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Policing the (in)dependence of National Federations through the prism of the FIFA Statutes. By Tine Misic

…and everything under the sun is in tune,

but the sun is eclipsed by the moon…[1] 


The issue

Ruffling a few feathers, on 30 May 2015 the FIFA Executive Committee rather unsurprisingly, considering the previous warnings,[2] adopted a decision to suspend with immediate effect the Indonesian Football Federation (PSSI) until such time as PSSI is able to comply with its obligations under Articles 13 and 17 of the FIFA Statutes.[3] Stripping PSSI of its membership rights, the decision results in a prohibition of all Indonesian teams (national or club) from having any international sporting contact. In other words, the decision precludes all Indonesian teams from participating in any competition organised by either FIFA or the Asian Football Confederation (AFC). In addition, the suspension of rights also precludes all PSSI members and officials from benefits of any FIFA or AFC development programme, course or training during the term of suspension. This decision coincides with a very recent award by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) in this ambit, which shall be discussed further below.[4]

The former decision, substantiated upon the alleged governmental infringement of the independence of PSSI, is the latest in a line of similar decisions adopted by FIFA in recent years. It succeeds inter alia the suspension of the Nigerian Football Federation and subsequent non-recognition of its General Assembly decisions,[5] and the suspensions of the Cameroonian Football Association[6], the Football Federation of Belize,[7] the Kenya Football Federation,[8] and the Islamic Republic of Iran Football Federation.[9]

The common denominator of all these decisions is the alleged impediment of third parties, usually governments or their related bodies, in the affairs of national football associations. In the Indonesian case, the trigger was the imposition of additional licensing criteria for football clubs by BOPI, an agency of the Indonesian Ministry of Youth and Sports, which resulted in two clubs (Arema and Persebaya) being precluded from competing in the Indonesian Super League (ISL) and subsequent measures adopted by the ministry aimed at relieving PSSI of all of its responsibilities.[10] While in the Nigerian case, an initial High Court injunction prevented the elected Executive Committee from taking office, and a later intervention from the Nigerian Department of State Security Service (SSS), resulted in the suspension of the Nigerian Football Federation[11] and subsequently in the non-recognition of its General Assembly decisions,[12] the other cited cases include violations in the form of, among others, “blatant government interference”,[13] non-provision of security services from government forces,[14] and violation of the independence of the decision-making process of the national football governing body.[15] 


Grounds for intervention by FIFA

The normative basis for the aforementioned interventions lies primarily within Articles 13, 14 and 17 of the FIFA Statutes.[16] The Members’ obligation of an independent management of their affairs is embedded in Article 13(1)(i), which states that: ”Members have the following obligations... to manage their affairs independently and ensure that their own affairs are not influenced by any third parties...” Strengthening that notion, Article 17(1) provides that: “Each Member shall manage its affairs independently and with no influence from third parties.” Furthermore, the second paragraph of Article 17 explicitly points out that all the bodies need to be elected or appointed within each respective Member, which prima facie appears even more stringent than Article 7 bis of the UEFA Statutes, that constitutes:”...their executive body is freely elected and that their other bodies are elected or appointed in a completely independent way.”[17]

Enjoying full discretion that stems from its Statutes, FIFA acts upon information received about the alleged violations, usually from the Members themselves. Prior to the adoption of a decision, a “prevention” phase takes place, during which FIFA, through means of correspondence with respective Members or/and third parties involved, addresses the alleged infringements and usually allows for a deference period for compliance with specific conditions. Members and/or third parties are warned that non-compliance may result in possible sanctions. Article 13(2) of the Statutes expressly provides that: “Violation of the above-mentioned obligations by any Member may lead to sanctions provided for in these Statutes.”

One of the most daunting repercussions FIFA may avail itself of is the suspension of a Member. In accordance with Article 14(1) of the Statutes, the primary responsibility for suspending a Member lies with the Congress. However, and as seen in the cases cited above, when violations are deemed to be so serious to require prompt attention, the Executive Committee or even the Emergency Committee may step in and adopt the relevant decision.[18] If not lifted beforehand, such a decision must be confirmed by a three-quarter majority at the next Congress, otherwise it is automatically lifted. A suspension leads to a loss of all membership rights, which effectively prevents other Members from entertaining any sporting contact with the suspended Member. Moreover, the suspension does not preclude the Disciplinary Committee from imposing further sanctions (e.g. fines, return of awards, deduction of points, etc.).[19]

Another measure for addressing an eventual non-compliance with the obligation of independent management of affairs is the non-recognition of wrongfully elected bodies or decisions passed by such bodies in accordance with Article 17(2) of the Statutes. In other words, FIFA has the authority not to recognize an election of a body of one of its Members, if such an election lacks uncompromised independence vis-à-vis third parties, as was the case with the Nigerian Football Federation.

Lastly, it is also worth mentioning that sanctions may be imposed regardless of the grounds and fault for interference of third parties since Article 13(3) of the Statutes, by going beyond the actual interference, provides that: “Violations of par. 1(i) may also lead to sanctions even if the third-party influence was not the fault of the Member concerned.” This basically means that FIFA shall not entertain explanations of third party interventions that may possibly even be justified under the provisions of national law. 


To comply, or not to comply – the CAS escape route

Since a suspension decision virtually ostracises and isolates a Member, a valid point to raise is, whether apart from yielding and fulfilling the imposed conditions, other means remain available to the disgraced Member to challenge such a decision. The same could be said for the situation pertaining to the non-recognition of elected bodies of particular Members.

In accordance with Article 66 of the Statutes any dispute arising between FIFA and its Members shall be resolved by CAS applying the relevant FIFA regulations and subsidiarily Swiss law. The exclusive jurisdiction of CAS is further strengthened in Article 67 of the Statutes which also outlines the procedural requirements for an appeal against a final decision passed by one of the FIFA bodies. Moreover, the Members explicitly agree not to avail themselves of recourse to ordinary courts of law, which significantly narrows their options down.[20]

Given that jurisprudence in named cases is relatively scarce, it is worth having a closer look at the above mentioned award rendered by CAS in the joined cases brought before it by the Nigerian Football Federation.[21] Notwithstanding the previous FIFA decision to suspend the appellant, which was later lifted, the form of relief sought with the appeal was the annulment of two decisions in the form of letters, addressed at the appellant by FIFA. Considering the Court’s conclusion, stemming from the relevant CAS jurisprudence,[22] to dismiss the appeal against the second letter because it did not constitute an appealable decision since it did not contain a ruling affecting the rights of the appellant, hence lacking the animus decidendi,[23] the onus of the award was on the first challenged letter.

In its preliminary remarks the Panel narrowed down the subjective and the objective scope of the review saying that it:”...may only assess de novo, putting itself in FIFA’s place, whether FIFA had sufficient factual and legal grounds, in terms of Article 17 of its Statutes, to adopt the decisions allegedly set forth in the letters challenged by the Appellant.[24] By abstaining from assessing the eventual legality of the third party infringement, and despite harbouring some doubts about the (non)compliance of the elections with the national law, it further stated that:”...this Panel may not assess the validity of the various NFF elections on the basis of the NFF rules or of Nigerian law, because such appraisal falls outside the scope of FIFA’s authority under Article 17 of its Statutes and, thus, falls outside of the Panel’s scope of review.[25]

By observing that none of the parties challenged the Court’s jurisdiction, applying the FIFA regulations and additionally Swiss law pursuant to Article R58 of the CAS Code, and by dismissing the Respondent’s arguments pertaining to the admissibility and the Appellant’s active standing, the Panel addressed the legitimacy of FIFA’s non-recognition of the elections pursuant to Article 17 of the Statutes in the merits of the award.[26]

As per the legal grounds of the decision, the Panel stressed that: “The purpose of Article 17 is to grant FIFA the power to not recognize an election where the member association’s electoral process does not guarantee the complete independence of the election.[27] It went further saying: “...the Panel is of the view that the requirement of “complete independence” found in para. 2 must be understood in the light of para. 1 of Article 17, forbidding “influence from third parties”. Accordingly, an electoral process does not guarantee such complete independence where the election is not managed in a totally independent manner and, in particular, where it is influenced by third parties of any kind (e.g. government officials or bodies).[28]

Having established FIFA’s authority, the Panel subsequently assessed the relevant evidence submitted by the parties. After determining the relevant factual circumstances, the Panel noted that the intervention from the State Security Services (SSS) influenced the unfolding of the election and consequently of the General Assembly itself, constituting a manifest insufficiency of the independence of the election from the influence of third parties pursuant to Article 17 of the Statutes.[29] The appeal was thus duly dismissed on merits as well.

By dismissing the appeal, and in spite of recognizing the connection of the dispute with “a longstanding struggle occurring in Nigerian football between different personalities and factions fighting for leadership within the NFF”,[30] the Court, by setting a precedent to a certain extent, distanced itself from assessing the compliance of the interference with national law, hence virtually affirming FIFA’s discretion in the evaluation of the circumstances leading to its intervention, which appears to leave an eventual appeal by the Indonesian Football Federation with very slim chances of success. 


Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?[31]

When it comes to independence and third party influence issue, the Members are subject to instant scrutiny from FIFA and are swiftly held accountable, even when they hold no responsibility for a third party intervention, as may be seen in the above cited cases. The same cannot be said when the situation is reversed. FIFA is often not submitted to the same levels of accountability checks as those who are affected by its decisions.[32]

While in some instances FIFA’s prompt intervention appears well-grounded, since interference from a third party is manifestly ill-founded, as may be seen in the case of the Nigerian Football Federation (interventions from State Security Forces and unidentified armed individuals seem to go way beyond the borders of necessity, and can hence hardly be justified), other cases, namely the latest suspension of the PSSI, show that FIFA may have been slightly too quick when pulling the trigger. All the more so, given the circumstantial background of the case (e.g. pressing issues related inter alia to financial, tax and ownership issues of the clubs participating in national leagues which the PSSI, despite previous warnings, was unable or unwilling to cope with, and which in some extreme cases resulted in players losing their lives due to lack of medical care owed to arrears of health care contributions by the clubs), and the government’s intervention could arguably to a certain extent be seen as necessary.[33]

However, as seen above, under the existing rules FIFA is not inclined to look beyond the mere interference of third parties and verify whether such actions might be justified, thus possibly breaching the principle of proportionality which is recognized as a general principle by CAS.[34] Since such discretion seems to have been condoned by the latest CAS decision,[35] one may wonder whether there is actually any room for a more thorough and systematic factual assessment of the background of such interferences in the light of a possible justification, which inevitably raises questions of the eventual (over)restrictive nature of the relevant Statutes provisions themselves. Furthermore, the fact that any government intervention, regardless of the eventual acceptability and consideration of local specificities of each respective Member, is to be seen as a punishable infringement, puts the issue within the frame of the perpetual conundrum of the legitimate boundaries of the lex sportiva.

Since FIFA is virtually accountable to no-one from the hierarchical point of view, and given that governments, with the exception of the Swiss government, have no supervisory powers over it (some would argue that FIFA may itself be seen as a government),[36] the only plausible route for the assessment of the proportionality of the Statutes would seem to be through the legal accountability channel, using EU law, especially its provisions on competition and internal market.[37] In fact, given the precedents (e.g. Charleroi)[38] and the recent legal challenge of FIFA’s decision to ban Third-Party Ownership,[39] these rules appear to have become an increasingly important tool to hold the organization accountable, regardless of the latest developments regarding the prosecution of its officials.[40] A further analysis as to whether such a route remains available to potential appellants from outside of the European Union would, however, go beyond the scope of this paper. 


Conclusion

As presented throughout this brief overview, FIFA has seemingly developed a zero-tolerance policy for any governmental interference regarding the affairs of its Members, thus arguably safeguarding their independence. It has consistently availed itself of one of the most stringent corrective measures for alleged violations envisaged by its Statutes, suspending the non-compliant Members, hence often provoking strong emotional response within the pertinent countries.[41] Whereby such sanctions might be deemed necessary in certain cases, non-consideration of factual background and eventual justifications in others has led to accusations of double standards,[42] and raised questions of proportionality of the relevant Statutes provisions and the borders of the rules governing “purely sporting issues”.

The outcome of the deadlock in the latest case of PSSI remains to be seen, with the government’s intention to thoroughly reform the Indonesian football suggesting that a swift solution might not quite lie around the corner.[43] Given that compliance with the imposed conditions appears to be the route that will be taken in this case, and as long as provisions of the Statutes are not submitted to scrutiny of a competent judicial body, arguably in the form of the European Court of Justice, any future third party interferences shall most likely continue to be dealt with strictly by FIFA and the non-compliant Members will keep finding themselves “on the dark side of the moon”.[44]



[1] Pink Floyd, Eclipse (Dark Side of the Moon, EMI, 1973).

[2] Letter of FIFA to the Republic of Indonesia Minister of Youth and Sports, written in Zurich and sent on 10 April 2015.

[3] Decision of the FIFA Executive Committee: Suspension of the Indonesian Football Federation (PSSI), adopted in Zurich on 30 May 2015.

[4] Joined cases CAS 2014/A/3744 and CAS 2014/A/3766 Nigerian Football Federation v. FIFA, award of 18 May 2015.

[5] Decision of the FIFA Emergency Committee: Suspension of the Nigerian Football Federation (NFF), adopted in Zurich on 9 July 2014.

[6] Decision of the FIFA Emergency Committee: Suspension of the Cameroonian Football Association, adopted in Zurich on 4 July 2013 (FIFA Circular no. 1367, Zurich, 4 July 2013).

[7] Decision of the FIFA Emergency Committee: Suspension of the Football Federation of Belize, adopted in Zurich on 17 June 2011.

[8] Decision of the FIFA Emergency Committee: Suspension of the Kenya Football Federation, adopted in Zurich on 2 June 2004.

[9] Decision of the FIFA Emergency Committee: Suspension of the Islamic Republic of Iran Football Federation (IRIFF), adopted in Zurich on 23 November 2006.

[10] FIFA Decision of 30 May 2015, cited supra note 3.

[11] FIFA Decision of 9 July 2014, cited supra note 5.

[12] Letter of FIFA to Nigerian Football Federation (NFF), written in Zurich and sent on 29 August 2014.

[13] FIFA Decision of 2 June 2004, cited supra note 8.

[14] FIFA Decision of 17 June 2011, cited supra note 7.

[15] FIFA Decision of 23 November 2006, cited supra note 9.

[16] FIFA Statutes (Regulations Governing the Application of the Statutes, Standing Orders of the Congress), adopted in São Paulo on 11 June 2014.

[17] UEFA Statutes (Rules of Procedure of the UEFA, Congress Regulations governing the Implementation of the UEFA Statutes), adopted in Astana on 24 March 2014.

[18] FIFA Statutes, cited supra note 16, Art. 33.

[19] Ibid., Arts. 63, 65.

[20] Ibid., Art. 68.

[21] Nigerian Football Federation v. FIFA, cited supra note 4.

[22] Case CAS 2005/A/899 FC Aris Thessaloniki v. FIFA & New Panionios N.F.C., award of 15 July 2005, para. 12; Case CAS 2004/A/659 Galatasaray SK v. Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) & Club Regatas Vasco da Gama & F. J., award of 17 March 2005, paras. 23-25.

[23] Nigerian Football Federation v. FIFA, cited supra note 4, paras. 192,196.

[24] Ibid., para. 160.

[25] Ibid., para 160.

[26] Ibid., paras. 160-182.

[27] Ibid., para. 200.

[28] Ibid., para. 200.

[29] Ibid., paras. 203-211.

[30] Ibid., para. 213.

[31]Who guards the guardians?” (translation mine); Juvenal, Satires, (Book II, Satire VI, 1st and early 2nd centuries AD), lines 347–8.

[32] R. Pielke Jr., How can FIFA be held accountable? (Sport Management Review, Issue 16, 2013), pp. 258.

[33] FIFPro, Death of Mendieta must be the turning point for Indonesia, http://www.fifpro.org/en/news/death-of-mendieta-must-be-turning-point-for-indonesia (last visited 28 June 2015).

[34] See inter alia Cases CAS Arbitration CAS 2005/A/830 S. v. FINA, award of 15 July 2005, CAS 2009/A/2012 Doping Authority Netherlands v. N., award of 11 June 2010, CAS 2012/A/2740 Marcelo Carracedo v. Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), award of 18 April 2013.

[35] Nigerian Football Fedration v. FIFA, cited supra note 4.

[36]S. Bradley, FIFA reforms face resistance – and huge support (swissinfo.ch, 5 December 2012), http://www.swissinfo.ch/eng/football-scandals_fifa-reforms-face-resistance---and-huge-support/34067104 (last visited 28 June 2015).

[37] R. Pielke, cited supra note 32, pp. 259-262.

[38] Case A/05/03843, SA Sporting du Pays de Charleroi ao v FIFA, Tribunal de Commerce de Charleroi, 15 May 2006 (Case was referred to the European Court of Justice, but did not reach a judgment since the parties reached a settlement out of court),

[39] A. Duff, Portugal, Spain Said to Complain to EU on Soccer Finance Rules (BloombergBusiness, 4 February 2015), http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2015-02-04/portugal-spain-said-to-complain-to-eu-on-soccer-finance-ban (last visited 28 June 2015).

[40] BBC News, Fifa corruption inquiries: Officials arrested in Zurich (bbc.com, 27 May 2015), http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-32895048 (last visited 28 June 2015).

[41] ESPN, Iranian Federation suspended by FIFA (espn.com, 23 November 2006), http://www.espnfc.com/story/393454/iranian-federation-suspended-by-fifa (last visited 28 June 2015).

[42] M. Zandi, Is FIFA's Decision in the Best Interest of Football (Association Internationale De La Presse Sportive),http://www.aipsmedia.com/index.php?cod=551&page=news&tp=n#.VZAhwRuqqko (last visited 28 June 2015).

[43] Reuters, Indonesia government takes responsibility for ban (uk.reuters.com, 31 May 2015), http://uk.reuters.com/article/2015/05/31/uk-soccer-fifa-indonesia-idUKKBN0OG03920150531 (last visited 28 June 2015).

[44] Pink Floyd, Brain Damage (Dark Side of the Moon, EMI, 1973).

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