Asser International Sports Law Blog

Our International Sports Law Diary
The Asser International Sports Law Centre is part of the T.M.C. Asser Instituut

FIFA’s provision on the protection of minors - Part 3: The compatibility of Article 19 with EU law. By Kester Mekenkamp.

Editor’s note: Kester Mekenkamp is an LL.M. student in European Law at Leiden University and an intern at the ASSER International Sports Law Centre. This blog is, to a great extent, an excerpt of his forthcoming thesis, which he shall submit in order to complete his master’s degree.

This final blog aims to provide some broader perspective, by sketching first the grander scheme in which Article 19 RSTP – FIFA's provision on the protection of minors – operates. Thereafter, the focus will shift towards testing Article 19 RSTP, thereby keeping in mind the previous blogs (Part 1: The Early Years and Part 2: The 2009 reform and its aftermath), against EU free movement law.  

Putting Article 19 RSTP into perspective: The bigger picture

After having investigated the nuts and bolts of FIFA’s provision on the protection of minors in the first two parts of this blog, it might be useful to address its bigger picture.

Article 19 RSTP and its accompanying provisions regulate only a small share of the targeted activity. There is, unfortunately, also an illegal world. Circumvention of the prohibition is allegedly commonplace.[1] Visas and passports can be falsified.[2] Work permits can be obtained on the basis of jobs arranged by clubs.[3]

In any event, a larger dynamic constituted out of a multitude of intertwined forces is at play. Globalization and professionalization are important factors contributing to stardom in football. Football idols, especially those originating from non-European countries, like Messi, Neymar, Suarez, Drogba and Eto’o, symbolised a world of opportunity for millions of children in the developing world eager to follow that same path to global fame.[4] In many parts of South America and Central and West-Africa, where families are driven by the impetus to improve their daily lives and clubs eager to cash FIFA’s training compensation money, an entire training industry emerged with the sole objective of exporting young talents to European clubs.[5] A horrifying example of the (ultimate) consequences this process can generate was seen in 2007: A fishing trawler washed up on a Tenerife beach carrying 130 young African men, of which 15 were made to believe that they would attend trials at Olympique Marseille and Real Madrid.[6] Add to the mix a group of agents focused almost exclusively on harvesting young boys for the international football market, and one can easily understand the extreme difficulty faced by FIFA to rein these practices.[7]

It is evident that the case of minors wanting to transfer internationally is closely related to a broader set of socio-economic difficulties faced by an extremely unequal world. Wars, famine, drought, corruption and the severe economic disparity[8] between the developing and developed world are determinants that can simply not be ignored. National laws applicable to asylum, migration and trade are also part of the equation. The subject of this blog hence opens up a doorway to global complexity. A true protection of minors will therefore undoubtedly require a broader approach than solely measures concerning the world of football. Yet, FIFA’s article 19 could potentially contribute to improving the fate of some minors in the developing world. The question is, does it in practice?  

Arguments supporting the prohibition of international transfers of minors

Former FIFA and UEFA presidents, Blatter, Platini, and Johansson, have all promoted an absolute forbiddance of international transfers of minors.[9] Although such a total ban was never introduced, the 2001 “Commission-condoned” FIFA transfer rules for the first time included a section dedicated to the enhancement of the protection of minors.[10] An accompanying FIFA circular stipulated that the new transfer rules imposed strict conditions “in order to provide a stable environment for the training and education of players”.[11] Moreover, it stated that the abuses, which were frequent in the past, had to be curbed. [12] Crucial in this is “protecting the appropriate and stable development of a minor as a whole”, which includes the training and education of these players.[13]

Another argument supporting Article 19 is its objective to tackle human trafficking. By strictly limiting the possibility for international transfers of minors, it takes the wind out of the traffickers’ sails. The significance of this aim was acknowledged by the European Parliament and the Commission.[14]

The thought behind the prohibition, being open to exception only in specific cases, is that minors are vulnerable, especially when moving to foreign countries. It tries to prevent football from breaking up families and “allows [minor football players] to remain within their country of origin and family networks for longer and hence reduces the psychological and cultural problems associated with adjusting to foreign climes”.[15] FIFA hereby acknowledges that “[w]hile international transfers might, in specific cases, be favourable to a young player’s sporting career, they are likely to be contrary to the best interests of the vast majority of players as minors”.[16] Poli came to a similar conclusion (concerning migration of football players in general) by stating that “the few examples of upward career paths mask the many cases of failure and are sufficient to convince young people and their families that it is worth giving oneself body and soul to football, often to the detriment of school training or an apprenticeship”.[17] 

Arguments against the prohibition of international transfers of minors

There is an opposite narrative that calls Article 19 RSTP’s rationale partially into question.[18] It can be argued that for certain countries (keeping in mind the abovementioned), with respect to the aim of protecting young football players against potential abuse and exploitation through the appropriate and stable development in training and education, minors are in reality not served by staying in their home State.[19] Furthermore, it can be contended that migration by young football players from a developing country to a developed one can be a “viable livelihood strategy to lift an individual and therefore vicariously their family out of poverty”.[20] Paradoxically a measure “with the aim of protecting minors … may, in fact, reduce opportunities for youth living in developing countries”.[21] Moreover, one must beware of an ethnocentric judgement. The argument has been raised that even in cases where third world immigrants had failed with respect to their sporting careers, they considered themselves to have succeeded, “thanks to football”, since they could come to Europe and stay.[22] It becomes a positive “escape”, which stands in contradiction with the whole idea underlying Article 19 RSTP.[23] As we will see in the coming sections, this discussion is key to the evaluation of the compatibility of FIFA’s rule with EU law. 

The Compatibility of Article 19 RSTP with EU free movement law


For the purpose of this blog it is assumed that EU free movement law is applicable to Article 19 RSTP in relation to minor football players with an EU nationality. EU minors below the age of 16 might be able to rely on the EU citizenship rights and the free movement right of their parents. Furthermore, it can be reasonably argued that, by referring to inter alia Lawrie Blum[24], EU minor football players of 16 and above can be deemed workers in the sense of the free movement of workers. 

Free movement law aspects

A few aspects that could be deemed restrictive of EU Free movement rights deserve some attention. These are separated into situations concerning either the rights of the minor football player itself, or the rights of their parents.

Article 19(2)(b), the “EU and EEA-rule”, is explicitly created in order for the provision as a whole to meet the requirements of EU free movement law.[25] Yet, the free movement of minors is restricted by the fact that they can only transfer to a club within another Member State once additional criteria concerning football training, education and living arrangements are complied with.[26] These extra criteria, intrinsically, make it harder for minor football players to move to a foreign club. Furthermore, EU minors below the age of 16 are unable to rely on this exception. As already mentioned at the beginning of the blog, this particular age group is unlikely to perform economic services against remuneration in the sense of a “worker” under Article 45 TFEU. Nonetheless, one could envisage that under-16 EU minors could be able to rely on their citizenship rights enshrined in Article 21 TFEU (together with Art. 34(2) of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights) as non-economically active EU migrants.

Moreover, under-16 EU minors might be able to rely on the free movement rights of their parents. In short, the reason why an EU national decides to move to another Member State and take up work there is irrelevant under EU free movement law. To the contrary, Article 19 RSTP puts an emphasis on the underlying reason, as the “parents-rule” of Article 19(2)(a) RSTP can only be invoked where the player’s parents move to the country in which the new club is located “for reasons not linked to football”. The CAS has hereby clarified that the family’s move must be entirely disconnected from the transfer of the minor in a new football club. Under the FIFA rule, it is for example insufficient to establish that the move is partially connected to their child’s football activities, although not being the primary aim.[27] Hence, if (a) parent(s) would want to move to another Member State to take up work there for the, sole or partial, reason that their child can play for a club in that country, Article 19 RSTP will deter them from doing so. As such, the contested rule may thus amount to a provision that precludes or deters the parents from leaving their country of origin in order to exercise their right to free movement as workers. 

Is Article 19 RSTP a proportionate measure under EU law?

The previous sections demonstrated that there is some room to argue that Article 19 RSTP could run counter EU Internal Market law, which could form a basis for future challenge to the provision. Regardless of whether this will ultimately be the case, the provision might benefit from some amendments. It goes without saying that the aim is on its face value laudable. Protecting minors against abuses connected to the transfer market must remain a priority. The manner in which this objective has been given practical effect has not been without criticism.

By encouraging minor football players to remain in their home country, the measure is certainly likely to contribute to them enjoying an appropriate and stable development in training and education. Furthermore, by introducing a strict regulatory regime, it lessens the chance of human traffickers using international football transfers as a cover for trafficking purposes. Therefore, it can be argued that the measure is suitable to attain its aim of protecting minors.

It then still has to be assessed whether it passes the test of necessity. As concluded at the time of its inception, an absolute ban on international transfers of minors was deemed too pervasive. The exceptions assured the overall appropriateness and reasonableness of the measure. This test raises in particular the question of existence of less intrusive alternatives. I would argue that there is indeed a less intrusive alternative to the current rule available. It involves a slight amendment of the “parents-rule” and would still attain the aim underlying the overall provision. This is achieved by firstly, omitting the requirement for the parents’ move “not to be linked to football”, and secondly, extending the mandatory obligations of clubs regarding the education and wellbeing of foreign minors, laid down in Article 19(2)(b), to the “parents-rule”. 

Proposed amendment to the “parents-rule”

Article 19(2)(a) RSTP, the “parents-rule”, has shown to be controversial. It has, to give but an example, been stated that this exemption has “effectively made the [entire] rule worthless”. [28] As discussed in the previous blogs, the case law is marred with disputes arising with respect to this exception, wherein the judicial bodies have advocated a strict application of the rule. In brief, the minor must follow its parents and not vice versa. Yet, circumvention of the rule appears to be quite simple.[29] Without implying that this is a sufficient reason for changing the measure, it nevertheless does show that its current form is rather impractical (or hypocritical).

It can be reasonably argued that permitting an international transfer only if the parents move based on “reasons not linked to football” is too stern. There are examples of outcomes being adverse to the interests of the minors concerned, for instance the Acuña case.[30] Even stronger is the appeal by families who have decided to move together to another country in order for the children to pursue their dream of becoming a professional footballer.[31] In the words of the father of a 15-year-old player who was denied to play for FC Barcelona (after they, as a family, had moved from the US to Spain with that particular aim): “Why should FIFA be able to tell our family where it has to live if we want our kid to play [football]?”[32] Indeed, why should families not be able to move out of their own accord, provided that they meet the general criteria for residence within the new country? If for instance a family has enough financial resources to not become a burden on the social welfare systems or both parents find employment within the new country, they obtain the required residence permits, and as a result their child can play for the club of his choosing, it is hard to argue that this is contradictory to the aim of Article 19 RSTP. The CAS has been receptive to this type of arguments in the previously discussed case concerning Atlético Madrid, in which a minor (USA) was allowed to register with the club amongst others because his family was wealthy and its basic financial maintenance was not dependent on the parents’ work.[33] One could rightly contend that less affluent families should equally have the possibility to move together with their child to the country of a new club. Such a move, in particularly when considering a transfer from a club in a developing country to a European club, could be in line with the aim of Article 19 RSTP. Furthermore, the comparison with other sports, i.e. volleyball, hockey, tennis, rugby and athletics, shows that in those sports minors are not explicitly prohibited from moving, together with their parents, to another country in pursuit of their sporting dream.[34] The same can be said, when the children pursue a career in music or dance and the family moves to the place where he or she can learn from the best mentors.

It is no coincidence that the “parents-rule” is the most debated exception of Article 19 RSTP. One can easily agree that it is beneficial (in a vast majority of cases) for minors to keep living with their parents as it enhances their chances of having a stable development. However, does this also have to entail in which country that might be? This author does not believe so and would favour a situation where parents are allowed to move together with their child to another country, whether that is for reasons linked to football or not.

It can be tentatively pleaded that this can be realized, while still reaching the aims of Article 19 RSTP. As abovementioned, this can be achieved by, firstly, omitting the requirement for the parents’ move “not to be linked to football”, and secondly, by extending the mandatory obligations of clubs regarding the education and wellbeing of foreign minors as laid down in the “EU and EEA-rule” (Article 19(2)(b) RSTP), to the “parents-rule”. This alternative measure would warrant the objective of “appropriate and stable development in training and education”, given that the minor and his parents remain a united family and the clubs are additionally made responsible for ensuring that their sporting and academic education is guaranteed. To also attain the anti-human-trafficking aim, this proposed alternative should be safeguarded from abuse by way of legal guardianship (e.g. situations where human traffickers are able to obtain the status of legal guardian of a minor). Therefore the meaning of parents, within the reading of this exception, should constitute solely the biological parents at first. Perhaps it is possible for the PSC subcommittee to devise a suitable test, based on the minor’s best interest, for judging whether anyone other than the biological parents could equally be deemed eligible under this exception.

In an attempt to contribute to the debate on the protection of minors in football, this blog has proposed a modest reform of Article 19 RSTP. It is believed that such a change would tackle some of the problems withnessed in the past years, without loosing sight of the objectives of FIFA's provision on the protection of minors in football.  

[1] J. Señík and T. Gábris, Minors in Sport. Position Paper on Legal Aspects of Minors in Sports in the Slovak Republic, (2010) International Sports Law Journal, p. 69.

[2] Ed Hawkins, The Lost Boys. Inside Football’s Slave Trade. Bloomsbury (2015), inter alia pp. 135, 162 and 229.

[3] S. Van den Bogaert, Practical Regulation of the Mobility of Sportsmen in the EU post Bosman, Kluwer (2005), p. 240; Supra at 2, p. 165.

[4] Supra at 2, pp. 115-116.

[5] J. Schokkaert, Football clubs’ recruitment strategies and international player migration: evidence from Senegal and South Africa, 17 Soccer & Society (2016), p. 121; The Guardian, “The scandal of Africa's trafficked players”, 6 January 2008,; Supra at 2, pp. 117-129.

[6] The Telegraph, “The dark side of football transfers”, 31 December 2014; Supra at 2, p. 132.

[7] R. Poli, African migrants in Asian and European football: hopes and realities, 13 Sport in Society (2010), p. 1008. For more on player’s agents, see A. Duval and K. Mekenkamp, “De- or Re-regulating the middlemen? The DFB’s regulation of intermediaries under EU law scrutiny at the OLG Frankfurt”, Asser International Sports Law Blog.

[8] J. Schokaert showed, supra at 5, p. 132, in comparison, that an economically higher developed country, such as South Africa as opposed to Senegal, which attracts more money to domestic football and higher wages for football players, resulting in more players to stay in their home country. 

[9] Supra at 1, p. 68.

[10] Art. 12 FIFA RSTP 2001.

[11] FIFA Circular no. 769, 24 August 2001.

[12] N. St. Cyr Clarke, The beauty and the beast: Taming the ugly side of the people’s game, 2011 Columbia Journal of European Law, p. 627.

[13] See Blog 1; Commentary on the Status and Transfer of Players, p. 58.

[14] European Parliament, Report on the future of professional football in Europe (2006/2130(INI)), paras. 33-34; The White Paper on Sport, COM(2007) 391 final, p. 16.

[15] P. Darby, “Out of Africa: The exodus of elite African football talent to Europe”, JLS 2007, p. 453.

[16] FIFA, September 2016, “FAQ Protection of Minors”, 

[17] Supra at 7, p. 1008.

[18] J. Esson, Better Off at Home? Rethinking Responses to Trafficked West African Footballers in Europe, Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 2015, pp. 526-527.

[19] M. LoPiccolo, You don't have to go home, but you can't stay here: Problems arising when SIJS meets international adoption, Wisconsin International Law Journal 2015, pp. 200-201.

[20] Supra at 18, p. 521.

[21] M. Mauro, Inclusive sport or institutional discrimination? New FIFA regulations, organized football and migrant youth in Italy, Sport in Society 2016, p. 2.

[22] R. Poli, African migrants in Asian and European football: hopes and realities, 13 Sport in Society (2010), p. 1009.

[23] P. Darby and E. Solberg, Differing Trajectories: Football Development and Patterns of Player Migration in South Africa and Ghana, 11 Soccer and Society (2009), pp. 118–130.

[24] Case 66/85, Lawrie Blum v Land Baden-Württemberg, [1986] ECR 2135, para. 17: the crucial elements are that, for a certain period of time, a person performs services for and under the direction of another person in return for which he receives remuneration.

[25] See blog 1.

[26] Art. 19(2)(b) RSTP: Hereby, it is important to indicate that the CAS in Vada II (TAS 2012/A/2862) has established a workable account for the particular case of players with the nationality of a EU or EEA Member State residing in a non-EU/EEA country, by allowing them to invoke this exception.

[27] TAS 2011/A/2494, FC Girondins de Bordeaux c. Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), sentence du 22 décembre 2011 (Vada I), paras. 31-38; CAS 2013/A/3140, A. v. Club Atlético de Madrid SAD & Real Federación Española de Fútbol (RFEF) & Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), award of 10 October 2013 (A. v. Club Atlético de Madrid), para. 8.25.

[28] Supra at 2, p. 246.

[29] KEA, CDES and EOSE, Study on Sports Agents in the Eurropean Union, November 2009, p. 128; Supra at 3, p. 240.

[30] See blog 2.

[31] The New York Times, “An American Boy Wonder in Barcelona”, 7 November 2013.

[32] The New York Times, “Strict Enforcement of FIFA Rules Sidelines Young Players Abroad”, 31 Augustus 2015.

[33] See blog 2; A. v. Club Atlético de Madrid, Supra at  28, para. 8.31.

[34] Supra at 30, pp. 127-129.

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Asser International Sports Law Blog | The EU State aid and sport saga: The Showdown

Asser International Sports Law Blog

Our International Sports Law Diary
The Asser International Sports Law Centre is part of the T.M.C. Asser Instituut

The EU State aid and sport saga: The Showdown

It’s been a long wait, but they’re finally here! On Monday, the European Commission released its decisions regarding State aid to seven Spanish professional football clubs (Real Madrid on two occasions) and five Dutch professional football clubs. The decisions mark the end of the formal investigations, which were opened in 2013. The Commission decided as follows: no State aid to PSV Eindhoven (1); compatible aid to the Dutch clubs FC Den Bosch, MVV Maastricht, NEC Nijmegen and Willem II (2); and incompatible aid granted to the Spanish football clubs Real Madrid, FC Barcelona, Valencia CF, Athletic Bilbao, Atlético Osasuna, Elche and Hércules (3). 

The recovery decisions in particular are truly historic. The rules on State aid have existed since the foundation of the European Economic Community in 1958, but it is the very first time that professional football clubs have been ordered to repay aid received from (local) public authorities.[1] In a way, these decisions complete a development set in motion with the Walrave and Koch ruling of 1974, where the CJEU held that professional sporting activity, and therefore also football, is subject to EU law. The landmark Bosman case of 1995 proved to be of great significance as regards free movement of (professional) athletes and the Meca-Medina case of 2006 settled that EU competition rules were equally applicable to the regulatory activity of sport. The fact that the first ever State aid recovery decision concerns major clubs like Real Madrid, FC Barcelona and Valencia, give the decisions extra bite. Therefore, this blog post will focus primarily on the negative/recovery decisions[2], their consequences and the legal remedies available to the parties involved.[3]

The launch of the formal investigations

The three Commission decisions to launch formal State aid investigations into alleged aid granted to Spanish professional football clubs were all made public on 18 December 2013. The first investigation concerned “possible privileges regarding corporate taxation of Real Madrid, FC Barcelona, Athletic Bilbao, and Atlético Osasuna. These four clubs are exempted from the general obligation for professional football clubs to convert into sport limited companies. The effect of this exemption is that these clubs enjoy a preferential corporate tax rate of 25% instead of 30% applicable to sport limited companies.” The second investigation involved Real Madrid specifically, and was opened after the Commission expressed its doubts over “a very advantageous real property swap with the City of Madrid. This swap was based on a re-evaluation of a plot of land at a value of €22.7 million, instead of its earlier supposed value in 1998 of €595 thousand”. The third investigation dealt with three clubs from the autonomous region of Valencia: Valencia CF, Elche FC and Hércules CF. In this case, the Commission decided to investigate State guarantees by the Valencia Institute of Finance for a bank loans of (1) €75 million to Valencia CF; (2) €14 million to Elche CF; and (3) €18 million to Hércules CF. The Real Madrid real property swap case and the Valencia CF case have previously been analyzed on this blog (here, here and here).[4]

Purely based on the decisions to open formal investigations, there was little doubt as to whether the criteria of Article 107(1) were fulfilled[5]: The football clubs in question received a selective economic advantage deriving from a measure taken by public authorities and which involved a transfer of State resources. This advantage has affected trade and threatens to distort the internal market. What remained unclear was whether the Member States could convince the Commission to declare the State aid compatible under Article 107(3)c) TFEU,[6] and, if not, how high the recovery would be. The complexity of the Real Madrid case in particular led to uncertainty as to whether a possible recovery decision would merely imply Real Madrid having to pay a lump sum to the city of Madrid, or whether one or more land transactions would have to be undone.[7]

Last but not least, it should be kept in mind that ordering recovery of State aid is a politically sensitive decision. Given that State aid investigations are always directed at the Member State (with limited room for interested party intervention, including the beneficiary), such proceedings are inherently political. Furthermore, from analyzing Commission speeches and policy documents, such as the recently published Report on Competition Policy 2015, one will reach the conclusion that actively enforcing EU competition law, including State aid law, in sport, is not a Commission priority. Any recovery decision in the professional sport sector, therefore, would need to serve as a blueprint for future cases: it should prevent other public authorities to grant State aid to professional sport clubs in contravention of State aid rules. 

The Commission’s press release ordering the State aid recovery

Though the press release does not provide all the facts, it includes many interesting elements. First of all, the privileges regarding corporate taxation of Real Madrid, FC Barcelona, Athletic Bilbao, and Atlético Osasuna were found to be incompatible State aid, and each club has to repay between €0 and €5 million depending on what the Spanish authorities determine in the recovery process. The press release further states that Spain adjusted its legislation on corporate taxation to end this discriminatory treatment. This last point is especially important, because it demonstrates that the “bite” of State aid could exceed a mere recovery order. Simply opening a formal investigation into this issue has made the Spanish authorities reconsider its corporate taxation and adjust it accordingly to prevent future State aid being granted. Moreover, tackling unfair corporate tax advantages has been a priority for the Commission for the last few years.[8]

As regards Real Madrid’s advantageous real property swap with the City of Madrid, the Commission concluded that the football club was only entitled to a compensation of €4.3 million, so that Real Madrid obtained an advantage of €18.4 million. In other words, the city of Madrid needs to recover €18.4 million from Real Madrid. Although this calculation seems rather straightforward, it should be noted that the press release only refers to the re-valuation of one of the lands transferred. This means that only one land transaction was found to be incompatible with EU State aid rules, while all the land transactions remain valid.

In the third and final decision the Commission determined that Valencia, Hércules and Elche will need to repay €20.4 million, €6.1 million and €3.7 million respectively. The Commission acknowledged that the three clubs were in financial difficulties when the public institution Valencia Institute of Finance, placed a public guarantee on bank loans provided to the football clubs, but did not find this difficulties sufficiently severe to declare the aid compatible with the internal market.[9] The fact that the clubs paid no adequate remuneration for the guarantees, and that the State financing was not linked to any restructuring plan, made the Commission decide to order the recovery of that aid. The arguments brought forward by the Spanish authorities defending the State aid measure will not be known until the non-confidential version of the decision is published in a few months. What we do know is that at the time the formal investigation was launched in December 2013, the Spanish authorities had not communicated any restructuring or liquidation plan to the Commission, nor were any of the conditions met for authorizing restructuring aid under the Community Guidelines on State aid for rescuing and restructuring firms in difficulty, even though the three clubs were in severe financial difficulties.[10]  

The consequences of the negative and recovery decisions

It is important to make a distinction between negative decisions and recovery decisions.[11] They are, in fact, two separate decisions. As can be read in Articles 9(5) and 16(1) of the State Aid Procedural Regulations 2015/1589, the negative decision precedes the recovery decision. Under a negative decision, the Commission decides that the aid shall not be put into effect for not being compatible with the internal market. Any plans to grant future State aid under that measure will automatically be halted. The recovery decision can only be granted if the aid, or part of the aid, has been granted in the past, such as in the cases at hand.[12] The decision orders the Member State concerned to take all necessary measures to recover the aid from the beneficiary.[13] As can be read in the Commission’s Recovery Notice, the main objective of the recovery order is to re-establish the situation existing before the aid was unlawfully granted.[14] The recovery, which is subject to a limitation period of 10 years[15], “shall be effected without delay and in accordance with the procedures under the national law of the Member State concerned”.[16]  This means that it is up to Spain to decide on the procedure of how and when it recovers the aid, in accordance with its own national law.

Since the negative and recovery decisions are addressed to Spain, it may institute proceedings against the negative decision and/or the recovery decision, pursuant to Article 263 TFEU. The Spanish central government has not yet announced its position regarding the decisions or whether it plans to launch an appeal. The city of Madrid and the autonomous region of Valencia on the other hand, have both declared that they wish to recuperate the State aid granted to the respective football clubs.[17] Article 263 TFEU also allows any natural or legal person to challenge a Commission decision that is of direct and individual concern to them. In other words, now that for example Real Madrid is ordered to repay €18.4 million to Spain, it is directly affected by the recovery decision and has already publicly stated that it will initiate proceedings against the Commission.

The General Court shall have jurisdiction to hear and determine at first instance actions referred to in Article 263 TFEU. A decision by the General Court may be subject to a right of appeal to the Court of Justice.[18] Contrary to the General Court, the Court of Justice could decide, under Article 278 TFEU, that the recovery order should be suspended.   


The negative and recovery decisions could have consequences for the relationship between the Spanish State (particularly local governments) and professional football. The practices now condemned by the European Commission are known to have been taking place for decades. A recently published report by Transparency International, for example, discusses how Spanish football clubs, in collaboration with the local governments, would turn to urban speculation with the objective of making easy money. The report used an agreement between the city of Murcia and its local football club Real Murcia as an example. The Real Madrid case, which is also about urban speculation, is another example of this standardized practice in Spain. The fact that the Commission orders recovery of aid from the richest and most successful club in Spain, should send a message to the smaller clubs and cities that urban/ land agreements between clubs and public authorities are not unconditionally accepted.

In addition, the decisions will especially be tough for Valencia, Hércules and Elche, three clubs known to be in financial difficulties already. Valencia has already announced that it “reserves the right to appeal to the European Court of Justice”, but one wonders whether it is worth the risk, considering the legal fees attached to such an appeal. On the other hand, the public authorities will realize that granting State aid to professional football clubs can bounce back hard, if it is not granted pursuant an objective of general interest and in a transparent manner. Furthermore, rescue aid, such as in Valencia, cannot be granted without implementing a restructuring plan at the same time. A proper restructuring plan will help limit the possibility of the club returning to financial difficulties in the future. Finally, clubs too must be aware that they must live “within their own means” and that they cannot always depend on local public institutions to bail them out of there financial troubles.   

[1] For the discussion on why there was (and still is) so little State aid enforcement in the professional sport/football sector, see Ben Van Rompuy and Oskar van Maren, “EU Control of State Aid to Professional Sport: Why Now?” In: “The Legacy of Bosman. Revisiting the relationship between EU law and sport”, T.M.C. Asser Press, 2016.

[2] The distinction between a negative decision and a recovery decision will be explained further below.

[3] A specific blog post on the State aid decision concerning the Dutch football clubs will be made shortly.

[4] For an even more detailed (factual) analysis of the Real Madrid case, see: Oskar van Maren, “The Real Madrid case: A State aid case (un)like any other?” 11 Competition Law Review 1:83-108.

[5] Even though Real Madrid has always insisted the real property swap was not economically advantageous, since the value of the real property was calculated in accordance with market conditions. Supra note 4.

[6] Under this provision, State aid that facilitates the development of certain activities or of certain economic areas, where such aid does not adversely affects trading conditions to an extent contrary to the common interest, may be considered compatible with the internal market.

[7] It is a matter of discussion whether the Real Madrid case concerns only the land transaction of July 2011, or whether a second land transaction of November 2011 should be included in the same investigation. Supra, note 4.

[8] Report from the Commission COM(2016) 313 of 15 June 2016 to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of Regions – Report on Competition Policy 2015, pages 12-13.

[9] Contrary to the State aid granted to FC Den Bosch, MVV, Willem II and NEC, where the Commission determined that the aid was granted in line with the 2004 Guidelines on State aid for rescuing and restructuring firms in difficulty.

[10] Commission decision of 18 December 2013 SA.36387 – Alleged aid in favour of three Valencia football clubs, para.44.

[11] A third option, as stipulated in Article 9(3) of the State aid Procedural Regulation, is the positive decision. This is a decision where the Commission decides that the aid is compatible with the internal market. The decision allowing the aid to the Dutch clubs is an example of a positive decision. Challenging a positive decision under Article 263 TFEU is also possible for the Member State concerned, should it wish to do so.

[12] The aid is, for example, not granted yet when the Member State simply notifies the Commission of its plan grant State aid. Should the Commission declare the plan to grant State aid incompatible with the internal market, then there will be no need to order recovery as well.

[13] The Commission, however, can decide against a recovery order if it believes that such a recovery would be contrary to a principle of Union law. This gives the Commission the possibility to declare a State aid measure incompatible with EU law on the one hand, but not order recovery of that aid on the other.

[14] Notice from the Commission (2007/C 272/05) of 15 November 2007 Towards an effective implementation of Commission decisions ordering Member States to recover unlawful and incompatible State aid, point 2.2.

[15] Council Regulation (EU) 2015/1589 of 13 July 2015 laying down detailed rules fort the application of Article 108 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, Article 17(1).

[16] Ibid., Article 16(3).

[17] It is worth mentioning that at the time the State aid was granted, the Spanish Conservative Party, PP, was in power in Madrid as well as in the autonomous region of Valencia. These two local governments are nowadays formed by opposition parties. On the other hand, the PP is still the biggest political party at national level.

[18] Consolidated version of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union C 326/47 of 26 October 2010, Article 256(1).

Comments (13) -

  • loek Jorritsma

    7/7/2016 12:16:21 PM |

    As the complainant in the Dutch cases I was in discussion with the supporters of MVV on their website. April 2013 I informed them about the restructuring aid. When Maastricht would have chosen to ask the EC permission to restructure MVV the same way Arnhem did in the Vitesse situation, there would have been no problem at all. At that occasion I advised (via the supporters) Maastricht to answer the EC in their probe to handle in that way. The EC decided in that way. Very elegant solution. I expect these criteria will apply in the future in any case with star aid support in professional sport.

    • Oskar van Maren

      7/7/2016 12:42:46 PM |

      Dear Loek,
      You're absolutely right. Proper restructuring plans that are notified in advance to the Commission would probably avoid most potential State aid problems. Let's see whether this week's decisions trigger a change in local governments and sport clubs mentality regarding public funding in the sector.

  • loek Jorritsma

    7/7/2016 4:02:03 PM |

    Forgot to tell that mr. Almunia asked me, in reply on my email of 9 May 2010 CP 63/80, to inform him about my findings concerning Real Madrid and other football clubs in Europe and illegal state aid. Which I did from that moment on. Any suggestion he was delaying this process is therefore false. I know, because he (of course by his staff) was always in contact with me and willing to come to the best decision. That takes time.

  • Eindhoven

    7/8/2016 10:30:11 PM |

    It would be interesting to know whether Mr. Jorritsma now understands that his cooperation with Mr. Almunia and the
    baseless crusade against Dutch football has costed a lot of money and resources to the EU taxpayers at a time of crisis in which those resources where needed elsewhere.

    Five cases dismissed out of five and still trying to lecture us... If he or Mr. Almunia had just read the guidelines for restructuring companies before running amok.

    If the EU was a well functioning Institution, Mr. Jorritsma should be made responsible for the costs for the EU and for the clubs & municipalities (reputation, legal, etc.) that had been falsely accused.

    Mr. Jorritsma, will you please apologise to the EU taxpayer for your reckless behaviour?

  • loek Jorritsma

    7/11/2016 10:31:18 AM |

    On the contrary. Now it is clear that state aid is only allowed under very strict circumstances. Those of restructuring aid have to be met. And that includes a whole set of obligations to ensure the European (nut just the Dutch) taxpayers are no longer the safeguards of reckless politicians and club owners still paying overprivileged players too much money. The EC was very elegant towards the Dutch clubs to define their star aid afterwards as restructuring aid. The EC ' forgot'  to ask their track record on state aid in the past. If the EC would have done so, the decision would have been negative because those conditions would not be met. The cases were not dismissed, they were saved. The Spanish cases learn the European clubs and municipalities the limits. They all have to stick to that and all the accountants concerned now have to report about those finances they are whether or not in compliance with the rules. That is profit, proud to have made that contribution to the future tax payers.

  • loek Jorritsma

    7/11/2016 10:59:17 AM |

    By the way mr. Eindhoven. Interesting to see your post is anonymus, or is your real name Eindhoven? Your suggestion I have to pay the costs is only fair. As fair it would be to gain the profits. That will make me a rich man. See the penalties for the Spanish clubs. But your suggestion as also very unfair. It will make any whistleblower to a calculated naked-short-seller. Let us leave that to the casino-players. Those people who have put the whole of Europe in crisis.

  • Eindhoven

    7/11/2016 2:10:14 PM |

    Oh dear, no apologies, no remorse and more accusations against the EC and the municipalities/clubs involved.

    The Restructuring guidelines had been published already in 2004 and you should have read them carefully before wasting EU resources. It was clear to any one, apparently other than you, that these regulations existed and that these conditions had to be met (as it was the case in the Dutch cases).

    The EC was not "elegant", it has simply applied the existing rules correctly (those rules that you should have read a few years ago). If you believe that further restructuring aid had already been provided to the Dutch clubs and that the EC has failed to take this into consideration, you should simply, rather than critizising the EC, go ahead and inform them. They would surely welcome your evidence, if any. Until you do that, please stop bringing the EU institutions into disrepute by suggesting that "elegant" solutions have been adopted. You are accusing the EC of "forgetting" things just like unsuccessful footballers blame the referee for their own shortcomings. Could you please at least provide any example of any previous "aid" that has been "forgotten" by the EC in its "elegant" decisions?

    Please also stop bragging and be more modest, you have not rescued a single euro for any taxpayer. Your only contribution is five dismissed cases and as a result EU resources (funded by the taxpayer) have been unnecessarily wasted. Not to mention those of the municipalities that had been falsely accused.

    You say that the cases "learn" but it seems that you have not learned anything about your failures (five out of five). The result is zero recovery and huge costs in the form of wasted resources at EU, municipality and club level. You have created your own miniature crisis. Rather than accusing the EC without providing any evidence and continuing to damage the reputations of those clubs and municipalities, you should be apologising to the taxpayer. It is never too late.

  • loek Jorritsma

    7/11/2016 3:20:11 PM |

    There was no notification and there was no plan of restructuring the organization before state aid was given. That plan did not exist. In such a plan, and I quote:
    " 36. Het herstructureringsplan moet de omstandigheden beschrijven die tot de moeilijkheden van de onderneming hebben geleid, zodat kan worden nagegaan of de voorgestelde maatregelen passend zijn. Het houdt onder meer rekening met de actuele situatie en de verwachte ontwikkeling van vraag en aanbod op de relevante productmarkt, aan de hand van best-case-, worst-case- en neutrale scenario's, alsmede de specifieke sterke en zwakke punten van de onderneming. Het stelt de onderneming in staat de overgang te maken naar een nieuwe structuur die haar uitzicht biedt op levensvatbaarheid op lange termijn en haar in staat stelt op eigen benen te staan.
    37. Het herstructureringsplan moet zorgen voor een omslag waardoor de onderneming, nadat de herstructurering is voltooid, in staat is al haar kosten te dekken, met inbegrip van afschrijvingen en financiële lasten. Het verwachte rendement op eigen vermogen dient voldoende te zijn om de geherstructureerde onderneming in staat te stellen op eigen kracht op de markt te concurreren. Wanneer de moeilijkheden van de ondernemingen aan een gebrekkige corporate governance zijn te wijten, dienen de nodige aanpassingen te worden doorgevoerd."
    When such a plan does not exist you have to decide how to continu your probe.
    From the Vitesse case every organization could have learned.
    You seem to forget I put the word ' forget'  between brackets, that is on purpose.
    You seem also to forget there was no decision from the EC in professional football clubs at all. From now on these rules must be met at the beginning of delivering state aid, not at half time. And the probe was not only in the Netherlands. In your vocabulary, which I denounce, in Spain there was a 5 out of 5 win. And a lot of money (in my opinion not enough) regained for the tas payer. How about that? And that is for the whole of Europe.

  • loek Jorritsma

    7/11/2016 4:16:31 PM |

    M.i. kan het nu ook in het Nederlands.
    Wat betreft anonimiteit geen antwoord. Dan de vraag wat of er voorafgaand aan het besluit allemaal duidelijk moest zijn:
    " 72. Reddingssteun is een eenmalige operatie die in hoofdzaak is bedoeld om de exploitatie van een onderneming voort te zetten gedurende een beperkte periode waarin de toekomst van de onderneming kan worden geëvalueerd. Het dient echter niet mogelijk te zijn de herhaalde toekenning van reddingssteun maatregelen toe te staan waarmee enkel de status quo wordt bestendigd, het onvermijdelijke wordt uitgesteld en tegelijkertijd de economische en sociale problemen op andere, meer efficiënte producenten of op andere lidstaten worden afgewenteld. Daarom mag reddingssteun slechts eenmaal worden toegekend. In overeenstemming met ditzelfde beginsel mag ook herstructureringssteun slechts eenmaal worden toegekend, om te voorkomen dat ondernemingen die enkel dankzij herhaalde staatssteun kunnen overleven, ten onrechte steun ontvangen. Ten slotte mag, wanneer reddingssteun wordt toegekend aan een onderneming die al herstructureringssteun heeft ontvangen, worden aangenomen dat de moeilijkheden van de begunstigde onderneming een terugkerend probleem zijn en dat herhaalde overheidsmaatregelen aanleiding geven tot vervalsing van de mededinging waardoor het gemeenschappelijk belang wordt geschaad. Dergelijke herhaalde overheidsmaatregelen dienen niet te worden toegestaan.
    73. Wanneer een voornemen tot het verlenen van reddings- of herstructureringssteun bij de Commissie wordt aangemeld, moet de lidstaat aangeven of de betrokken onderneming in het verleden reeds reddings- of herstructureringssteun heeft ontvangen, met inbegrip van vóór de datum van toepassing van de onderhavige richtsnoeren verleende steun en van niet-aangemelde steun (1). Indien dit het geval is en wanneer minder dan tien jaar is verstreken sinds de toekenning van de reddingssteun, het aflopen van de herstructureringsperiode of de beëindiging van de tenuitvoerlegging van het herstructureringsplan (naargelang welke van deze gebeurtenissen het meest recent is), staat de Commissie geen verdere reddings- of herstructureringssteun toe, behalve in de volgende gevallen:
    a) wanneer herstructureringssteun volgt op de toekenning van reddingssteun als onderdeel van één enkele herstructureringsoperatie; of
    b) wanneer reddingssteun onder de voorwaarden van punt 3.1.1 werd toegekend en op deze steun geen door de Staat gesteunde herstructurering volgde, indien:
    i) redelijkerwijs mag worden aangenomen dat de onderneming na de toekenning van reddingssteun op de lange termijn levensvatbaar zal zijn, en
    ii) na ten minste vijf jaar nieuwe reddings- en herstructureringssteun noodzakelijk wordt wegens onvoorzienbare omstandigheden (2) die de onderneming niet zijn toe te rekenen, of
    c) in uitzonderlijke en onvoorzienbare omstandigheden die de onderneming niet zijn toe te rekenen.
    In de onder b) en c) bedoelde gevallen kan de vereenvoudigde procedure van punt 3.1.2 niet worden gebruikt."

    Vraag nu naar het track record van alle begunstigde clubs in de afgelopen 10 jaar, kijk ook naar de staatssteun die aan alle clubs is verleend in de afgelopen jaren en die kunnen worden geschaard onder deze noemer. Dan zal het duidelijk zijn dat voor alle clubs in ons land deze bepalingen vanaf nu gelden en dat de accountants die de Jaarrekeningen moeten goedkeuren hier van uit dienen te gaan.

  • Eindhoven

    7/11/2016 4:16:51 PM |

    This is incorrect since, as you know, there were plans for each of the clubs and the EC had already ruled a long time ago that professional sport clubs are undertakings for EU law purposes, including State aid whether any recovery decision had already been taken in that area or not. Please do not try to claim credit for reinventing the wheel.

    I insist that the end result of your actions is five out of five failures, huge amounts of public resources being wasted, reputational damage (with municipalities suing the EC and the EC backtracking after costly in-depth investigations), zero money recovered and a few interviews given by yourself.

    More importantly, accusing the Commission of "forgetting" (with or without brackets) relevant issues when adopting a decision is a very serious matter and you have failed to provide a single example of that previous aid. You should either provide some evidence or admit that, contrary to your accusation, the Commission did not "forget" anything.  If you can prove that the EC "forgot" any aspect (previous aid or anything else), I am of course very happy to admit that you were right but I seriously doubt it.

  • Eindhoven

    7/12/2016 5:14:27 PM |

    It seems that Mr. Jorritsma is very happy to copy and paste paragraphs of the Restructuring guidelines (if he had just read them a few years ago...) but has failed to provide a single example of the previous aid that, according to him, the EC "forgot" to consider in its Dutch decisions.

    What a complete waste of taxpayers' money and EU resources and now blaming the EC without providing a single example

    Just compare Mr. Jorritsma's five out of five DIY fiasco with the very efficient job performed by FC Bayern on the Spanish cases:

  • loek Jorritsma

    7/12/2016 5:48:30 PM |

    Dear mr. Eindhoven. I love copy paste. It will bring the audience the real texts. And I also like to do my homework. For example reading de Groene Amsterdammer about state aid in the last decade; it is huge. And I expect my opponents to do their homework to. And find out whether or not the Dutch clubs have received aid from their municipalities during the period I mentioned. And google my name and Real Madrid. See the news in Reuter form 2013. Here copy pasted.

    Life | Fri Dec 20, 2013 10:36am GMT Related: SPORT
    EU state aid probe 'not anti-Spain campaign'
    A European Commission probe into possible illegal state aid to seven Spanish football clubs including Real Madrid and Barcelona is not part of a malicious campaign against Spain, one of the complainants said on Friday.

    Loek Jorritsma, a retired senior policy adviser at the Netherlands ministry of sports, made a formal complaint in 2010 highlighting what he believed was illegal aid to clubs in his native Holland as well as to Real.

    The Commission opened an investigation into five Dutch clubs, including PSV Eindhoven, in March and launched a separate probe into Real, Barca, Athletic Bilbao, Osasuna, Valencia, Elche and Hercules on Wednesday.

    The announcement of the Spanish investigation prompted a furious response, with some claiming it was driven by envy at the world and European champions' recent successes.

    Real president Florentino Perez labelled it "a campaign against Spanish football" and said the world's richest club by income had done nothing wrong, while secretary of state for sports Miguel Cardenal complained of "damage to Spain's image".

    Jorritsma said his motivation was to identify possible instances of illegal state aid to professional clubs wherever they occurred in Europe.

    "It's a campaign on behalf of competitive balance, against foul play and for a level playing field, which is disturbed by state aid," Jorritsma told Reuters.

    "I treat the Dutch clubs and all European clubs the same way," the 70-year-old added.

    "It is state aid and they are professional organisations like banks or any other enterprise.

    "It's not culture and there is no law that gives you any freedom to jeopardise the market."

    Jorritsma is not the only complainant in the Spanish case and the EU has said a representative of "several European clubs" also filed a formal objection.

    The Commission has declined to reveal their identity, saying it was a confidential matter.


    Jorritsma is happy to go on the record, however.

    "I am a former civil servant and I don't like to do things anonymously and I take responsibility for the things I do," he said.

    Representatives of some of the Dutch clubs he denounced had even threatened him with physical violence, he added.

    "I explained my reasons to them and in the end they all thought I was very brave.

    "Because of my professional background I know how to formulate things."

    One of the areas Jorritsma highlighted is a property deal Real struck with the City of Madrid in 2011 that the Commission said appeared "very advantageous".

    The swap deal was based on a re-evaluation of a plot of land at a value of 22.7 million euros ($31 million), instead of its earlier supposed value in 1998 of 595,000 euros.

    The Spanish investigation, which could take many months to conclude, is also examining whether Real, Barca, Bilbao and Osasuna benefited from special tax treatment.

    Valencia, Elche and Hercules allegedly received illegal financial assistance from the regional government in the form of loans and bank guarantees.

    All deny wrongdoing and the Spanish government has said it would fight to prevent the clubs being forced to pay back any aid deemed to be illegal.

    (Editing by John O'Brien)

  • Eindhoven

    7/12/2016 7:17:52 PM |

    Ha ha, the article is really funny: "I was very brave", "I know how to formulate things", "I take responsibility for the things I do"... wow!

    We can either trust you or a Spanish MEP with knowledge of the matter who has disclosed that it was FC Bayern who initiated the complaints but it is of course unlikely that Rumenigge will self-glorify himself in an interview. Plus anyone following the Spanish cases knows that they were brought to the Commission in 2009. What did you exactly complain about in 2010? Please explain. Yet again claiming credit for reinventing the wheel?

    I insist that the result of your actions is five out of five failures, huge amounts of public resources being wasted, reputational damage (with municipalities suing the EC and the EC backtracking after costly in-depth investigations), zero money recovered and a few self-glorifying interviews given by yourself.

    And even worse than that, still awaiting a single example of the previous aid to the Dutch clubs that the Commission, according to your accusation, "forgot" about. A single example would be sufficient, great opportunity to take responsibility for your accusation.

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