FIFA legal case could pave way for Arsenal, Chelsea and Spurs to get Premier League '39th game'

Gianni Infantino has said blue cards will not be used in elite football
FIFA President, Gianni Infantino -Credit:Zac Goodwin/PA/PA Archive/PA Images

The idea of a 39th game for the Premier League has been kicked around for more than 15 years. Following a meeting of owners and executives of Premier League clubs in London back in 2008, it was decided that the competition would add another game to its calendar.

That round of games was slated to be played in January in various cities around the world, the idea being that it was the perfect way of growing the Premier League brand and bringing the power of football’s biggest domestic competition to fans in their own market once a season.

Former Premier League chief executive Richard Scudamore said at the time: "We have to recognise this is a world game and sport has become an international business.

"The Premier League is in a prime position to take advantage of this. It's as big a strategic move as the league has made since it started. But if we don't do it, another sport will come and do it to us."

And they did.

For more than a decade North American sports' major leagues have been travelling the world promoting their wares. Initially, it was exhibition games, much like pre-season friendly tours that have become the norm for Premier League teams, but that has long since moved into bringing regular season games to different territories.

In the UK, the NBA and MLB are both regular visitors, while the NFL has a deal with Tottenham Hotspur that allows them to host regular season games of America's biggest sport on an annual basis at Spurs' home stadium, something that has proven lucrative for the club and the NFL. Even the construction of Tottenham Hotspur Stadium was done partly with the NFL in mind; wider doorframes, bigger locker rooms, and even media access points in the changing room due to the different ways that the US media engage with players after games.

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But English football fans widely condemned the 2008 plans, in much the same way that they rejected the European Super League proposals. Those plans for an extra game were abandoned.

Football has changed since 2008, and with markets such as the US now fertile ground for clubs to grow brand awareness and increase revenue, it is no surprise that the idea has returned, it never really went away.

English clubs have long travelled the world ahead of a new season, with markets such as the Far East, Australasia, and North America often targeted.

This summer will see five of the so-called 'big six' clubs head to the USA for their pre-season tours. Only Spurs will be heading elsewhere, the club continuing to tap into the major fandom that exists in Asia thanks to their South Korean superstar Son Heung-min.

Premier League CEO Richard Masters has said previously that hosting a 39th game overseas "was not impossible" but stressed that the league was in no position to do it at present. There is a desire from the other side, too.

Speaking ahead of Manchester United and Arsenal's pre-season game at the MetLife Stadium in New Jersey last summer, a game that broke the stadium's attendance record for hosting a football match, Democratic Governor of New Jersey, Phil Murphy, told assembled media prior to the game that "we would die" to have a competitive game of European football in the US.

Murphy said: "I know that the clubs have not been wild about that in Europe but I'd love to think that it would happen.

"You would have Barcelona playing Real Madrid in New Jersey at some point in a regular season or in a Champions League game. I would love that.

"I would just appeal either to the Champions League, if that's UEFA, and play a game here. I can say unequivocally, we would die to have a real competitive game anywhere in America. If it was in New York-New Jersey, you wouldn't get near that game.

"It would be overwhelming. To have a Champions League game, you wouldn’t be able to get near it."

UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin hinted last year that the Champions League final could one day be played in the US.

As the appetite grows in countries such as the US for what European football has to offer, and the Premier League in particular, so too will the appetite from clubs and leagues to maximise the benefits of that in the future.

Until now, FIFA had blocked attempts to play competitive fixtures outside of the territory of the respective member associations. Back in 2018, Relevent Sports Group, a New York-based events promoter, had sought to bring a competitive La Liga fixture involving Barcelona and Girona to America. That plan was blocked by FIFA.

But in a legal development in the US on Monday, Relevent dropped FIFA as a defendant in its antitrust lawsuit against world football’s governing body and the US Soccer Federation, as first reported by the Athletic.

The resolution, filed with the US District Court of Manhattan, could still be heard by the US Supreme Court, with Relevent arguing that blocking such moves to bring competitive competition to the US is in violation of antitrust laws.

A statement from Relevent to the Athletic stated that the agreement was made "while FIFA considers changes to its existing rules about whether games can be played outside of a league's home territory. Relevent Sports looks forward to supporting FIFA as both sides work to grow the game."

FIFA said it "has not admitted any liability and continues to deny the legal claims alleged in Relevent's complaint."

In 2022, speaking to Spanish media, Relevent CEO Daniel Sillman said: "I can assure you before the 2026 World Cup there will be La Liga games on North American soil."

FIFA's removal as a defendant points to a potential shift in policy when it comes to playing competitive games abroad. That kicks open the door, in turn, to the possibility of the 39th game becoming a reality at some stage for the Premier League.

Given the Premier League's desire to remain the biggest domestic football league on the planet, the idea of La Liga pitching up with a regular season game in a market both the Premier League and its member clubs know is vital for future growth, especially with the amount of North American capital that has flowed into English football, may not sit too well.

That could see the issue brought back on the agenda again before too long if FIFA does decide to soften its stance in the way that UEFA already appears willing to do.