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UEFA hints at tiered punishments for Super League rebels

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Ceferin is rolling up the Super League clubs with classic law enforcement techniques.

The Club Badges of the So-Called Top Six in English Football Photo by Visionhaus/Getty Images

The fallout continues for the dirty dozen who tried to break away from UEFA to set up their own “Super League” according to reporting from ESPN.

The sports network details that UEFA has been in negotiations with each of the breakaway clubs to settle on lesser sanctions in exchange for a clear commitment to abandon the “Super League” concept entirely. Sources have indicated that understandings have been reached with the six British clubs involved, as well as Atletico Madrid. Inter Milan is reported to be close to an agreement as well. This leads four hold-outs, Juventus, Real Madrid, FC Barcelona and AC Milan starting to look a lot like Butch and Sundance in the “Blaze of Glory” scene.

Chelsea v Real Madrid - UEFA Champions League Semi Final: Leg Two
Chelsea was quick exit the Super League plans due to public outrage.
Photo by Pedro Salado/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images

Before we talk about how this is being achieved and what may be coming down the pipe for these teams, we should take a moment to look at the man who is at the centre of this maelstrom, UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin, who I like to refer to as “St. Ceferin.”

Ceferin is not a big footballing name like Platini or Villar, his background is in law, being a multi-lingual lawyer with an interest in football who rose from his family’s law firm into the legal arm of UEFA where he helped create a number of structural and governance reforms to make the organization more responsive (including term limits for the presidency). Beyond his obvious intelligence and attention to detail there are two characteristics that are critical to his success in the current crisis.

The first is that his wealth arises from a family-owned law firm, and while it represents many athletes and sports organizations, it does not derive its existence from any of the wide web of industries and interests that are controlled or influenced by the members of the Super League. This leaves the rogues unable to exert influence on Ceferin as an individual through outside channels. It means Ceferin can follow his principles in this conflict without fear of having his legs cut out from underneath him.

Of his position at UEFA, Ceferin has said: “If they don’t like me, they can just vote me out and I’ll go back to Slovenia. I’m not attached to this chair.”

45th Ordinary UEFA Congress
UEFA President Aleksander Ceferin’s background has prepared him to do battle with the football elites.
Photo by Paul Murphy - UEFA/UEFA via Getty Images

You might even say he is “untouchable.”

Secondly, he is simply born-again hard. Before being a lawyer, Ceferin was a soldier, and he wasn’t a garratrooper either. As a teenager he served in the Yugoslav people’s army and later served in the Slovenian Army during the Slovenian War of Independence in 1991. He holds a third-dan black belt in Shotokan Karate and loves motorsport having driven across the Sahara five times, once on a motorcycle. He is not a man given to bend in whatever direction the wind blows.

Now UEFA’s sheriff has turned his considerable talents to breaking up the Super League cabal through classic law enforcement techniques, taking the lessons learned from “The Prisoner’s Dilemma” in game theory and combining it with divide and conquer tactics derived from decades of interrogation successes.

Picture the typical law enforcement assault on a criminal enterprise. You arrest as many of the participants as you can, separate them and start interrogating. You create an incentive to cooperate by offering the best deals to the first ones who will roll, leaving the more reluctant conspirators to suffer the most significant punishments. In this case it is reported that the most recalcitrant clubs will face UEFA’s harshest penalty, a two-year ban from UEFA competitions.

Ceferin has made his approach clear with very public statements like these:

“For me, there are three groups of this 12 — the English six, who went out first, then the other three [Atletico Madrid, AC Milan and Inter] after them and then the ones who feel the Earth is flat and they think the Super League still exists [Barcelona, Real Madrid and Juventus]. And there is a big difference between those. But everyone will be held responsible. In what way, we will see.”

The rebels’ response has been weak, or even pathetic. They have leaked information that they feel an injunction they obtained by forum shopping a friendly judge in Madrid prevents UEFA from punishing them. They will likely be disappointed if they feel this apparently ex-parte, ultra-vires motion will protect them from sanction. As Reuters news commented on the subject, “It was not immediately clear what authority the Madrid court, which adjudicates corporate disputes, had over the Swiss-based soccer bodies.” Legally speaking it appears that the Super League’s approach is a stall tactic and in the long run will look like bringing a knife to a gun fight.

In this battle, it seems like providence has delivered for the football fan; placing the right man, in the right place, at the key moment. If the three holdouts continue to try to turn professional football into a closed shop reserved for an elite few they will find out what it looks like when a good man goes to war.