Will Real Madrid Abandon La Liga? Its President Maps a Way Out

Real Madrid’s president, Florentino Pérez, recently held talks with officials from some of Europe’s leading soccer clubs, as well as the FIFA president, Gianni Infantino, to outline his vision for the sport. What he is proposing, according to people familiar with the conversations, is nothing less than a groundbreaking power shift in the club game.

One elite competition comprising the world’s richest clubs, untethered from their domestic leagues for a new full-season competition. Domestic leagues stripped of their biggest and most historic brands. And thousands of top-division games rendered far less valuable to everyone from sponsors to broadcasters to, perhaps most important, fans.

With financing in the works and the clout of Real Madrid backing the venture, and with the game’s officials beginning to sketch the framework of the new global soccer calendar that will take effect after 2024, the outlines of a European super league could be closer than before.

At the heart of Pérez’s plan is his long-held desire for Europe’s biggest teams, like his, to break away from their domestic leagues and form an elite European competition that would be played across an entire season, according to people familiar with the discussions.

The current iteration of the plan would see two 20-team divisions, composed almost exclusively of clubs from Europe’s five biggest leagues: England, Spain, France, Germany and Italy. Some clubs have been told that, according to projections, they could expect to double their revenues by leaving their domestic leagues to join. The concept of promotion and relegation — a fixture of world soccer that rewards success and punishes failure — would be retained, but only between the two divisions.

The proposal most likely would meet fierce resistance. At a stroke any such competition would decimate the value of domestic league matches, but by taking the best teams they also could destroy the value of the Champions League, the world’s richest club championship and the financial engine of European soccer’s governing body, UEFA.

Pérez, who as Real Madrid’s president became a founding member of a new global association for international clubs when it was begun last month at FIFA’s headquarters in Zurich, declined, through the club, to comment on his proposals. During his visit to Zurich, though, he discussed his ideas with Infantino, who has spent much of the past year pushing his own idea about how to remake club soccer.

Infantino’s vision for club soccer has largely been focused on the creation of a new 24-team Club World Cup that will begin play in 2021, but he also has a broader vision for FIFA, the game’s global governing body, to have a stronger hand in club soccer.

Only last week, for example, he pushed the idea of investing hundreds of millions of dollars in a new pan-African league, as a means to increase quality there and also slow the global talent drain to Europe. The FIFA president has also had talks with national associations in Asia about the possibility of creating regional or subregional leagues there, and conversations with President Trump about the quality of soccer in the top United States league.

“One of the FIFA president’s duties is to listen to stakeholders’ perspectives about relevant topics for football,” FIFA said in a statement in response to questions about Infantino’s discussions with Pérez and others about changes to the club game. “FIFA believes that an open and constructive dialogue between different members of the football community is essential to find the right balance and the best solutions for the future of the game.

“FIFA (including the president) has met with football clubs from around the world in order to discuss how to make the new FIFA Club World Cup an outstanding success, in particular, from a sporting point of view.”

Real Madrid, through a spokesman, said that it never comments on private talks and that any news related to its president would be released only through official club channels.

Without Infantino’s patronage, Pérez’s plans would not get very far. The FIFA leader told reporters in November 2018 — when details of a previous attempt at a breakaway league backed by Pérez leaked — that any players who participated in any breakaway competition that had not been sanctioned by FIFA would be barred from their national teams and unable to play in the World Cup.

While the new talks about Pérez’s proposals remain at an exploratory stage, they are taking place as clubs continue to discuss the future of the Champions League. That competition could be rendered meaningless if Pérez’s venture — which is said to include significant moneymaking incentives for a select group of top clubs — were to come to fruition.

A group representing elite clubs from across Europe met in Milan on Nov. 15 to try to formulate a new format after a furious reaction from top domestic leagues, including England’s Premier League and Spain’s La Liga, to a plan promoted by the Juventus president, Andrea Agnelli, to create a largely closed European competition in which most of the competitors would retain their spot season after season whatever their performance in domestic league play.

Money is the driving force behind all the restructuring plans, with the biggest clubs believing they could generate more viewership and more sponsor interest, and thus much more revenue, through more frequent elite-level games. But the support of Infantino and FIFA, should they grant it, could shift control of club soccer away from its usual power base in continental federations like UEFA.

Under Infantino, who assumed the FIFA presidency in 2016, FIFA has increasingly looked for ways to increase its influence on (and profit from) club soccer. The current annual version of the Club World Cup — featuring one team from soccer’s six regional bodies and one from the host nation — generates little interest in much of the world. The latest edition kicks off next week in Qatar.

Infantino’s reasoning appears to be that by increasing the standard of club soccer in Africa, Asia and elsewhere, FIFA would create conditions for investors — who have long poured their billions of dollars into European soccer — to see value in doing so around the world.

“The statutory mission of FIFA is to develop football at a worldwide level,” FIFA’s statement said. “This involves formulating plans and competition concepts to bring on club football everywhere.”

It added, “We want the European clubs to further grow, because that is good for world football, but at the same time we want to see clubs from outside Europe to grow as well so that one day they can compete with the European clubs.”