Clubs owned by the same person or legal entity cannot play each other in European competition for sporting integrity reasons, according to UEFA rules.
This is a sensitive topic for Brighton & Hove Albion, because their owner-chairman Tony Bloom is also the majority shareholder at Union Saint-Gilloise (USG), who are currently second in the Belgian Pro League.
Five present and past Brighton players have been loaned to USG, who play in the last-16 of the Europa League this week.
It feels increasingly plausible that Brighton, eighth in the Premier League with 12 games to go, and USG could face each other in Europe in the coming seasons, given the upward trajectory of both clubs.
But there is reason to think that Bloom — so often one step ahead as a football owner — has already thought about this scenario.
To properly explain the situation requires a look first at a precedent elsewhere in Europe.
In 2017, Austria’s Red Bull Salzburg and RB Leipzig from Germany qualified for the Champions League. The two clubs are part of the same energy-drink giant’s sporting empire, and European football’s organising body initially said they could not play in the same competition.
But Salzburg then made a range of back-office changes. These included removing individuals from the board with links to Red Bull and Leipzig. The chairman resigned and loan agreements, a sponsorship deal and the stadium lease were all tweaked.
After that, UEFA changed its mind, opening the door to the two clubs playing in the same competition.
The key phrase in a later legal judgment on the case was “decisive influence”. UEFA accepted that although the two clubs had many links, the same individuals did not share “decisive” influence over them both.
Salzburg and Leipzig would end up being drawn in the same group of the 2018-19 Europa League, with the Austrian side winning both fixtures.
The Red Bull example has been discussed a lot in recent weeks, given Manchester United’s prospective takeover by a banker with links to the Qatari state — which owns serial French champions Paris Saint-Germain.
So, how might Brighton argue their position that Bloom does not have “decisive influence” over them and USG?
Trawling through the files at Companies House, the online register of UK businesses, gives a clue. Brighton & Hove Albion Holdings Limited lists just one “person with significant control” — Mr Anthony Grant Bloom.
The records state Bloom owns more than 75 per cent of the shares and more than 75 per cent of the ownership of the voting rights, as well as the right to appoint and remove directors.
So far, so straightforward.
USG, on the other hand, are owned via a British company called Langford Holdings Limited. As with Brighton, Bloom is listed as owning more than 75 per cent of shares in the club. However, his voting rights at USG are “more than 25 per cent but not more than 50 per cent”.
Another name that crops up here will be less familiar to Brighton fans — Mr Alex Ian Muzio, who is co-owner and president of the Belgian club. Muzio got to know Bloom after joining his company Starlizard and working his way up through the ranks, eventually joining him in the world of sports ownership.
Companies House makes clear that, though Bloom owns most of the south Brussels side, Muzio has “ownership of voting rights — more than 50 per cent but less than 75 per cent”. This means someone other than Bloom, according to Companies House at least, is the decision-maker in the USG boardroom.
Put another way, Bloom has “decisive influence” over Brighton, but not over USG.
This would open the door to both clubs competing in the same UEFA competition sometime soon, perhaps even playing against each another — which would make for a very novel situation up in the directors’ box.
UEFA, when approached for comment, referred The Athletic to the relevant regulations and would not be drawn on the specifics.
A Brighton spokesman said: “Tony Bloom and the club are fully aware of UEFA’s integrity rules which relate to multi-club ownership, and both take compliance with UEFA’s rules very seriously.
“While there is a lot of football still to be played this season, we have already been in dialogue with UEFA regarding the possibility of qualification for European club competitions, and we have no concerns in this regard.”
Brighton have two routes to qualifying for Europe next season for the first time in their history — the FA Cup and the Premier League.
Let’s consider the FA Cup first.
They can only qualify by winning it, an achievement which is rewarded with direct entry into the Europa League’s group stage. Although the draw for the quarter-finals has been kind — a home tie against fourth-tier Grimsby Town a week on Sunday — it will be a big ask for Brighton to lift their first major trophy, with both Manchester clubs still in the competition.
City beat Brighton 1-0 at Wembley in the 2018-19 semi-finals when Chris Hughton was in charge, while they were runners-up to United there in the 1982-83 final — getting thrashed 4-0 in a replay five days after the original game ended in a 2-2 draw.
Teams used to qualify for Europe if they lost the FA Cup final and the winners had booked a Champions League place — Stoke City and Hull City took advantage of that rule to get into Europe before it ended in 2015 — but now if the FA Cup winners have also qualified for the Champions League, the competition’s place is decided on Premier League finish.
OK, so what about their prospects of qualifying for Europe via their position in the final league table?
The easy stuff first: the top four after the final round of matches on Sunday, May 28 qualify for the group phase of the 2023-24 Champions League. Brighton are seven points behind fourth-placed Tottenham Hotspur, but have three games in hand on them.
Influential midfielder Moises Caicedo, speaking after Saturday’s 4-0 home demolition of West Ham, said: “We are trying to get into the Champions League. That is the dream of the team.” There’s no harm in aiming high, especially as Spurs are inconsistent, but with a resurgent Liverpool to take into account, Brighton finishing fifth, sixth or seventh feels more realistic.
Fifth place would mean automatic qualification into the Europa League group stages. After that, it gets murkier.
If the FA Cup winners also finish in the top five, their Europa League place from the FA Cup goes to the next-highest team in the final table not qualified for Europe by other means.
So, for example, if Manchester City or Manchester United win the FA Cup while finishing in the top five, that Europa League spot would go to the club in sixth place — currently Newcastle.
Here, for clarity, are the league standings as things stand.
Now, it gets really messy.
Manchester United have already won the Carabao Cup, having beaten Newcastle 2-0 in the final last month. The prize for that triumph, in European terms, is a place in the play-offs to get into the group stage of the Europa Conference League — UEFA’s new third-ranked competition introduced last season.
Given that Manchester United are well-placed to qualify for the Champions League — or at worst the Europa League — that Europa Conference League spot is likely to be passed on to the next-highest-placed team who have not already qualified for Europe via either league position or the FA Cup.
That brings seventh into play — a spot currently occupied by Fulham, who are a point ahead of Brighton having played three more games.
Brighton are firmly in the mix, fighting on two fronts, and with the potential to give Bloom dual interest in Europe next season.
(Top photo: Gareth Fuller/PA Images via Getty Images)