MANCHESTER, ENGLAND (REUTERS) - European football risks a damaging civil war after plans from top clubs for a breakaway Super League were met with a hard line rejection and threats from the sport's governing bodies.
With billions in broadcast and commercial revenues at stake and complex legal issues in the background, the power battle comes down to a clear choice over the most fundamental of political questions - who governs?
Uefa is the governing body for the sport in Europe and also organises the continental club competitions including the lucrative and globally successful Champions League.
But the big clubs believe they are the ones that invest the money in talent, generate the interest and drive the revenue.
Hence, they want the lion's share of the rewards and increased decision-making powers.
In previous similar cases, a compromise has been reached where the big clubs continue under Uefa's umbrella but gain concessions from the confederation. However, several sources have indicated that the chances of a full break with Uefa are higher than in the past.
It is something of a ritual that when negotiations about the future format for the Champions League get under way, rumours about a breakaway Super League involving the big clubs, begin to emerge.
But the tough joint statement - from world governing body Fifa, European confederation Uefa and the five other international confederations - issued on Thursday (Jan 21) shows that on this occasion, the threat of a break with European football's status quo is being taken seriously.
"It's real this time," said one senior football official who does not support the breakaway.
A document produced for the breakaway group outlines a plan for a 20-team league, outside of Uefa's control, made up of 15 permanent members and five who would qualify for the competition annually. The teams would play in two groups of 10 and then compete in a playoff system to determine the winner.
The European Leagues organisation, which represents the main domestic competitions, has condemned the plan and even the European Commission expressed their political opposition to such a project.
World Cup ban
Those who run the domestic leagues fear that the proposed structure would damage their own competitions, reduce the chances for their clubs to play in Europe and also reduce the appeal of their own broadcast deals.
Fifa's stance that any players in a breakaway league would be banned from the World Cup, was unexpected. Multiple media reports had previously speculated that Fifa president Gianni Infantino, whose relationship with his former employers Uefa had become adversarial, would not be unhappy at a breakaway.
Infantino has been pushing a new 24-team Club World Cup and other new tournaments as part of a global shake-up of club football. But in recent months, he has struck a better relationship with his Uefa counterpart Aleksandr Ceferin, as the pair grappled with the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The driver of the breakaway plan, according to several sources, has been Real Madrid president Florentino Perez, and it was noticeable that the statement from Fifa and Uefa came shortly after the Spaniard visited Juventus president Andrea Agnelli, also head of the influential European Club Association.
While the breakaway document does not mention which specific clubs would be involved, it is hard to imagine a European Super League without Agnelli's club. However, he is also close to Ceferin personally and the ECA is central to the negotiations over Uefa's Champions League.
Juventus declined to comment or make Agnelli avaliable for comment.
Likewise Manchester United executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward, whose club has been widely linked with the breakaway plan, is a member of the ECA's board and has publicly stated he is focused on negotiations with Uefa.
United also declined to comment.
A senior official with one major European league told Reuters that they were sceptical of the breakaway coming to fruition.
Uefa are expected to announce in the coming weeks their plan for the Champions League from 2024, with a new format and new financial distribution structure.
The discussions have been about scrapping the round-robin stage, where there are eight groups of four clubs and each team play three opponents at home and away.
Uefa want to replace it with a format in which the 32 clubs would play 10 different opponents and qualification would come from one league table.
Whether that proves to be enough of a change for the big clubs will determine whether the threats of a breakaway - and possible ensuing sanctions and legal battles - becomes a reality.