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Real Madrid vs UEFA is the bitterest confrontation in the Champions League

Real Madrid prepared a celebratory shirt as soon as they won a spot in the Champions League final. As the players raced against each other, elated at another heart-stopping and nerve-wracking victory, staff rushed onto the field after them, making sure each star was fully dressed.

On the back of each shirt is the latest club-approved slogan: A Por La 15. For the 15th. This brief statement risks coming across as arrogant: Real Madrid’s 15th Champions League title is still one win away. However, no one seemed particularly worried. The Champions League, for which teams have won it twice as often as anyone else, is largely won by Real Madrid.

That belief has placed the Spanish club at the center of a power struggle whose stakes are as much as controlling the future of European football. It’s a fierce battle between rich clubs and powerful managers to see who matters most, who gets to set the agenda and – perhaps most importantly – who will benefit from the billions of dollars in broadcasting and sponsorship revenue that the continent’s richest leagues generate every year.

The clash featured two of the most powerful figures in world football: Real Madrid’s unabashed president, Florentino Pérez, represented the old guard of European football, against leader of the continent’s governing body, Aleksander Ceferin, who used influence and intimidation to maintain his own version of the status quo.

And it has put UEFA – European football’s governing body and the organization that actually runs the tournament – ​​in the increasingly awkward position of regularly glorifying a club that represents a serious threat to their power.

Victory over Germany’s Borussia Dortmund on Saturday means Real Madrid have been crowned champions in the UEFA cup competition six times in the past decade. At the same time, it is entering the third year of a bitter legal battle, largely waged by proxy, designed if not to destroy the Champions League then certainly to bring about profound changes. widest in its history.

The exact status of that battle varies depending on the perspective of the warriors. Last week, a Spanish court gave a verdict which Real Madrid and its allies see as a resounding endorsement of their bid to launch a rival Super League: a successor to the Champions League owned and run by the clubs the largest football ministry, without UEFA sponsorship.

“The era of exclusivity is definitely over,” said Bernd Reichart, president of A22, the consulting firm that is acting as the face of the Pérez-backed Super League project.

UEFA’s reading of the situation is obvious difference. “The court has neither given the green light nor approved projects such as the Super League,” it said in a statement. “In fact, the judge asserted that the Super League project had long been abandoned and that she could not rule on any abstract project.”

That has left both sides and their powerful presidents in an unresolvable deadlock.

Privately, UEFA insists that it does not regard the current incarnation of Mr Pérez’s Super League vision as any threat. At the same time, it consistently failed to deliver any decisive blow, one that would have decisively ended the project.

The effect is to make the relationship between UEFA and Real Madrid in general – and between Mr Pérez and Mr Ceferin in particular – more tense and more personal than ever: In a collection of WhatsApp messages leaked online Last week, it was reported that Mr. Ceferin had described Mr. Pérez as a “stupid and racist.” He did not challenge the accuracy of the report by an online publication, The Objective.

The men are expected to meet again on Friday for a customary dinner attended by delegations from the finalists and the UEFA hierarchy. The last time they broke bread on such an occasion was in Paris in 2022, just a few months after the Super League supernova. a short, unhappy life finished.

Back then, they navigated the required pregnancy protocols without incident. Nothing awkward – like Mr. Perez’s attempt to destroy the Champions League – was discussed around the table. And the night ended with a smile Mr. Pérez introduced Mr. Ceferin with a model of Real Madrid’s renovated Santiago Bernabéu Stadium.

However, the hostility is never overt and serves as a rich illustration of how fundamentally opposing their views remain.

Mr. Ceferin sees UEFA as the final guardian of European football, the pinnacle of the pyramid. For Mr. Pérez, football’s hierarchy stems from the most powerful clubs in the sport, and one of them more than any other.

In 2021, when Real Madrid – along with A22 and 11 other elite European teams – launch the Super League, the most contradictory issue is why exactly they want to end the Champions League. After all, it was the competition that imbued Mr. Pérez’s club with its spirit. self-awareness. This is a tournament that has served both defined and consolidated his presidency.

However, Mr. Pérez does not consider the Super League a replacement for the Champions League. Instead, it will be no more than a new iteration. When asked by one of his favorite media outlets if the Super League title would count towards Real Madrid’s growing list of European titles, Pérez insisted it would. In his mind, the Champions League is wherever Real Madrid is.

Over the past decade, it has become a view that is difficult to challenge. In 2013, Real Madrid harbored deep fears that they were doomed to this tournament. It won the last of its nine titles in 2002; ended its wait and winning a 10th title became something of a fixture.

Mr Pérez oversaw lavish spending towards that goal – recruiting stars such as Cristiano Ronaldo, Kaká, Xabi Alonso and Karim Benzema – when, in 2013, he paid a then world record fee for Gareth Bale, an explosive striker from Wales. During his introductory press conference, Bale confirmed that he had learned how to say a phrase in Spanish: La décima (the 10th).

His vocabulary expanded only slightly in the years that followed, but after that there was no need. Real Madrid broke their drought the following spring, defeating their city rivals, Atlético, in Lisbon. Title number 11, la undécima, followed in 2016 and la duodécima in 2017.

The following year, la tredécima – title number 13 – made Real Madrid the first team in nearly half a century to win the tournament three times in a row. Real Madrid put Liverpool aside in 2022 to give way to the club decimal (admittedly the numbers have become less attractive over time) and Pérez won his sixth European crown of his presidency.

That was the same number acquired by Santiago Bernabéu, the great president of the club’s golden era, for whom Real Madrid’s flashy stadium is named. On Saturday at Wembley, Pérez has a chance to surpass him.

For the big old clubs of continental Europe – Real Madrid, Barcelona, ​​​Juventus and the rest – the idea of ​​a Super League is a final roll of the dice from a group that feared it wouldn’t. can compete with its rivals in England’s Premier League, which is flooded with broadcasting revenue and teams such as Manchester City and Paris St.-Germain enjoy national support. They believe that is the only way to maintain their reputation.

In the case of Real Madrid, that battle no longer seems to be so intense. The club is in the midst of a period of dominance unprecedented in the modern era of football. It has a squad woven by some of the world’s brightest young talents, which will soon be crowned couple than.

The fact that Mr. Pérez continues to quash the Super League project shows that the cause is no longer an existential concern. Instead, it became a struggle for control, an assertion of power, a test of strength.

His view – that it is the clubs competing in the Champions League that give the tournament its prestige and appeal, and therefore the clubs themselves should be responsible – is perhaps well expressed. at a meeting between Real Madrid members last weekend. year.

“Perhaps,” he told the conference to widespread applause, “UEFA needs to be reminded what Real Madrid is.”

Tariq Panja contributed reporting.


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