams over and over again.
That is another reason why football in 2016 faced the challenge of having to completely reposition itself. Not to make things more appealing and exciting for fans, but to continue to produce the lavish profit margins the industry has become used to in recent decades.
To achieve that goal, some clubs have apparently even been willing to betray the traditional cooperation between the clubs and the national leagues, one which has provided the framework for European football for decades. Seven of the world’s top clubs have secretly joined forces, all apparently with a single idea in mind: Boredom spells the death of any show, and the only way to combat boredom is to put on an even bigger, glitzier show, the greatest football show on earth. The idea is the creation of a Super League, an elite league of top-level competition reserved exclusively for the top names in European club football. Every game is a top game. That is the secret society’s plan.
Today, in November 2018, the Super League idea appears to have fresh impetus: According to the draft of a confidential term sheet that Real Madrid received just a few days ago from a consulting firm, 16 top clubs are to sign a document to establish such a league. According to the document, the league would begin operating in the 2021 season. One of the 16 clubs named in the document is FC Bayern Munich.
Charlie Stillitano has a long resume. When the United States professional soccer league was founded in the 1990s, he signed on as the first general manager of the New York/New Jersey Metro Stars. Later, he demonstrated a nose for big deals — and has focused his attentions since then on international matches. In 2014, Stillitano organized a match between Manchester United and Real Madrid at Michigan Stadium, an event attended by 109,318 fans — a record for a soccer game in the U.S. to this day.
A heavyset bald man with horn-rimmed glasses and stubble, Stillitano can often be found in the VIP lounges belonging to Europe’s most powerful clubs. José Mourinho, the star trainer at Manchester United, almost reverently refers to Stillitano as “Mr. Zero Mistakes.”
According to the Football Leaks documents, Stillitano sent an email to two Real Madrid executives on Dec. 17, 2015: General Director José Ángel Sánchez and the team’s head of marketing. He wrote that the current draft for the Super League was attached: “Would it be possible to use your laptops to present this in the meeting this morning? Thanks, Charlie.”
Getty Images/ Benedikt Rugar/ DER SPIEGEL
Charlie Stillitano, co-founder and chairman of Relevent Sports
Stillitano’s draft, marked “strictly private and confidential,” offered the following to the Real Madrid executives:
- The 17 teams with the strongest TV presences from England, Spain, Italy, Germany and France would compete permanently in a European league.
- The Bundesliga clubs participating in the league would include Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund and Schalke 04.
- The 18th participant would be a team from Portugal, Russia, the Netherlands or Turkey.
- 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.
The debate about the introduction of a Super League has been ongoing for more than 30 years and there have been repeated attempts to completely reform European football and create a league for the best of the best. Secret projects with abstruse names like “Gandalf” were devised, and the top chieftains of football, such as then-AC Milan patron Silvio Berlusconi and later Real Madrid President Florentino Pérez, were completely convinced of the idea of an elite league.
But none of the projects came even close to Stillitano’s idea. In his presentation, he calculated that each of the top clubs could achieve annual revenues of “500 million euro plus.” By way of comparison, Real Madrid, the 2016 Champions League winner, received around 80 million euros from UEFA.
Several months later, in August 2016, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge made a sensitive statement at a meeting of the European Club Association (ECA). By that time, he had been chairman of the ECA — the world’s largest club alliance, representing the interests of more than 220 teams — for eight years. According to the minutes of one meeting, Rummenigge said 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 message was clear: Unless the big clubs got more money and power from UEFA, they would start their own league.For smaller and midsized clubs, whose interests the ECA is also supposed to protect, such a scenario would be a disaster. UEFA distributes TV revenues to teams playing in the Europa League and Champions League according to a revenue-sharing formula ensuring that smaller teams also get a cut. But if the top clubs were to turn their backs on the UEFA competitions, the other clubs would lose out on millions in revenues. For some of the clubs, such a rearrangement could threaten their very existence.
In 2016, the big clubs found themselves in an excellent position to push through almost all their demands. But how could they have come so far?
The Football Leaks documents clearly show that Rummenigge’s negotiating strategy hinged on one tool in particular: calculated disinformation. He only told the respective groups he was speaking to exactly as much as necessary to prevent a backlash. The ECA in particular, along with the league associations, were taken by surprise by the elite clubs’ reform plans.
The Secret Society
On Jan. 30, 2016, Real Madrid’s General Director Sánchez emailed one of Stillitano’s Super League presentations to the club’s vice president and noted: “This document needs to be analyzed.”
Real Madrid then chose to follow a path that was rather unusual in the world of ego-driven, competitive football: Together with six other top clubs, the Spaniards assembled a kind of task force that would look into the establishment of a Super League. In the months that followed, Real, FC Bayern Munich, Juventus Turin, FC Barcelona, Manchester United, London-based Arsenal FC and AC Milan would go behind the backs of UEFA and the other clubs to work together to also develop an option for leaving the national leagues and their football associations behind entirely.
Seven competitors, organized in a cartel-like structure, were now exploring how they could nullify the established competitions. Competitions from which they had done quite well up to that Point.
PA/ Benedikt Rugar/ DER SPIEGEL
It was on behalf of this secret society that Bayern Munich’s chief legal counsel, Michael Gerlinger, sent his initial email to the law firm of Cleary Gottlieb in February 2016. He received a response only 18 minutes later, with one of the lawyers offering him a phone call. A few hours later, Gerlinger sent another email to the lawyers, this time with a clear assignment. “As you can see (…), we have basically 3 different break-away options,” he wrote, before listing them out: to leave the European competitions or to completely back out of the national leagues and their associations. Gerlinger divided the last point into two scenarios for two differing points in time.
The remainder of the email consisted of questions that were meant to assess the legal implications of such a departure — questions that challenged the fundamental values of the European football community:
- Could the Super League clubs be held liable for any loss of revenue at UEFA?
- Would the clubs still be required to allow their players to play for national teams after leaving UEFA?
- Could the associations or leagues penalize players for participating in the Super League?
- Could players have their contracts annulled if their club switched to a private Super League?
A meeting of the ECA club alliance took place in Paris just six days after Gerlinger’s email, with more than 140 high-ranking representatives of top European football clubs gathering to discuss FIFA, UEFA and a possible reform of the Champions League. According to the minutes of the meeting, ECA Chairman Karl-Heinz Rummenigge stated that the 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” would address the issue.
Rummenigge seems to be a true master when it comes to trivializing important information. The fact that he also possesses a high degree of moral flexibility can be seen by his dig against the global association: “FIFA needs a transparent, democratic and efficient structure with a new vision. (…) FIFA, as an umbrella organization, needs to ensure from the top that the basic virtues of football, fair play and seriousness are preserved.”
Transparency. Democracy.Fair play. Seriousness.
Even as Rummenigge was spouting his flowery rhetoric, the international law firm was busy examining on behalf of Bayern legal counsel Gerlinger the possibilities for doing away with everything that the ECA was trying to reform.
The lawyers needed about a month for their initial analysis. On March 1, 2016, Bayern Munich received a confidential memorandum that provides a perfect illustration of the ability of top lawyers in modern football to expose every single legal loophole.
Benedikt Rugar/ DER SPIEGEL
In the 23-page document, they enumerated the legal hurdles for the foundation of a Super League. They noted that neither UEFA nor FIFA could seriously penalize the top clubs for withdrawing as this would represent a fundamental violation of “EU competition law.” The lawyers then moved on to a so-called Memorandum of Understanding (MoU), which the 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 the ECA umbrella association.
The fact that it was Gerlinger himself who had taken a leading role in negotiating this MoU with UEFA — and received a bonus of 25,000 euros from the ECA for doing so — makes the double-dealing that much more grotesque.
The international law firm’s assessment provided the top clubs with numerous arguments to protect themselves and their players from possible lawsuits by associations, leagues and competing clubs. But the lawyers also anticipated some 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 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 quickly result in a lawsuit.
On the other hand, Bayern Munich in particular would face a serious problem if it were to withdraw from the Bundesliga. Player contracts in Germany contain a clause that binds them exclusively to the Bundesliga. Should FC Bayern Munich actually take the step of leaving the league, the lawyers argued, the players could possibly terminate their contracts unilaterally and switch to other teams without transfer fees. A nightmare scenario that could result in the loss of hundreds of millions of euros for the team from Munich.
But the Bavarians didn’t seem to be particularly deterred. In the following months, they would continue working together with the other conspirators, their expensive lawyers and high-profile investors on a possible solution to the problems.
“What do you notice when you read the cartel’s documents?” John asks. It’s August and he’s sitting on a plastic chair in black shorts inside a tiny apartment somewhere in Eastern Europe. There is a large water stain on the ceiling and one of the windows can no longer be closed. John stares at his laptop as a vast number of documents fly across the screen and says: “The clubs are constantly talking about the Super League and how they can market all this shit even better and make even more money. But there’s one thing they never talk about: the fans. About the people who made this sport great. What does a league like this, with matches being televised around the world, do with the spectators?”
John learned to love football as a child, and he is troubled by the fact that the sport has become purely a business and entertainment operation. John says he is disgusted by what money has done to football, by all the corruption and talk of tax evasion, and by the many dirty deals made by consultants, players and officials.
About three years ago, John, which is not his real name, had had enough. The young man founded the Football Leaks platform. What began as a home page on which John publicly posted confidential documents such as player contracts, transfer agreements and sponsorship deals, has now become one of the biggest threats to the dark side of football. In February 2016, John decided to turn over a large portion of his documents to DER SPIEGEL. Together with the research network EIC, the newsmagazine has since evaluated huge amounts of data and transformed it into hundreds of stories.
Cristiano Ronaldo and several dozen other top players had to pay millions in fines and back taxes as a result of the revelations, with some of the professionals almost having to do prison time for tax fraud. Furthermore, several additional investigations are underway throughout Europe against players, agents, tax consultants, lawyers and officials, on allegations ranging from corruption and tax fraud to bribery — and even an accusation of rape.
But that still isn’t enough for John.
The whistleblower handed over additional tranches of data to DER SPIEGEL at the beginning of this year. The Football Leaks trove now includes more than 70 million documents and over 3.4 terabytes of information, making it the largest data leak in history. The collection also contains the documents relating to the secret plans for a Super League.
Together with its EIC partners, DER SPIEGEL spent eight months evaluating the data. Around 80 journalists from 15 media outlets worked on exposing all the legal violations and secret deals. They extend across the entire football industry: from the president of FIFA to emirate-owned clubs such as Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City, to smaller clubs that incorporate foreign youth players like mass-produced goods, either using them to turn a profit or abandoning them. Then there are the player agents, for whom there are apparently no limits at all. The Football Leaks data set also includes information on the topics of doping, betting fraud and racism. DER SPIEGEL and the EIC will publish these stories in the coming weeks.
“All of this has to come to light. The people who truly love football and who constantly pay for it have a right to know how it really works. Football has spun completely out of control. The Super League plans clearly show who has the say in the sport: Rich investors and a few top clubs are bullying everyone else,” says John.
Football finds itself facing a crucial question: Who does the sport belong to? The fans who made it great? The clubs that keep it running? Or the associations that are supposed to supervise it?
“Honestly, I don’t care if there is a Super League or not. What bothers me is the kind of secret deals that super clubs are making. Everything happens in secret, there’s hardly any oversight, and there is no transparency — and that is the breeding ground for criminal activity,” says John.
He opens a presentation marked “strictly confidential” on his laptop, a document apparently shared among members of the secret society. It shows that in 2016, football earned over $16.7 billion from global TV rights, more than twice as much as American football, the next sport on the list.
“The fans and the federations have to be able to understand what is actually happening with all the money,” John says. “Instead, they are left completely in the dark, and in the end, it’s just a handful of people who are taking the lion’s share.”
John opens emails from Michael Gerlinger, calls up ECA reports by Karl-Heinz Rummenigge and scrolls through UEFA contracts. Where does he get all these confidential documents?
Benedikt Rugar/ DER SPIEGEL
Recently, there have been a number of reports claiming that football clubs and law firms may have been hacked, and that someone at Football Leaks may have obtained information using so-called phishing emails.
In John’s home country of Portugal, newspapers and television channels have been reporting for months about a case in which leaked data has plunged the country’s most popular club, Benfica Lissabon, into a morass of investigations for alleged corruption, gambling manipulation and bribery.
Some media organizations have claimed that Football Leaks is also behind those revelations. John, though, says he has no desire to comment on “all the nonsense that gets printed in some newspaper.” He repeatedly stresses that neither he nor any of his comrades-in-arms is a hacker. “We have very good sources and a strong network that provides us with a lot of information,” he says.
Whether or not you believe what he says, one thing is true: So far, none of John’s documents have turned out to be fake. The stories that have come out of the data he has collected have a high degree of social relevance and have even revealed criminal activities. And the whistleblower has never tried to determine the direction or the tenor of an article. “We do not spare anyone, we don’t work on behalf of an intelligence service, association or player agent and we’re not paid by anyone,” says John. He is unwilling to disclose the names of anyone else working on the project.
He knows that investigations have been launched against Football Leaks in several countries and that football clubs and player agents have hired private detectives to come after him. “The life of a whistleblower is problematic. But, much like Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning or Julian Assange, we believe in what we are doing and think that this form of disclosure is important to society,” says John.
He opens another file, a presentation titled “A Super League Scenario for Top European Football.” John says: “Take a closer look at this. In 2016, the associations lost all control over the top clubs in connection with the Super League negotiations. The public hardly learned anything about it, but this power shift will have devastating consequences for football.”
Charlie Stillitano is nothing if not persistent. In 2016, a few weeks after his meeting with Real Madrid, he 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, paparazzi photos emerged showing top officials leaving the hotel and the British tabloid 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.
Alex Livesey/ Getty Images/ Benedikt Rugar/ DER SPIEGEL
Khaldoon Al Mubarak, chairman of Manchester City
Nevertheless, the top English clubs went into panic mode, with their press offices agreeing on statements in an effort to get the situation halfway under control. An adviser to the Arab financiers behind Manchester City also got involved. As the Football Leaks documents show, he wrote the following message to 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.
Stillitano’s presentations continued. In early March, he traveled to Munich and showed his concept to Gerlinger. Stillitano, who referred to the secret society simply as the “Big Seven,” explained in his presentation how the withdrawal from the national and international leagues and associations might work. Gerlinger would later ask Stillitano to email him the plan. On March 31, there was to be a meeting of the “Big Seven” club bosses, where Gerlinger also wanted to introduce Stillitano’s ideas.
At this meeting, the clubs were much more cautious than their counterparts in England. The leaders of the secret society met in a convention hotel in Zurich, where they used conference rooms booked confidentially in the name of an inconspicuous travel agency. The presentation “A Super League Scenario for Top European Football,” the same one which had made such a strong impression on whistleblower John, was now 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 a Super League should be “open, semi-open vs closed” — in other words, whether teams could qualify for this league or whether there would only be a fixed field of participants without promotions and relegations. And the officials were told that they were losing hundreds of millions of euros due to UEFA’s organizational expenses and the revenue-sharing agreement with smaller clubs.
At the end of the presentation, two options were submitted: “revolution” or “evolution.” In the case of revolution, there was a need for a “timeframe and parameters for break-away from leagues and federations.” A communication plan, a marketing strategy and an independent company would be needed. At the same time, the possibility of “evolution,” i.e., staying in the UEFA and the leagues, was to be explored further. Gerlinger, Barcelona director Raúl Sanllehí and Stefano Bertola of Juventus Turin would conduct talks with UEFA about these plans in the weeks that followed.
But there were still a few hurdles to overcome before a meeting with high-ranking members of the European association could take place at the beginning of May.
First, Gerlinger and his co-conspirators headed to the regularly scheduled ECA meeting in Amsterdam. Some of the smaller clubs discussed plans for reforming the European competitions. According to meeting minutes, Raúl Sanllehí explained that UEFA was thinking about introducing a third competition above the Champions League, adding 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 the national leagues, and there was no indication that some of the top clubs had already worked out concrete concepts for a private league. In fact, it was even suggested that UEFA itself was promoting the plans for an elite competition.
Indeed, it appears that the sole function of ECA meetings was to reassure small- and medium-sized clubs as a way of keeping them under control.
Conditions for Staying
Six days after the meeting with the clubs, Gerlinger sent out another email 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 conference call with the international law firm and that they were now thinking about setting up their own company to manage the economic rights of the Super League, should it come to fruition.This company would increase the “pressure” on the association, the email noted. “UEFA is clearly fearing that we market our rights ourselves,” Gerlinger wrote. But the establishment of such a company in Switzerland, where FIFA, UEFA and ECA are all based, would be problematic, in part because a Swiss bank account is necessary when setting up a “commercial company.” But according to new legislation, Gerlinger explained, the establishment of a company bank account was apparently only possible if the company could also demonstrate that it had “proper real office space and employees with signatory power that are Swiss residents.” That, however, would mean additional costs, so the group charged the law firm with searching for other countries to host the company.
The football executives gradually seemed to be realizing that the complete withdrawal from the leagues and associations would require considerably more time and planning.
Meanwhile, though, the secret society was intensifying its talks with UEFA. And because the expectations of the Big Seven had been massively elevated by all the tempting numbers and beautiful presentations, and because UEFA was almost completely in the dark, the ensuing conflagration was inevitable.
In early 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 email 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 obviously not capable of arriving at competent solutions. 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 club representatives wrote that they would agree to remain in the Champions League, but the following conditions should be fulfilled:
- the league would only include 24 teams in the future;
- clubs that had been extremely successful in the past should be rewarded with additional spots in the tournament;
- 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;
- and the clubs had to be given the power to organize and control the competition together with UEFA.
What Rummenigge and Agnelli were demanding was nothing less than a vast shift of power and revenue in favor of the top clubs. One might also say: It was a betrayal of the over 200 smaller and midsized clubs that Karl-Heinz Rummenigge also represented as head of the European Club Association.
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 that there had been “no clearly defined objective” prior to the discussion. No decisions at all 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.” UEFA then explained how democratic processes in European football actually work and that there are a variety of committees within which such decisions are taken.
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 increasingly concrete. The clubs’ lawyers were checking into whether they could set up their company in Brussels or London. Club executives reached agreement on a format for the Super League. And they also developed a formula for revenue distribution.
The threats issued by the top clubs come extremely close to blackmail. And the method proved to be effective.
UEFA was increasingly seeking to deepen communication with the leading promoters of the secret league. There were informal discussions, a so-called “handshake” meeting was arranged between UEFA representatives and important members of the Big Seven, and Gerlinger and his associates traveled to the organization’s headquarters in Nyon, Switzerland. Subsequently, UEFA submitted initial offers that were extremely accommodating of the top clubs. The reform process was now truly getting underway.
Rummenigge presented the new plans at the ECA meeting in Monaco on Aug. 25, 2016. He said an agreement had been reached for 32 teams to participate in the Champions League. Rummenigge admitted that “communication amongst the clubs had not been ideal.” But from his perspective, UEFA was to blame because it had “wanted to keep the discussions highly confidential.” Rummenigge also said that the association had asked the top clubs to jointly manage the current allocation of rights. Starting in 2017, however, UEFA had promised to work on a serious reform of European football, which would then be implemented with the new rights period, starting in 2021.
A critical examination of Rummenigge’s comments to the ECA, though, suffices to conclude that there is more to the story.
The solution found with UEFA will be beneficial primarily to the top clubs. Thanks to the new regulations, they will receive more money than ever before. The tradition clause alone, which allots greater revenues to those clubs that have found success in the last 10 years in the Champions League and Europa League, will generate over 30 million euros for FC Bayern starting with the 2018/19 Champions League season — money that is guaranteed even before the club had even played its first game.
Furthermore, the reform will increase the monetary prize owed to the winner of each Champions League match, which also only benefits the top teams. It translates into less money available to the second-tier Europa League and less money in the revenue-sharing pot — 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 virtually impossible with such a vast financial gap between the top and bottom teams.
But in the future, that may not even matter.
Because the top clubs got something else as well. Their representatives will occupy four of the director slots in a joint company with UEFA. This means the secret society’s three negotiators, Gerlinger, Sanllehí and Bertola, will become part of this body, and over the course of the next three years, they will be able to examine all of UEFA’s balance sheets, sponsorship deals and broadcast-rights agreements along with the administrative, organizational and operational costs of UEFA competitions. They will, in short, learn everything they need to know to organize their own competition. Priceless knowledge.
“This is a big mistake by UEFA and we oppose that,” wrote Lars-Christer Olsson one day after the ECA meeting. A native of Sweden, Olsson is president of the European Professional Football Leagues (EPFL), an association tasked with protecting the interests of 35 national leagues, including the Bundesliga. According to Olsson, the joint company established by UEFA and ECA is “a first step towards a private super league in Europe.” Bundesliga head Christian Seifert was also surprised by the reform plans. He said he was seeing the plans for the first time.
A few days later, the secretary general of the EPFL sent out a 10-page memo intended to provide a “legal and political overview of the current situation.” In the memo, the EPFL took an even more drastic view of the reform of the European leagues than Olsson had before: “These amendments were the result of the pressure and threat posed by the top clubs which have been in position to profit from the power vacuum at UEFA and impose their reform with the help of UEFA apparatchiks.”
It’s early October and Michael Gerlinger, the chief legal counsel for FC Bayern, is sitting in his office at team headquarters in Munich. His desk is covered with documents, the shelves behind him are packed with binders. Gerlinger says his primary concern throughout the negotiations was the clubs’ self-determination. It was an important achievement, he says, and the cooperation with UEFA in the joint company is “outstanding.”
And 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 truly serious about the idea, and it was soon “completely off the table,” Gerlinger says. The attorney goes on to say that the Super League is “quite a different possibility.” It would involve “brands” playing against each other, leading to a new level of commercialization in football. FC Bayern would naturally have to be part of something like that, since it wants to be one of the five best teams in the world. But Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, he says, was clearly uncomfortable with the idea of such a privately organized competition. Rummenigge was also the one, Gerlinger says, who said that they should come to terms with UEFA.
Benedikt Rugar/ DER SPIEGEL
Is the Super League dead? It is at least “as far away as ever.” Discussions with UEFA are currently underway for formats starting in 2024, he says. There is no reason “to be afraid” of a Super League. Says Gerlinger.
In Spain, however, there are those who apparently have a different view.
On the night of Oct. 22, Real Madrid received an email with the subject line: “Draft of an Agreement of the 16.” It was addressed to club president Florentino Pérez. The message was from Madrid-based Key Capital Partners, which advises corporations working on huge projects.
A document was attached to the email — 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 the “binding term sheet,” the Champions League will cease to exist as of 2021. Instead, the continent’s 11 most important clubs will break away from UEFA and found a new elite class called the “European Super League.” The 11 “founders” would not be at risk of relegation and would be guaranteed membership for 20 years. Another five clubs will be included as “initial guests,” so that the new league would consist of 16 teams.
The project, the document states, is subject to the utmost secrecy. According to the draft, the date for the signature of the 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” of the European Super League — the ones that would apparently not face relegation — 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, would be Atlético Madrid, Borussia Dortmund, Olympique Marseille, Inter Milan and AS Roma.
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The 11 founding clubs, according to the document, would register a company in Spain to market, organize and execute the European Super League under its full control. The competition would have two phases: a group round and a knockout round. A second league under the European Super League would possibly also be established.
From this second group, 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, but only against clubs that are “initial guests.” The plans are explicitly based on Euroleague Basketball, which is not completely impermeable so as not to violate European competition law.
The document also lists the possible ownership stakes that would be held by the individual clubs in the joint European Super League company, with Real Madrid holding 18.77 percent, Barcelona 17.61 percent and Manchester United 12.58 percent. Bayern Munich would be the fourth largest shareholder at 8.29 percent.
There isn’t a single 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 concrete document in question. But the fact that discussions about the Super League are currently ongoing, said 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.
He says that also has to do with the decisive question: Should the Super League take place in addition to, or instead of, the Bundesliga, Germany’s top league? “That is the firewall,” says Watzke. “For as long as I carry responsibility around here, BVB will not leave the Bundesliga.” Beyond that, though, Borussia has to “keep all its options open.” Because if a Super League ever became a reality, “that couldn’t happen without BVB.”
Michael Gerlinger and Karl-Heinz Rummenigge had the FC Bayern Munich media director respond on their behalf to written requests for comment on the new Super League plans and on the agreements made by members of the secret society. The club, he wrote, was aware of “neither the existence nor the content” of the term sheet draft. Furthermore, he added, Bayern Munich “as a matter of policy, does not comment on confidential discussions.”
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