GENEVA (AP) — On the field and in the courts, Madrid is a must-watch venue for drama in this first Champions League season since the Super League project rocked European soccer.
Real Madrid fell to a stunning loss Tuesday against newcomer Sheriff in the first Champions League game at its iconic Santiago Bernabéu Stadium since driving the divisive breakaway project in April.
It was just this kind of match — with the upstart champion from unfashionable Moldova — that the 12 wealthy Super League co-conspirators wanted to avoid by creating their own elite competition.
The script is flipped in the Madrid courts, where the judge handling the clubs’ case is the underdog against UEFA and the might of soccer’s legal statutes.
From the relative obscurity of provincial commercial court No. 17 in the city, judge Manuel Ruíz de Lara has so far effectively blocked UEFA efforts to discipline the European Super League Company member clubs. UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin had warned the three remaining rebels — Real Madrid, Barcelona and Juventus — risked being expelled from the Champions League.
UEFA responded this week by filing a request for the judge to be removed from the case citing his alleged “clear bias” toward the clubs.
That process in Madrid should take weeks and the tactic has likely blocked a hearing scheduled Friday in Ruíz de Lara’s court.
A dispute now in its seventh month in Madrid includes a more substantial spin-off process at the Court of Justice of the European Union in Luxembourg. That could take years to resolve.
It’s worthy of the kind of legal thriller fiction that Ruíz de Lara writes in his spare time.
SUPER LEAGUE PROJECT
The European Super League was launched near midnight on Sunday, April 18 by 12 storied clubs rebelling against their own signed commitments to UEFA.
They planned to start a midweek competition of 20 teams — 15 with protected Founding Club status — “as soon as practicable.”
The 12 blamed the COVID-19 pandemic for fueling instability in European soccer’s economic model. They said their competition would create more high-quality matches and financially support them and the “overall football pyramid.”
The soccer project collapsed within two days as the six English clubs withdrew, joined by Atlético Madrid, AC Milan and Inter Milan. The holdouts have yet to renounce the project.
The clubs’ legal challenge to UEFA, started in Madrid during those 48 hours of turmoil, goes on.
Manuel Ruíz de Lara has been a tricky opponent for UEFA and its lawyers.
He notes his idealism in the biography of a protected Twitter account that shows him posing with a copy of his debut novel “Patria Olvidada,” (“Forgotten Homeland”). It addresses corruption in the legal world.
“I’m not afraid of criticism,” he said in an interview about his fiction with a Spanish legal news website. “I just want to be faithful to that way of life that I chose personally and professionally."
On April 20, Ruíz de Lara’s court issued a precautionary measure ordering UEFA and world soccer body FIFA not to discipline the Super League clubs and players.
UEFA action as punishment and deterrent seemed inevitable using its statutes that outlaw “prohibited groupings” such as an alliance of clubs in unauthorized competition.
Both UEFA and FIFA also prohibit taking legal issues to hometown courts outside soccer’s judicial bodies that lead to the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Switzerland.
On Tuesday, UEFA announced a bid seeking Ruíz de Lara be recused and an appeal against his rulings “notwithstanding that UEFA does not recognize the jurisdiction of the court in Madrid.”
The original injunction was likely a first step by the clubs to open dialogue with UEFA, Spain-based sports lawyer Paolo Torchetti told The Associated Press.
“I think it was used as a strategic move to get the ball rolling and ensure they were not prohibited from UEFA competitions in this season,” said Torchetti, of the Ruiz-Huerta & Crespo law firm in Valencia. “It was necessary simply because of the time it would take to set up a new competition and the inability to do it outside of the public eye.”
The other nine founding clubs reached financial and legal deals with UEFA in May. Those also were nullified this week as UEFA reset its legal tactics.
UEFA can reopen the proceedings pending the decisions of other judges in Madrid and Luxembourg.
The European Court of Justice set an Oct. 18 deadline for submissions after Ruíz de Lara’s referral to Luxembourg in May.
UEFA is under scrutiny for potential abuse of position and breach of competition law, though appears on stronger ground. It has allies at the European Commission in Brussels and Olympic leaders defending the European sports structure.
The subject has serious implications for governing bodies of less wealthy Olympic sports which are more vulnerable to private interests challenging their right to organize competitions.
The results are to be decided, though Torchetti suggested that at some point “the Super League in one form or another will happen.”
Associated Press writer Aritz Parra in Madrid contributed to this report
More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/hub/soccer and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports
Graham Dunbar, The Associated Press