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European breakaway talk 'nonsense,' UEFA veteran says

GENEVA (AP) — The “nonsense” of a European soccer Super League is back again. Lars-Christer Olsson, a veteran of the veiled breakaway threats that come and go almost as often as the changing soccer seasons, clearly isn’t impressed with the latest version.

“They are trying to frighten UEFA,” Olsson said Thursday of media speculation in England and Spain regarding plans to rival or usurp the Champions League. “It’s exactly the same methodology as before.”

Olsson was a senior UEFA official two decades ago — even serving as chief executive for three years — when wealthy clubs were first linked to splitting from the competition that has proven to be a lucrative success.

The 70-year-old Swede now leads the 29-nation European Leagues group, trying to protect domestic competitions and representing them on the UEFA executive committee. The latest round of speculation linked Real Madrid, Liverpool and Manchester United with FIFA — which has no authority over European club soccer — in stories where no party took ownership of the ideas.

The rumors are widely seen as seeking leverage over UEFA, which is preparing for talks on reforming the Champions League format, entries and prize money distribution. Decisions are expected to be made next year on changes that would take effect in the 2024-25 season.

Olsson doubted clubs who might be courted by FIFA or private investors would actually leave their place in soccer’s historic structure. “In my humble opinion, it is absolutely no threat at all,” Olsson told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. “If they are thrown out of their domestic competition they are taking an enormously big financial risk.”

He noted “the same people are involved” — citing the president of Real Madrid, Florentino Perez — since breakaway talk was fueled by elite clubs 20 years ago. “It is time for the governing bodies to step up and really say something to stop this nonsense,” Olsson said.

FIFA president Gianni Infantino played down the reported 16-team European Premier League project in Swiss newspapers on Thursday. “As FIFA president, I am interested in the Club World Cup, not the Super League,” Infantino was quoted saying, referring to the 24-team event in China originally scheduled for next year but already postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“I’m not interested in Bayern (Munich) against Liverpool, but in Bayern against Boca Juniors from Buenos Aires,” Infantino said. On Tuesday, UEFA dismissed the idea of a FIFA-backed rival to the Champions League, calling it “boring.”

UEFA has not revealed any details of what it might be working on to modify the format and qualification path for the Champions League and its other club competitions. “The expertise is definitely there in the (UEFA) administration,” said Olsson, who led the organization for more than three years until early 2007 and worked on Champions League reforms that included adding a group stage to the then-UEFA Cup.

The latest cycle of Super League speculation was not unexpected because UEFA is preparing to make a competition review, which it does every three years. UEFA-led talks began last year — and stalled in rancor — when a club-backed Champions League reform plan favored an elite few and made it more difficult for teams from smaller national leagues to qualify.

When Perez, the Real Madrid president, later explored financing a two-division global league, UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin dismissed the idea as a “selfish and egotistical scheme.” European soccer could risk looking out of touch by focusing too much on its marquee club competition, worth billions of dollars each season, in a financial crisis for hundreds of clubs denied matchday revenue from domestic games during the pandemic.

“It’s important that the rest of the season gets some kind of normality, otherwise it’s a disaster for many clubs,” said Olsson, who announced this month he will step down from soccer politics in March.

He said he remains optimistic for the future of traditional club soccer, however, unless forthcoming decisions increase financial gaps between clubs. “That will definitely lead to a closed league at the top,” he said. ”I think that is the real disaster.”

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