The G-14 group of clubs - which includes Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester United - were warned yesterday that they faced expulsion from domestic football if they continued to pursue the formation of a European super league.
The threat came from Uefa, football's European governing body, in a forthright response both to a leaked document proposing such a league and an ongoing court case in Belgium which could destabilise international football.
Addressing the Uefa Congress in Budapest, Lars-Christer Olsson, the chief executive officer, said: "When inviting clubs into Uefa competitions [we could] make the invitations conditional upon those clubs agreeing on the principle of our sporting structures."
Those principles were outlined in a resolution passed unanimously by Uefa's 52 member countries. This declared: "Football is about fairness, opportunity, excitement and variety, it is not a closed shop, where only the richest and most powerful are invited to the table. Uefa will not tolerate a structure or system where smaller clubs, smaller nations and all their supporters never have the chance to follow their dream. This is not what Uefa is about, this is not what Europe is about, this is not what football is about.
"These principles reflect a reality. The reality is that football is not just a money-making exercise, not just a business." This is not the ethos behind G-14, a self-appointed collection of wealthy clubs which was set up six years ago in the wake of the failure of a previous attempt to establish a super league in 1998.
The initial 14 clubs in the group included Liverpool, Manchester United, Barcelona, Milan, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich. Two years later the group expanded to 18 clubs with Arsenal among the recruits. Despite subsequent representations Chelsea have failed to join this élite, a galling fact considering Bayer Leverkusen, Paris St-Germain and PSV Eindhoven are involved.
The difference between G-14 and Uefa can be summed up by voting rights. In Uefa meetings it is one member, one vote. Thus Germany, with three World Cup wins and 5.2 million registered players, have as many votes as Malta, which has never been to a World Cup and has 5,544 registered players. In G-14 clubs which have won the European Cup or Champions' League, such as Liverpool, have two votes while other clubs, such as Arsenal, have only one.
It is this group Uefa were referring to in their resolution when they described a "self-appointed group of clubs" which "are not interested in protecting competition, but only interested in protecting themselves and their economic interests and in dictating their conditions on others".
Uefa added: "We will leave the door open for clubs from smaller nations to play at the top level of European club football. We will not close the door, which seems to be what this self-appointed group of clubs wants to do."
This was a reference to the super-league plans which were leaked at the weekend. G-14 subsequently dismissed them as "a draft document, not policy". Uefa clearly did not believe this denial. Their resolution added: "Uefa will not stand in the way of those who want to leave the family [which also means the domestic competitions] and who do not share our sporting values. But you cannot 'pick and choose'."
Should G-14 choose to go it alone their super league would flounder. With no relegation, or Champions' League qualification, it would have to invent a United States-style conference and play-off system to sustain season-long interest. And even then, how many fans across Europe would tune in to watch a mid-table match between Bayer Leverkusen and Porto?
The other contentious issue is being debated in a courtroom in Charleroi. Royal Charleroi are suing the sport's world governing body, Fifa, for £864,000 in damages after one of their players, Abdelmajid Oulmers, was injured on international duty with Morocco. The figure is, Charleroi claim, based on the cost of their failing to gain entry to European competition, a feat they believe they would have achieved had Oulmers not been injured.
The case has ramifications beyond Belgium because Charleroi's costs are being met by G-14, who are claiming £595m from Fifa as compensation for the release of their players for international duty. Some nations including England already pay compensation when players are injured on international duty, but it would clearly bankrupt Ivory Coast were, say, Didier Drogba to break a leg while playing for them and the Ivorians had to pick up his wages while he recuperated.
G-14's argument is that a central fund could be established, financed by income from the World Cup and continental championships. While this seems reasonable - though it is clubs that set the astronomic wage levels, not countries - Uefa and Fifa are aware that G-14's long-term goal is for national football associations to cover players' wages while they are on international duty and to weaken regulations forcing clubs to release players. Thus Uefa's resolution stated among their key principles was "the rule that clubs must release players for the national team... to ensure that national teams are composed of the best players".
The Fifa president, Sepp Blatter, thanked the associations for their backing at a "critical time for world football". Blatter added: "Can you conceive football without the national teams or the national associations? It would mean the collapse of the whole pyramid of football because of the élitism of a few."
The focus now moves to Belgium. The irony is that, should G-14 have their way, clubs like Charleroi would never be allowed near a super league.
Laying it on the line Uefa's statement of core principles and beliefs
* 1 Football is constantly ... adapting to new challenges. It is a key function of Uefa to face these challenges and find solutions which fit the future but which also respect the historic ethos of our sport. It is crucial that, when we face the future, we never lose sight of our core principles and beliefs.
* 2 Football is about fairness, opportunity, excitement and variety. It is not a closed shop, where only the richest and most powerful are invited to the table. Uefa will not tolerate a structure or system where smaller clubs, smaller nations and all their supporters never have the chance to follow their dream. This is not what Uefa is about, this is not what Europe is about, this is not what football is about.
* 3 These principles reflect a ... that football is not just a money-making exercise, not just a business. We have rules and principles that reflect our values and which protect the interests of our sport and ... the millions of fans. Among these principles is the rule that clubs must release players for the national team.
* 4 Why do we have the rule on player release? To ensure that national teams are composed of the best players that each ... country has to offer. Furthermore, the rule ensures that players will always have the opportunity of representing their country... This in turn means that all nations, particularly smaller nations, have a chance to compete and maybe one day to even win a big event, like the World Cup or the European Championship.
* 5 A self-appointed group of clubs has challenged this rule. They are not interested in protecting competition, but only interested in protecting themselves and their economic interests and in dictating their conditions on others. This group of clubs does not care if there is less competition between nations and less competition between clubs. But Uefa does care, and that is why we will defend the rule and are working together with Fifa to do so.
* 6 Uefa will also defend the open nature and central marketing structure of the Uefa Champions' League. Just like the player release rule, this is also an expression of solidarity in European football. We will leave the door open for clubs from smaller nations to play at the top level of European club football. We will not close the door, which seems to be what this self-appointed group of clubs wants to do.
* 7 Uefa will not stand in the way of those who want to leave the family (which also means the domestic competitions) and who do not share our sporting values. But you cannot "pick and choose"... Our core beliefs are set in stone. All national associations stand... with Uefa on this fundamental issue.
The G-14 membership
European Cup finals (wins): 10 (6)
European Cup: 6 (4)
European Cup: None
* BAYER LEVERKUSEN
European Cup: 1 (0)
* BORUSSIA DORTMUND
European Cup final: 1 (1)
European Cup final: 4 (1)
* BAYERN MUNICH
European Cup: 7 (4)
European Cup: 4 (2)
European Cup: 2 (2)
European Cup: 7 (2)
European Cup: 6 (5)
* MANCHESTER UTD
European Cup: 2 (2)
European Cup: 2 (1)
European Cup: None.
* PARIS ST-GERMAIN
European Cup: None.
* PSV EINDHOVEN
European Cup: 1 (1)
* REAL MADRID
European Cup: 12 (9)
European Cup: 2 (0).