Chelsea appeared set to withdraw from the proposed European Super League on Tuesday, leaving the deeply divisive project on the brink of collapse following a furious backlash by fans.
Chelsea and City were two of 12 leading European clubs to sign up to the breakaway competition designed to guarantee spots each year and billions of dollars for its founding members.
But reaction to the plans has been scathing, with politicians and football authorities threatening to take legal action against the so-called “dirty dozen” and potentially ban them from domestic and continental competitions.
Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal, Tottenham, Juventus, Inter Milan, AC Milan, Real Madrid, Barcelona and Atletico Madrid were the other 10 sides to agree to join the European Super League (ESL).
The withdrawal of City and Chelsea could leave the project dead in the water.
Reigning European champions Bayern Munich and French giants Paris Saint-Germain both came out strongly opposed to the breakaway league—damaging the legitimacy of the project further.
On a day of intense drama, the Athletic and the BBC reported that Manchester United executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward would resign at the end of 2021.
Earlier, UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin, addressing the owners, particularly of the Premier League teams involved, said there was still time for clubs to pull out.
“Some will say it is greed, some complete ignorance of England’s football culture,” he said. “There’s still time to change your mind. Everyone makes mistakes.”
FIFA president Gianni Infantino issued a stark warning to the heavyweight clubs who had signed up to the ESL.
“It is our task to protect the European sport model, so if some elect to go their own way then they must live with the consequences of their choices,” Infantino said at UEFA’s congress in Switzerland.
More than 1,000 fans gathered outside Chelsea’s Stamford Bridge stadium to protest against the plan before Tuesday’s Premier League match against Brighton.
Fans held up signs reading: “RIP Football 1863 – 2021”, “Created by the poor, stolen by the rich”, “We want our cold nights in Stoke” and “Roman do the right thing”—in reference to Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich.
Less than two hours after the protesters made their feelings known, it was first reported that Chelsea were preparing documentation to become the first club to withdraw from the competition.
Abramovich is understood to have driven the decision.
British Prime Minster Boris Johnson earlier met Premier League clubs, the English Football and fan groups, vowing to do all in his power to kill the ESL plan.
He tweeted later: “The decision by Chelsea and Manchester City is – if confirmed – absolutely the right one and I commend them for it.”
The 14 Premier League clubs not involved in the plans “unanimously and vigorously rejected” the new competition at an emergency meeting.
The 20-team ESL was designed by the European giants to guarantee revenue from regular matches against one another without the risk of failing to qualify for 15 founder members.
However, the plan was fiercely criticised by even their own players and managers for acting as a closed shop.
“It’s not a sport when the relation between effort and reward doesn’t exist,” said Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola.
“It’s not a sport when success is already guaranteed, it’s not a sport if it doesn’t matter if you lose.”
Manchester United forward Marcus Rashford shared an image on Twitter of one of the banners which covers the stands at Old Trafford reading: “Football is nothing without fans”.
The 12 teams had signed up to share an initial pot of more than 3.5 billion euros ($4.2 billion) — vastly boosting their revenues, which have been badly hit during the coronavirus pandemic.
Under the proposals, announced late Sunday, five more clubs would have had to qualify for the 20-team midweek competition, joining the 15 permanent members.
Currently, teams have to qualify for the Champions League each year through their national competitions, and survive a group phase before reaching the high-profile latter stages.
The breakaway announcement came just hours before UEFA announced a new, 36-team format for the Champions League, which had been conceived to placate the continent’s biggest clubs.
Earlier Tuesday, a Madrid court banned UEFA and FIFA from taking any moves to block plans for the Super League.
Real Madrid president Florentino Perez, the head of the new ESL, had said it was “impossible” that clubs would be thrown out of the Champions League despite warnings from UEFA.
UEFA said sides in the tournament would be unable to compete in their future competitions, with Perez’s Madrid as well as Chelsea and City through to this year’s Champions League last four.
“Football has to keep changing and adapting to the times. Football is losing interest. Something must be done,” he said.