Football: Clubs to debate super league

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THE THREAT of a European super league persisted last night, despite the fact that the Premier League said it had received "the written assurances we required" from its biggest clubs. While the clubs promised to consult the Premier League over their future plans, it was by no means clear whether they had given any guarantees.

Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool have all reportedly been approached by a conglomerate of business, financial and legal interests who want them to join a super league, but the Premier League said in a statement: "We have received the written assurances we required from those clubs who have been at the forefront of recent speculation.

"Our clubs have pledged to work together to take forward a discussion on the future shape of European club competitions."

The statement added: "Talk of civil warfare in the Premiership is simply nonsense." A spokesman said that the next meeting of Premiership clubs, on 3 September, would discuss European issues. "We will look then at any further representations we may need to make to Uefa [European football's governing body]," he said.

The possibility remains, however, that clubs interested in joining a super league may do so irrespective of its being approved by the Premier League, Uefa or Fifa, football's world governing body.

The super league is thought to be being planned by Media Partners, an Italian-based sports' rights and property company with offices in London and New York. The precise details of the league are not known, but it is understood there would either be one league of 16 teams or a 32-team league split into two divisions, which would play midweek matches.

With a reported guaranteed income of at least pounds 20m per team involved, and possibly the prospect of not having to qualify - there being no promotion or relegation - such a league may prove very attractive to clubs who think the current European competitions - the Champions' League, the Uefa Cup and the European Cup-Winners' Cup - do not offer sufficient financial reward.

Media Partners' president, Rodolfo Hecht, is a former business partner of the media magnate Silvio Berlusconi, the owner of the Italian club Milan. Hecht is believed to have maintained close contact with Berlusconi, a former Prime Minister of Italy who has been interested in planning a European super league for more than 10 years.

A spokeswoman for Media Partners would not confirm or deny their involvement yesterday but said: "We are interested in all sports, including football."

Fifa and Uefa have issued warnings within the past week that clubs and players involved in a breakaway league could face bans from recognised competitions and international matches, but experts in both sports law and European competition law believe that the governing bodies may be powerless to stop clubs from breaking away.

None of the English clubs believed to have been approached have commented on the super league, but a source close to Manchester United said: "The likeliest scenario is Media Partners won't get what they want but that pressure will be bought to bear on Uefa to change."

Officials from the European Commission are reported to be meeting the super league's organisers to clarify matters on 7 September. Ken Foster, a lecturer in sports law at Warwick University, said: "It is obviously up to [Uefa] to decide who competes in their competitions but I can't believe that they would be allowed to simply hand out lifetime bans, especially to individual players. If the FA also tried to implement a similar ruling by Fifa, then they could face being taken to court for restraint of trade."

Professor Tony Downes, a European competition law expert, said: "It's in Uefa's interests to stop being quite so negative in trying to take action against the clubs."

The Premier League has the potential to take strong action - including expulsion - against clubs that break its rules by joining a super league, but it is thought more likely that it would prefer to compromise with its clubs on any new structure.