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The Super League thought it had a silent partner: FIFA

Announced by 12 of the world's richest football clubs in April, it was abandoned less than 48 hours later amid a hailstorm of protest from fans, leagues, teams and politicians, making it one of the most humbling failure in modern soccer history

By Tariq Panja
Published: May 21, 2021

The Super League thought it had a silent partner: FIFAFIFA President Gianni Infantino during the 71st FIFA Virtual Congress & Council meeting at the Home of FIFA on May 20, 2021 in Zurich, Switzerland; Image: Pool/Getty Images

Tucked away in the pages and pages of financial and legal jargon that constitute the founding contract of the Super League, the failed project that last month briefly threatened the century-old structures and economics of European soccer, were references to one “essential” requirement.

The condition was deemed so important that organizers agreed that the breakaway plan could not succeed without satisfying it and yet was so secret that it was given a code name even in contracts shared among the founders. 

Those documents, copies of which were reviewed by The New York Times, refer to the need for the Super League founders to strike an agreement with an entity obliquely labeled W01 but easily identifiable as FIFA, soccer’s global governing body. That agreement, the documents said, was “an essential condition for the implementation of the SL project.” 

Publicly, FIFA and its president, Gianni Infantino, have joined other soccer leaders, fans and politicians in slamming the short-lived Super League project, which would have allowed a small group of elite European teams — a group that included Spain’s Real Madrid, Italy’s Juventus and English powerhouses Manchester United and Liverpool, among others — to accumulate an ever larger share of the sport’s wealth. 

But privately, according to interviews with more than a half-dozen soccer executives, including one Super League club owner, Infantino was aware of the plan and knew some of his closest lieutenants had for months — until at least late January — been engaged in talks about lending FIFA’s backing to the breakaway league. 

The Super League was perhaps the most humbling failure in modern soccer history. Announced by 12 of the world’s richest clubs late on a Sunday night in April, it was abandoned less than 48 hours later amid a hailstorm of protest from fans, leagues, teams and politicians. Its founding teams have since apologized — some of them multiple times — for taking part in it, and a few could still face significant financial and sporting consequences. 

But the behind-the-scenes discussions that led to a week of public drama have laid bare simmering tensions between FIFA and European soccer’s governing body, UEFA, over control of billions of dollars in annual revenue; exposed a series of frayed relationships among some of the sport’s top leaders that may be beyond repair; and raised new questions about the role played by FIFA and Infantino in the project that shook soccer’s foundations. 

FIFA declined to respond to specific questions related to the involvement of Infantino or his aides in the planning of the Super League. Instead it pointed to its previous statements and its commitment to processes in which “all key football stakeholders were consulted.” 

The Super League’s discussions with FIFA began in 2019. They were led by a group known as A22, a consortium of advisers headed by the Spain-based financiers Anas Laghrari and John Hahn and charged with putting together the Super League project. A22 officials held meetings with some of Infantino’s closest aides, including FIFA’s deputy secretary-general, Mattias Grafstrom. 

In at least one of those meetings, the breakaway group proposed that, in exchange for FIFA’s endorsement of its project, the Super League would agree to the participation of as many as a dozen of its marquee teams in an annual FIFA-backed World Cup for clubs. The teams also agreed to waive payments they would have earned by taking part, a potential windfall for FIFA of as much as $1 billion each year. After their initial meetings, the advisers reported back that they had found a receptive audience. 

Obtaining FIFA’s support was not merely a hedge; the organization’s consent was required to prevent the project from being mired in costly and lengthy litigation and to preclude any punishments for the players who took part. 

But it was also an insurance policy for the players. In a previous superleague discussion in 2018, FIFA had issued dark warnings that players could be banned from their national teams — and thus the World Cup — for appearing in an unsanctioned league. 

By the middle of last year, the advisers from A22 were telling clubs that “FIFA was on board,” according to a Super League club owner. Others interviewed, including several with direct knowledge of the meetings who spoke anonymously because they would face legal action for publicly disclosing information subject to secrecy rules, said FIFA was at least open to the idea of the new league. But they said the organization and its leaders remained noncommittal — at least officially — until more details about the structure of the project were in place. 

Confident they could obtain the support they needed, the organizers discussed various concepts for their new league before landing on the one they presented to the world when they broke cover on April 18. The Super League, as it would be known, would have 15 permanent members but would allow access to five additional teams from Europe each season. 

A22 had been working on iterations of a superleague for as long as three years. Laghrari, an executive at the advisory firm Key Capital Partners who has known the Real Madrid president, Florentino Pérez, since he was a child, was to be the league’s first secretary-general. Pérez had long been the driving force behind a superleague, but now, as he had come to grow confident he had FIFA on board, the stars started to align for him and his friend. 

In Infantino, Pérez and Laghrari had found an energetic president eager to remake the soccer business. Infantino often spoke about being open to new ventures and proposals — he has championed the expansion of both the World Cup and FIFA’s Club World Cup in recent years — as he sought to assert FIFA’s dominance over the club game in a manner unlike any of his predecessors. 

Pérez and Laghrari also found kindred spirits in the men who controlled most of Europe’s top clubs. Most were drawn to a project that promised to open a spigot of new revenue while ensuring that costs would be controlled, leading to enormous profits and access to elite competition in perpetuity. 

Yet even as they received assurances from the A22 advisers about FIFA’s involvement, some skeptical club owners did their own due diligence by reaching out directly to senior FIFA officials. And the word they got back, according to a team executive with direct knowledge of at least one of those conversations, was the same they were hearing from Madrid: If the plan was put together in a certain way, FIFA would not oppose it. 

Those talks gave the clubs and JPMorgan, the American investment bank that had agreed to finance the project, a level of comfort about its viability. Their confidence wavered, though, when leaks about a potential superleague emerged in news reports in January, accompanied by whispers of FIFA’s involvement in the talks. 

Alarmed by the reports, European soccer’s top official, Aleksander Ceferin, the UEFA president, held an urgent meeting with Infantino at UEFA’s headquarters in Nyon, Switzerland in which he asked Infantino directly if he was involved in the plan. Infantino said he was not, but he initially demurred when asked to commit to a statement condemning the proposals. Amid intense pressure and growing requests for comment, though, he backed down. 

On Jan. 21, a statement was issued in the name of FIFA and soccer’s six regional confederations. It said a “closed” European league would not be recognized by FIFA or the confederations and reiterated the threat of a World Cup ban for any participant. 

The statement shocked the organizers of the Super League, as their talks with FIFA until that stage had been positive. But according to people involved in the planning, they also sensed a signal in its wording: FIFA said it would not recognize a closed competition, but the Super League was now planning to supplement its roster of 15 permanent members with five qualifiers every season. 

The A22 advisers, according to the club owner, insisted that loophole meant all was not lost. “They reported that FIFA was still open to something,” he said. 

The founders’ plan was to tie the Super League to FIFA’s Club World Cup, the owner said. That way the clubs would commit as many as 12 of the biggest teams in Europe to Infantino’s ambitious global competition in exchange for FIFA’s blessing of their new league. To sweeten the deal, they considered waiving $1 billion in potential payouts to allow FIFA to keep the money as a so-called solidarity payment that could be spent on soccer development projects around the world. 

It is unknown if any more talks took place between FIFA and the Super League clubs in the weeks before the clubs broke cover and announced their project. But FIFA was the last of the major soccer governing bodies to issue an official statement on the proposed league after the clubs went public, and it only did so after UEFA, top leagues and politicians had made clear their opposition. 

Arriving as Ceferin was calling the leaders of the breakaway league “snakes and liars,” FIFA’s statement was far more measured. Any talk of excluding players from the World Cup was quietly dropped, and FIFA instead offered nuanced, conciliatory language. FIFA said it stood “firm in favor of solidarity in football and an equitable redistribution model which can help develop football as a sport, particularly at global level.” 

It also reiterated that it could only “express its disapproval to a ‘closed European breakaway league’ outside of the international football structures.” 

For those engaged in the breakaway, the words — as they had in January — were vague enough to suggest that there was still hope for their project, that FIFA might still be open to providing its backing. 

Within 48 hours, though, their hopes were dashed. Opposition to the plan had by then reached a fever pitch. Fans in Britain — where six of the 12 founding members were based — were protesting in the streets, and politicians had threatened to enact laws to block the league. 

Infantino, just as he had in January, once again came under pressure from Ceferin to distance himself from the plans. He did so in a speech to UEFA’s congress on April 20 in which he effectively walked away from the Super League project. 

“We can only strongly disapprove the creation of the Super League,” Infantino said. “A Super League which is a closed shop. A breakaway from the current institutions, from the leagues, from the associations, from UEFA and from FIFA. There is a lot to throw away for the short-term financial gain of some. They need to reflect, and they need to assume responsibility.” 

Hours later, realizing that the “essential” requirement their contract had called for would not be forthcoming, the first clubs started to walk away. By nightfall, all six English clubs had announced they were out. By midnight, three other founders had followed. 

Today only three teams — Pérez’s Real Madrid, Juventus and Barcelona — remain as holdouts, refusing to sign a letter of apology demanded by UEFA as a condition of their reintegration into European soccer. If they do not sign, all three face significant penalties, including a potential ban from the Champions League. 

Infantino, meanwhile, faces pressures of his own, not to mention accusations of betrayal. The head of the Spanish league, Javier Tebas, openly called him one of the masterminds behind the breakaway league and said he had told Infantino as much when the men met briefly at the UEFA Congress. 

“It’s he who is behind the Super League, and I already told him in person,” Tebas said this month. “I’ve said it before and I will say it again: Behind all of this is FIFA President Gianni Infantino.”

©2019 New York Times News Service

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