Editor's note: Robby Houben is a professor at the University of Antwerp, specializing in sports enterprise law and corporate law. He founded the University of Antwerp’s Football College, championing good governance in professional football. He is editor of the Research Handbook on the Law of Professional Football Clubs (Edward Elgar Publishing 2023). Siniša Petrović is a professor at the University of Zagreb, specializing in sports law and corporate law.
Mid-March, the YouTube channel The Overlap released an interview with Aleksander Čeferin, the current president of UEFA. Asked about the Super League’s court case against UEFA, Čeferin referred to it as ‘mainly symbolical’. This statement reveals a deep trust in the status quo. In this short note we assess if such trust is justified. On the basis of advocate general (AG) Szpunar’s recent opinion in a case on home grown player rules, we argue it is not.
What is it about? On 9 March, AG Szpunar of the Court of Justice of the EU (‘CJEU’) delivered his opinion in the case of Royal Antwerp FC against the Royal Belgian Football Association (‘RBFA’) and the European Football Association UEFA. The case relates to the so-called ‘home grown players’ rule (‘HGP rule’). This rule requires clubs to include at least 8 locally trained players in the list of 25 players that make the A team. According to Szpunar, this likely amounts to an indirect nationality discrimination and, at least, to a restriction of the free movement rights of football players under Article 45 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU (‘TFEU’). Nevertheless, the AG considers the HGP rule valid as such, as, according to him, it serves the legitimate aims of stimulating the training of youth players and increasing the competitive balance between clubs. Only insofar as it allows that home grown players includes players trained by another club in the same league (under the UEFA HGP rule, 4 out of 8 home grown players), instead of by the club itself, the HGP rule is not suitable to achieve these aims. His recommendation to the court is, hence, to partially invalidate the HGP rule. He would likely find a (future) HGP rule requiring home grown players to be trained only at the club compatible with EU law.
Is sport so special that it deserves special treatment? On the basis of Wouters and Meca-Medina it is widely accepted that restrictions of competition in sports can be justified if they proportionately pursue legitimate aims. Interestingly, in his assessment of the proportionality of the HGP rule, AG Szpunar seems to do Wouters away as a peculiar case. He finds ‘it difficult to deduce a general principle … according to which private entities bound by Article 45 TFEU would have a greater discretion than that of Member States in comparable situations’. Moreover, he argues, such greater discretion may be warranted in matters transcending classical economic policy, but the HGP rule has a strong economic component and is not such a matter (paras 76-78). As a result, Szpunar sees no reason ‘to afford UEFA and the RBFA a wider discretion than would be the norm for a Member State to justify a restriction of Article 45 TFEU’ (para 78). So, no specific exceptions for football that do not apply to other economic sectors! Wrong, because, at the same time, the AG allows to justify the HGP rule in view of legitimate aims, in this case youth development and competitive balance. Hence, while closing the back door for exceptional treatment of football in his assessment of proportionality, he opens the front door for such exceptional treatment as a matter of principle quite widely - without really underpinning why, nor providing evidence of why football is so special compared to let’s say universities or hospitals, who educate youngsters too, undoubtedly for the public good, and don’t enjoy such special treatment.
But let’s assume sport is somehow special and deserves a special treatment. Does the HGP rule serve both the aim of youth development and increasing competitive balance? Probably not. It seems the aims are conflated here. Yes, the HGP rule serves the aim of encouraging the training of players (at professional football clubs that is), and arguably it makes sense to incentivize clubs to train players. But it is unlikely that this will contribute to more competitive balance between clubs. This has to do with the territorial model of football: ‘domestic’ competitions are organized along national borders. Clubs from larger countries logically have a larger talent pool to recruit young players from than clubs from smaller countries, and therefore they likely have a competitive advantage. Moreover, assuming the pool of talented young players is larger in bigger countries, it is likely that these youngsters will add sporting value to the A-team. That’s a win-win. In smaller countries, clubs will typically have a tougher job recruiting domestic top talent, simply because the pool is smaller. Adding to that is that the real top youngsters of smaller countries will probably sign their first professional player contract with a club of a top tier foreign competition, leaving only the ‘best of the rest’ for the local clubs. At the age of 16, the next Kevin De Bruyne will of course become a ‘club-trained’ local player somewhere, but not in a Belgian club. Cutting a long story short, from the perspective of fair competition, the HGP rule is not neutral and favors clubs that happen to reside in larger countries.
Overboard with domestic borders then? That is what small Luxemburg club Swift Hespérange claims. Swift argues its free movement rights and free competition is infringed because it has to play football within the Luxembourg borders. As a result, it cannot grow and become competitive with clubs from surrounding leagues. Szpunar’s opinion provides food for thought for this case too, as he recognizes that the territorial model of football favors clubs in larger countries more than clubs in smaller countries (paras 68 and 70). His opinion therefore seems to accord with Swift’s intuition.
How could a HGP rule become more neutral in a territorial model of football, with club football organized along domestic borders? Arguably, the rule could concentrate on the under 21 teams, and/or under 23 teams, where training actually takes place, allowing clubs to compose their A-teams with the best players, regardless of where they were trained. Talented club-trained young players will make their way to A-teams on the basis of merit. Clubs could be incentivized to field club-trained players in their A-team through increased solidarity payments from centralized earnings. Such an approach could serve both the aims of stimulating the training of players and increasing (or better: not deteriorating) the competitiveness of local clubs.
Is this THE solution? We don’t know, and we don’t pretend to know. We raise it to illustrate a point: the importance of alternative systems to the HGP rule in the Antwerp case. AG Szpunar rightly asserts that the burden of proof to evidence that a rule is proportionate in view of legitimate aims, so that it can be upheld instead of invalidated, lies with the claimant of such exception, in the Antwerp case UEFA and the RBFA (para 61). Remarkably, the proportionality of the HGP rule is subsequently simply assumed. Moreover, alternatives brought forward by Antwerp, whereas the burden of proof lay with UEFA and the RBFA, were put aside as more restrictive, and considered not to be equally effective without much consideration (paras 79-81). Is it not more in line with logic that when the burden of proof falls upon a party, if it fails to discharge it then its claim is simply denied? More fundamentally, if rules are simply assumed to pursue legitimate objectives instead of evidenced to do so, is this not an open invitation for ‘sports washing’, the equivalent of green washing in sports? Of course, judges are not industry experts. As a result, we may not reasonably expect too much. Regulators must have leeway to make choices. But judges can and should perform oversight, assuring: i) rules are at least aiming for the target, ii) the regulator effectively considered alternatives, iii) there are good reasons for the regulator to prefer the chosen solution over another. If the questioned rule fails this test, it should be declared invalid – and the regulator should be sent back to the drawing board.
So, AG Szpunar’s opinion is not perfect. Yet, it certainly puts the finger on the sore spot of football governance: double hatting and the inherent conflicts of interest that brings. In this respect, AG Szpunar’s opinion seems to provide counterweight to AG Rantos’ opinion in the European Super League (‘ESL’) case (see the subtill ‘in this respect’ in fn 39 of Szpunar’s opinion). In essence, AG Rantos argues that UEFA’s potential design errors are irrelevant, as the ESL, because of its (at the time) semi-closed set-up, should have been rejected anyway. He even asserts that open sport competitions are a constitutional principle of EU law, enshrined in Article 165 TFEU. This is a (too) far stretch, notably not repeated by AG Szpunar. Moreover, Szpunar makes UEFA’s governance deficit so much more explicit than Rantos. Because UEFA is both the regulator and monopolist of European club football, Szpunar considers that conflicts of interest are ‘bound to arise’ (in the French official version: ‘inévitable’; in Dutch: ‘onvermijdelijk’ – so: inevitable). Moreover, confronted with such conflict, he believes UEFA and domestic football regulators will have a natural reflex to let their own commercial interests prevail over the public interest (para 58).
AG’s Szpunar’s opinion is authoritative, and probably even more than usual. Szpunar is first advocate general, and primus inter pares. His opinion will weigh in on the other football cases pending before the CJEU too, especially the ESL case and the aforementioned Swift case. As such, it could serve as a ‘canary in the coalmine’ for what is still to come later this year. Anyway, if the CJEU judges in the ESL case follow Szpunar’s assessment of UEFA’s double hatting, those who were celebrating the status quo after the Rantos opinion might be in for a scare soon.
2023 is a year of truth for the organization of professional football. Dissatisfaction with the status quo has led to a record number of football related cases before the CJEU. These cases are heard separately, but at the same time inevitably interconnected, because they run in parallel on similar subject matters. Szpunar’s opinion makes at least clear that all cards are still on the table and the status quo might not prevail.
Courts can only do what they are allowed to: apply the law in a given case. They can’t solve football’s governance deficit. Only politicians can ‘save football from itself’ by regulating it and by tackling policy failures exposed by professional football’s commercial explosion fueled primarily by clubs and players. Stakeholders such as clubs and players deserve a seat at the decision-making table in a governance model for pro football 2.0. For example, it is not acceptable any more for football regulators with no skin in the game to continue to congest match calendars (40 or so more matches in the 2026 World Cup !) without consulting clubs and players. Furthermore, the cleanest way to resolve conflicts of interest once and for all would be to separate UEFA’s functions - at least to ensure that adequate procedures are in place to avoid, mitigate and make transparent conflict of interests (in that order), and allowing access to public courts for judicial scrutiny. To be meaningful, such action should be taken at EU level, so as to create a level playing field for clubs across Europe and – because of the ‘Brussels’ effect – beyond.
We are not naïve. There is no political appetite for reforming football yet. That was made clear during the ESL hearing early July 2022, where more than 20 Member States intervened in support of UEFA and the status quo. But, one, two or three critical decisions of the CJEU might inspire politicians to take action. That way, this wave of court cases may trigger a much more profound reform of the governance of the beautiful game.
 In that sense AG Szpunar seems to go too far when in his answer to the court he suggests to invalidate the current HGP rule and already advises how the new rule should look – the latter is more a matter for the regulator.