Real Madrid vs. UEFA Is the Champions League’s Most Bitter Rivalry

Real Madrid had the celebratory jerseys ready as soon as its place in the Champions League final was secured. As the players raced to one another, exulting in yet another heart-stopping, nerve-shredding win, staff members sprinted onto the field after them, ensuring each star was correctly attired.

On the back of each shirt was the latest club-approved slogan: A Por La 15. For the 15th. The shorthand ran the risk of coming across as hubris: Real Madrid’s 15th Champions League title was still one win away. Nobody, though, seemed especially worried. The Champions League, as far as the team that has won it twice as often as anyone else is concerned, very much belongs to Real Madrid.

That belief has put the Spanish club at the center of a power struggle whose stakes include nothing less than control over the future of European soccer. It’s a bitter fight between wealthy clubs and powerful administrators over who matters most, who should set the agenda and — perhaps most important — who should benefit from the billions of dollars of broadcast and sponsorship revenue the continent’s richest competitions generate every year.

The clash features two of the most powerful figures in world soccer: Real Madrid’s unabashed president, Florentino Pérez, representing European soccer’s old guard, against the leader of the continent’s governing body, Aleksander Ceferin, who has wielded influence and threats to maintain his own version of the status quo.

And it has placed UEFA — European soccer’s governing body, and the organization that actually runs the competition — in an increasingly awkward position of regularly celebrating a club that represents a serious threat to its authority.

Victory against Germany’s Borussia Dortmund on Saturday would mean Real Madrid has been crowned champion of UEFA’s marquee competition six times in the last decade. At the same time, it is entering the third year of a bitter legal struggle, conducted largely through proxies, designed if not to destroy the Champions League then certainly to bring about the most sweeping changes in its history.

The precise status of that battle varies depending on the perspective of the combatants. Last week, a Spanish court issued a ruling that Real Madrid and its allies took as a ringing endorsement of their attempts to launch a rival Super League: a successor to the Champions League that is owned and operated by soccer’s biggest clubs, free from the auspices of UEFA.

“The era of monopoly is definitively over,” said Bernd Reichart, the chairman of A22, the consultancy firm that is serving as the public face of the Pérez-backed Super League project.

UEFA’s reading of the situation was markedly different. “The court has not given the green light to, nor has it approved, projects like the Super League,” it said in a statement. “In fact, the judge has asserted that the Super League project has long been abandoned and that she cannot be expected to rule on any abstract projects.”

That has left both sides, and their powerful presidents, locked in an unsatisfactory stalemate.

Privately, UEFA insists that it does not regard the current incarnation of Mr. Pérez’s Super League vision as any sort of threat. At the same time, it has consistently been unable to land any sort of decisive blow, one that might definitively end of the project.

The effect has been to render relations between UEFA and Real Madrid in general — and between Mr. Pérez and Mr. Ceferin, in particular — increasingly strained and ever more personal: In a set of WhatsApp messages leaked online last week, it was reported that Mr. Ceferin had once described Mr. Pérez as an “idiot and a racist.” He has not challenged the accuracy of the report by an online publication, The Objective.

The men were set to meet again on Friday for a customary dinner involving delegations from the finalists and UEFA’s hierarchy. The last time they had broken bread on such occasion was in Paris in 2022, only months after the supernova that was the Super League’s short, unhappy life ended.

Back then, they navigated the pregame protocols required of them without incident. Nothing awkward — like Mr. Perez’s attempts to destroy the Champions League — was discussed around the table. And the night ended with a smiling Mr. Pérez presenting Mr. Ceferin with a model of Real Madrid’s revamped Santiago Bernabéu Stadium.

Animosity, though, is never far from the surface, and serves as ample illustration of just how fundamentally opposed their positions remain.

Mr. Ceferin sees UEFA as the ultimate guardian of European soccer, the pinnacle of its pyramid. To Mr. Pérez, soccer’s hierarchy runs downstream from the game’s most powerful clubs, and one of them more than any other.

In 2021, when Real Madrid — together with A22 and 11 of Europe’s other elite teams — launched the Super League, the most discordant issue was why, exactly, it wished to bring about the end of the Champions League. It was, after all, the competition that imbues Mr. Pérez’s club with its sense of self. It is the tournament that has served both to define and to cement his presidency.

Mr. Pérez, though, did not view the Super League as a replacement for the Champions League. It would, instead, be little more than a new iteration. Asked, by one of his preferred media outlets if winning the Super League would count toward Real Madrid’s ever-growing tally of European titles, Pérez confirmed it would. The Champions League, in his mind, is wherever Real Madrid is.

Over the last decade, it has become a difficult view to challenge. In 2013, Real Madrid was nursing a deep-seated fear that it had become cursed in the competition. It had won the last of its nine trophies in 2002; ending its wait, and claiming a 10th title had become something of a fixation.

Mr. Pérez had overseen lavish spending in that pursuit — recruiting stars like Cristiano Ronaldo, Kaká, Xabi Alonso and Karim Benzema — when, in 2013, he paid what was then a world-record fee for Gareth Bale, an explosive Welsh forward. In his introductory news conference, Bale confirmed that he had already learned how to say one phrase in Spanish: La décima (the 10th).

His vocabulary expanded only a little in the years that followed, but then it did not need to. Real Madrid broke its drought the following spring, beating its city rival, Atlético, in Lisbon. Title No. 11, la undécima, followed in 2016, and la duodécima in 2017.

The following year, la tredécima — title No. 13 — made Real Madrid the first team in almost half a century to win the competition three times in a row. Real Madrid swatted aside Liverpool in 2022 to give the club la decimocuarta (the numbers have, admittedly, become less catchy over time) and Pérez the sixth European crown of his presidency.

It is the same number acquired by Santiago Bernabéu, the totemic president of the club’s golden era, the man for whom Real Madrid’s gleaming stadium is named. On Saturday at Wembley, Pérez has the chance to surpass him.

For continental Europe’s grand old clubs — Real Madrid, Barcelona, Juventus and the rest — the idea of the Super League was a last roll of the dice from a group that feared it would no longer be able to compete with its rivals in England’s Premier League, awash with broadcasting revenue, and teams like Manchester City and Paris St.-Germain who have the backing of nation states. It was, they believed, the only way to retain their prestige.

In Real Madrid’s case, that fight no longer seems quite so pressing. The club is in the middle of a period of dominance that is unparalleled in soccer’s modern era. It has a squad embroidered with some of the brightest young talent in the world, soon to be garlanded with a couple more.

That Mr. Pérez continues to stoke the embers of the Super League project suggests that the cause is no longer existential angst. It has, instead, become a struggle for control, an assertion of power, a test of strength.

His view — that it is the clubs who compete in the Champions League that lend the tournament its prestige and its allure, and therefore that it is the clubs who should be in charge — was perhaps best expressed at a meeting of Real Madrid’s members late last year.

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

Tariq Panja contributed reporting.

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