MADRID (AP) — As Real Madrid kept winning European title after European title, club president Florentino Pérez never stopped working on a side project he believed was a perfect fit for the Spanish powerhouse.

Pérez kept at it, constantly working behind the scenes to gather support. He was even accused of using rival club Barcelona to play along to help make it a reality.

This side project, the controversial Super League, is finally materializing after Madrid and 11 other clubs announced its creation on Sunday. The breakaway competition would include only the elite clubs in European soccer and would compete directly with the UEFA-run Champions League.

Pérez, the Super League's founding chairman, said Tuesday the new competition comes to “save soccer” and is being created because the coronavirus pandemic left clubs in a dire financial situation, on the verge of being extinct if nothing is changed. But the Super League idea existed way before the pandemic hit, and before soccer was about to “die,” as Pérez put it.

“We have been working on this for the last two or three years,” Pérez said in an interview on Spanish television program El Chiringuito de Jugones. “Now the pandemic has led us to a situation that we can no longer endure.”

The wealthy Spanish businessman is seen as one of the competition's masterminds, along with Juventus president Andrea Agnelli and the American owners of Premier League clubs Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester United.

Pérez said he was picked as the competition’s founding chairman because he is the one who “started” the idea.

It was Pérez who some believe was behind one of the first public mentions about the new competition last year — one made by none other than the outgoing president of rival Barcelona.

Spanish league president Javier Tebas, one of the most outspoken critics of the new league, said at the time that it was Pérez who prodded Josep Bartomeu to talk publicly about the new competition in an effort to give it more credibility.

In the speech in which he announced his resignation as club president last October, Bartomeu mentioned that Barcelona would be part of the Super League. His unexpected reference to the new league on his last day on the job, without any elaboration, attracted widespread attention at the time.

“Bartomeu was directed by Florentino, that is what I believe,” Tebas told The Associated Press at the time. “This (league) has been a dream of the Real Madrid president. ... He has worked for this for a long time, this is nothing new. But it is a big mistake because he doesn’t understand its financial consequences.”

Pérez said Tuesday that when he talked to new Barcelona president Joan Laporta recently it was easy to convince him because he understood that the new league is something that can help soccer and the clubs.

More concrete plans for the new competition were first leaked in January and only re-emerged this weekend. The proposal of the new competition attracted widespread criticism, with leagues, clubs, players, governments and fan groups saying the rebel clubs were making a self-serving decision that would only benefit an elite group.

Pérez and Madrid were involved in a similarly controversial breakout in basketball nearly two decades ago, when the club was among those that broke ties with the international federation and became founding members of Euroleague Basketball, currently the top league in Europe.

“We want to do the same thing that happened in basketball,” Pérez said. “We want that same model in soccer. We want to own our destiny. But with total solidarity. If there is a lot of money, we want it to be shared with everyone. This is not about the rich against the poor."

Pérez also was believed to help influence the inclusion of Atlético Madrid among the founding members of the new soccer competition. According to Spanish media outlet Vozpópuli, Atlético was added in part because of the support of Pérez, who helped convince the other members about its importance.

Pérez, a businessman from the construction sector who Forbes says has a net worth of more than $2 billion, last week began his sixth term as Madrid president. He helped the club recover from its own financial problems when he first arrived in 2000, leading Madrid to 26 titles, including five European Cups and five Club World Cups.

Now he feels it’s soccer in general that needs his help.

“We want," Pérez said, "to save soccer, really.”

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