Liverpool and Manchester United are in talks about a bombshell plot involving Europe's biggest football clubs to join a new FIFA-backed tournament that would reshape the sport's global landscape.
Sky News has learned that financiers are assembling a $6 billion (£4.6 billion) funding package to assist the creation of what could become known as the European Premier League.
More than a dozen teams from England, France, Germany, Italy and Spain are in negotiations about becoming founder members of the competition.
As many as five English clubs could sign up to join it, with a provisional start date said to have been discussed as early as 2022.
Sources said that FIFA, football's world governing body, had been involved in developing the new format, which is expected to comprise up to 18 teams, and involve fixtures played during the regular European season.
The top-placed teams in the league would then play in a knockout format to conclude the tournament, with prize money for the winners expected to be worth hundreds of millions of pounds each year.
European Premier League - key points
- Liverpool, Man Utd in talks about joining new FIFA-backed tournament; Arsenal, Chelsea, Man City, Tottenham reportedly also approached
- As many as five English clubs could sign up
- More than a dozen teams from England, France, Germany, Italy and Spain said to be in negotiations
- Format would comprise up to 18 teams, with home and away fixtures played during regular European season
- Top-placed teams would play in knockout tournament
- Provisional start date as early as 2022
- Wall Street bank JP Morgan in talks to provide £4.6bn in funding
- Tournament could usurp Champions League
One football industry figure said that a formal announcement about the plans was possible as soon as the end of this month, although on Tuesday a number of key details - including the full list of participating clubs - had yet to be finalised and the plans could still fall apart.
The source described it as "potentially the most important development in world club football for decades".
A FIFA spokesperson said: "FIFA does not wish to comment and participate in any speculation about topics which come up every now and then and, for which, institutional structures and regulatory frameworks are well in place at national, European and global level."
Arsenal, Chelsea, Man City and Tottenham candidates to join
According to insiders, a handful of English sides have been approached about joining the league, with the other candidates comprising Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur.
It is not thought that any of the English clubs have yet signed legally binding terms to join, and it was unclear which member of the so-called 'big six' would miss out if only five are ultimately involved.
The news will drop a fresh bombshell into the fracturing landscape of English football, which has spent recent weeks at loggerheads over proposals - engineered by Liverpool and Manchester United - to hand more power to the biggest clubs while providing a coronavirus bailout for teams below the top flight.
A blueprint, dubbed Project Big Picture, would have seen the Premier League reduced in size from 20 to 18 clubs, reducing the number of domestic top-flight fixtures each season.
The plan, denounced as "a backroom deal" by government ministers, was rapidly abandoned last week.
- Premier League clubs reject Project Big Picture
- FA chairman left 'Big Picture' talks after breakaway threat
If the latest plans bear fruit, they would effectively constitute the European super league that has been subject to on-off discussions for many years.
Founding teams set to earn joining fee worth hundreds of millions
The giant Wall Street bank JP Morgan is in talks to provide $6 billion of debt financing to help launch the European Premier League, with the proceeds repayable from future broadcast income generated by the tournament, according to a football executive.
Other banks are expected to join the financing of the new project, which would become one of the world's richest annual team sports competitions if it gets off the ground.
Each of the founding teams is expected to earn fees of hundreds of millions of pounds to participate, with clubs such as Manchester United and Real Madrid receiving the biggest sums for joining.
They added that the European Premier League was likely to feature either 16 or 18 teams - meaning a likely minimum of 30 matches for each club, based on a format of round-robin home and away fixtures - although that is said to be among the details being finalised ahead of a formal announcement.
If the discussions are successfully concluded, the European Premier League would effectively usurp UEFA's Champions League competition, which has been a mainstay of the continent's football calendar for decades.
UEFA opposes 'boring' Super League
A UEFA spokesperson has told Sky Sports News they are against any proposals for a European league, adding that any such tournament would become "boring".
"The UEFA President has made it clear on many occasions that UEFA strongly opposes a Super League," a spokesperson said. "The principles of solidarity, of promotion, relegation and open leagues are non-negotiable.
"It is what makes European football work and the Champions League the best sports competition in the world.
"UEFA and the clubs are committed to build on such strength not to destroy it to create a super league of 10, 12, even 24 clubs, which would inevitably become boring."
Without UEFA's support, the new tournament would represent an "incendiary" move from FIFA that would undermine the European governing body's principal annual revenue-generating tournament.
There could be a string of legal challenges to prevent it from getting off the ground, given the complexity of existing tournament agreements involving Europe's top clubs.
One source cast doubt on the prospect of a successful launch of the European Premier League without UEFA's backing, particularly before 2024, when the existing Champions League structure is expected to be revamped.
Other clubs which are said to have been invited to take part in the new league include Barcelona and Atletico Madrid, according to Vozpopuli, a Spanish publication.
Real Madrid has been one of the principal architects of the European Premier League's creation, with a plan to get the new competition launched as rapidly as possible.
Paris Saint-Germain, Juventus and Bayern Munich are also likely to have been approached.
Key Capital Partners, a Spanish finance house, and Florentino Perez, the veteran Real Madrid president, are also understood to have been driving forces behind the latest project.
Mr Perez and Gianni Infantino, the FIFA president, were reported last year to have held talks about reforming elements of the club game.
The latest version of the European Premier League project is understood to have been in gestation for well over a year.
Providence Equity Partners, a global private equity firm which owns companies in Britain such as Ambassador Theatre Group, is understood to have held talks about becoming a shareholder in the new league, but football sources cast doubt on whether it was still involved.
Talk of a European Super League has been a ubiquitous feature of football politics for many years, but has invariably faded amid trenchant opposition from national football associations, politicians and supporter groups.
An earlier iteration of the current project was reported by German news outlets to have been drawn up almost exactly two years ago, and featured 11 'founder' teams with a number of 'guest' teams.
As part of that blueprint, the founder clubs could not be relegated for 20 years, although the remaining teams would be subject to being replaced depending upon their league position at the end of each season.
A version of those rules is expected to form part of the new league, according to insiders, with a possible cap on agents' fees also said to have been one of the ideas under discussion.
American-style approach to European football
Such an American-style approach to European football would reflect the sport's shifting power-base following an influx of US-based owners into the English game during the last 20 years.
Manchester United, whose largest shareholder remains the Glazer family, is listed in New York; Arsenal is owned by a US-based businessman; and Liverpool's parent company, Fenway Sports Group, is in the process of being taken public through a Special Purpose Acquisition Company.
Despite being named in leaked documents about the proposed league, Bayern Munich, the current Champions League holders and German Bundesliga champions, denied any involvement in the plans in 2018.
According to people close to the latest plans, the European Premier League would not be a breakaway in the sense of ending clubs' involvement in their domestic leagues.
Nevertheless, its creation would have profound implications for the value of domestic broadcasting and sponsorship rights across Europe, at a time when the finances of the entire football pyramid have been hit hard by the Covid-19 crisis.
English Premier League clubs have complained that they are collectively losing more than £100m every month, while many EFL clubs have warned that they will not be able to survive much longer without fans in attendance, unless they receive emergency support.
Earlier this month, the EFL rejected a £50m grant proposed by the Premier League.
Sources said the result of the new format, if it gets off the ground, would be to give England's wealthiest clubs greater leverage in future negotiations with the Premier League and with broadcasters and sponsors.
They added that the possibility of outright club defections from domestic leagues was not on the new tournament's "short-term agenda".
Nevertheless, a decision to join the new European tournament will leave its participants exposed to the suggestion that they were enriching themselves at the expense of domestic rivals, exacerbating the already-vast financial gulf between teams at the top and bottom of the Premier League.
That risks particular damage to clubs' reputations during an economic crisis which has resulted in the UK's unemployment rate increasing and millions of people becoming concerned about their livelihoods.
One person close to the project said there would need to be "very substantial" solidarity payments built into the European Premier League structure to demonstrate that its creation would benefit the wider game.
Even that, though, is unlikely to be sufficient to appease critics of the biggest clubs, who have long-sought to find ways of preventing 'smaller' sides breaking their stranglehold on the domestic leagues - as Leicester City, did, for example, in 2016, when it won the Premier League.
Central to the new league would be the question of whether its fixtures are played in the existing slots allocated to Champions League matches, or whether the prize of drawing vast live audiences in Asia and the US, as well as Europe, means there is an attempt to play them throughout the day at weekends.
It emerged [this month] that Liverpool and Manchester United were leading a quest to reform the Premier League by cutting the number of teams from 20 to 18 and giving the so-called 'big six' and other long-standing shareholders in the top flight enhanced voting rights that would effectively hand them outright control.
The League Cup, currently sponsored by Carabao, and the Community Shield, would also have been expunged from the calendar or played without the involvement of clubs taking part in European competitions.
Their plot was immediately denounced by the Premier League and the government, leading to a statement from all 20 clubs that they would reject Project Big Picture.
Gary Neville, the former Manchester United and England defender, said the extent of the divisions about how to reform and financially protect the game meant that an independent football regulator should be established.
The prospective involvement of some of the top flight's elite clubs in a European super league format would help to explain their desire to curb the number of domestic fixtures to which they are committed.
Ministers have applied pressure to the Premier League to formulate a financial rescue package for lower league clubs, but those talks have been far from straightforward, with some top-flight executives complaining that they are being held to a different standard to wealthy companies in any other industry.
One football insider also raised the prospect of legal challenges to the new league from excluded rival clubs, although one club source said they were confident that they were able to strike a deal that could not be overturned.
The Champions League's existing format is said to be locked in place until 2024, with an expansion possible after that, although its name, and existence, would be cast into doubt if the continent's elite clubs decided to abandon it.
The coronavirus pandemic has accelerated the potential shake-up of football.
In Italy, CVC Capital Partners, the former owner of Formula One motor racing, is in exclusive talks alongside fellow investment firm Advent International to take a stake in the commercial rights to the country's Serie A league.
A number of alternative structures have been proposed in England to inject funds into the financially struggling lower leagues, including a plan tabled by TPG Capital, a private equity firm, to acquire an equity stake in the EFL.
Liverpool, Manchester United, JP Morgan and Providence all declined to comment, while Key Capital Partners could not be reached for comment.
Neville: Plans 'another wound for football'
Neville told Sky Sports News the sums of money discussed to finance the new proposed league - at a time when areas of the English domestic game has found itself in severe difficulty financially - did not create a good look with the Premier League yet to agree a support package for teams in the EFL.
He said: "The big issue that I have with it, is that at this moment in time, in the middle of a pandemic and when football is on its knees at so many different levels - the FA, EFL clubs and non-league clubs are struggling - the idea that a $6bn package is being put together to set-up a new league when lower clubs are scrambling around to pay wages and stay in existence.
"It's another wound for football. It doesn't feel like the right time to be talking about this. The leak probably doesn't suit Manchester United or Liverpool at this moment in time as they're seen as the big, bad bullies.
"I'm for progression of football, with new competitions and new formats, but we have got to look after the fabric of the game and what it means to the communities in this country.
"There is a position, potentially, for a new European League and for an amazing Premier League, a fantastically competitive EFL and funded grassroots and non-league football. There is enough money.
"If they can pull $6bn together for a European league then they can pull together £150-200m to save the rest of football in this country."