Boris Johnson has said he is ready to drop a “legislative bomb” on elite football clubs threatening to join a breakaway European Super League, as the MP appointed to lead a review of the sport’s governance said she would back their expulsion from the Premier League.
The prime minister branded the league a “cartel” which would “dislocate” teams from their home communities and fans.
Manchester City, Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal, Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur were coming under intense pressure to back away from the controversial project, as the prime minister promised fans that the government “will not stand by while a small handful of owners create a closed shop”.
Reports suggest that some of the teams are getting cold feet about the plan, which is driven by billions of dollars from US finance giant JP Morgan, as an increasing array of fans, players and politicians voiced deep unhappiness with a format which would see a handful of clubs monopolise lucrative televised fixtures with no fear of relegation.
Surveying the serried ranks of bitter opposition to the scheme, a representative of one club said: “This is not what we signed up for.”
Meeting with representatives from the Football Association, the Premier League and football fan groups this morning, Mr Johnson denounced the proposed league as “anti-competitive” and said: “We should drop a legislative bomb to stop it – and we should do it now.”
Downing Street later confirmed that options on the table include stopping work visas for overseas players at Super League clubs or withdrawing funding for policing match days. Culture secretary Oliver Dowden has also said that competition law and governance rules could be used against the breakaway contest, which has also signed up Spain’s Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid as well as Juventus, AC Milan and Inter from Italy .
Former sports minister Tracey Crouch, who was named on Monday as the head of a fan-led inquiry into football governance, suggested the Premier League should call the clubs’ bluff by threatening to expel them.
“Effectively they’re tempting, or teasing, the likes of the Premier League, saying: ‘Well, come on them, if you think you can survive without us, then kick us out’, Ms Crouch told TalkRadio. “Frankly, I’d say kick them out.”
Speaking at a Downing Street press conference, Mr Johnson said the ESL plan was “not in the interests of fans, not in the interests of football”.
“How can it be right to have a situation in which you create a kind of cartel which stops clubs competing against each other, playing against each other, properly with all the hope and excitement that gives to the fans?” said the PM. “It goes against the basic principles of competition.”
Asked what his message was for the billionaire club owners, he said: “Football was invented and codified in this country, it is one of the great glories of this country’s cultural heritage. These clubs, these names, originate from famous towns and cities in our country.
“I don’t think it right that they should be somehow dislocated from their home towns and home cities and taken and turned into international brands and commodities to circulate the planet, propelled by the billions of banks, without reference to the fans and those who have loved them all their lives.”
Labour today called on the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) to investigate whether the plans would fall foul of laws to uphold fairness.
And Liberal Democrat sports spokesman Jamie Stone wrote to the BBC, Sky and Amazon to urge them to commit not to broadcast ESL matches if the contest goes ahead.
“The proposals of a European Super League threaten the very essence of football,” wrote Mr Stone.
Dowing Street said Mr Johnson used this morning’s meeting to express “solidarity” with football fans who have voiced near-unanimous outrage at the plan and assure them that they “must always be at the heart of any decisions about the future of the game”.
“He reiterated his unwavering support for the football authorities and confirmed they have the government’s full backing to take whatever action necessary to put a stop to these plans,” a No 10 spokesperson said.
“All attendees agreed that action was necessary to protect the fairness and open competition we expect to see in football, and to uphold the fundamental principle that any club should have the chance to play and win against the biggest players in the game.
“The prime minister confirmed the government will not stand by while a small handful of owners create a closed shop.
“He was clear that no action is off the table and the government is exploring every possibility, including legislative options, to ensure these proposals are stopped.”
Mr Johnson’s spokesperson confirmed that the PM was keen to speak to counterparts in Italy and Spain to discuss the controversial league.
The spokesperson made clear that Mr Johnson would welcome any of the six English clubs backing away from their involvement.
“We’re fairly unequivocal that we don’t want this to go ahead in the current form so we would welcome any club that wants to step back from this approach,” he said.
While Mr Johnson is not personally a fan of any football club, he “recognises very clearly the strength and depth of the felings of the fans and the importance of these clubs to their local community”, said the spokesman.
“It’s important to make the point that you don’t need to be a dyed-in-the-wool football fan to recognise the importance of this issue. This is about the importance of football to the local communities and to the fans and ensuring that there is proper competition.”
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