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

International and European Sports Law – Monthly Report – June - August 2020 by Thomas Terraz

Editor's note: This report compiles the most relevant legal news, events and materials on International and European Sports Law based on the daily coverage provided on our twitter feed @Sportslaw_asser. 

 

 

The Headlines

CAS Decision on Manchester City FC Case

After the UEFA’s Adjudicatory Chamber of the Club Financial Control’s (CFCB) decision earlier this year to ban Manchester City FC for two seasons, observers waited impatiently to see the outcome of this high profile dispute. The CFCB’s decision had found that Manchester City FC overstated sponsorship revenues and in its break-even information given to UEFA. While some feared this showdown could lead to the demise of UEFA’s Financial Fair Play (FFP) regulations, the now publicized CAS panel’s decision is more nuanced. The panel’s decision turned on (see analysis here and here) (a) whether the ‘Leaked Emails’ were authentic and could be admissible evidence, (b) whether the ‘CFCB breached its obligations of due process’, (c) whether the conclusions of the 2014 Settlement Agreement prevents the CFCB from charging Manchester City FC, (d) whether the charges are time-barred, (e) the applicable standard of proof, (f) whether Manchester City FC masked equity funding as sponsorship contributions, and (g) whether Manchester City FC failed to cooperate with CFCB. In the end, among other findings, the Panel held that some of the alleged breaches were time-barred but maintained that Manchester City FC had failed to cooperate with CFCB’s investigation. In light of this, the Panel significantly reduced the sanction placed on Manchester City FC by removing the two-season suspension and reducing the sanction from 30 million euros to 10 million euros.

 

Qatar Labour Law Reforms Effectively Abolishes the Kafala System

Just a few days after Human Rights Watch released a lengthy report on abusive practices suffered by migrant workers in Qatar, Qatar adopted a series of laws that effectively gets rid of the Kafala system by no longer requiring migrant workers to obtain a ‘No Objection Certificate’ from their employer in order to start another job. The International Labour Organization declared that this development along with the elimination of the ‘exit permit requirements’ from earlier this year means that the kafala system has been effectively abolished. In addition to these changes, Qatar has also adopted a minimum wage that covers all workers and requires that employers who do not provide food or housing at least give a minimum allowance for both of these living costs. Lastly, the new laws better define the procedure for the termination of employment contracts.

In reaction to these changes, Amnesty International welcomed the reforms and called for them to be ‘swiftly and properly implemented’. Indeed, while these amendments to Qatar’s labour laws are a step in the right direction, Amnesty International also cautions that the minimum wage may still be too low, and in order to be effective, these new laws will have to be followed with ‘strong inspection and complaint mechanisms’.

 

CAS Decision Concerning Keramuddin Karim Abuse Case

In June of last year, Keramuddin Karim, former president of Afghanistan’s soccer federation, was banned by FIFA for life (see the decision of the adjudicatory Chamber of the FIFA Ethics Committee) after reports of sexual and physical abuse that emerged in late 2018. Following a lengthy and tumultuous investigation in Afghanistan, Afghan officials came forward with an arrest warrant for Mr. Karim. Nevertheless, despite attempts to apprehend Mr. Karim, Mr. Karim has still avoided arrest over a year later. Most recently in August, Afghan Special Operation officers attempted to apprehend him but he was not at the residence when they arrived.

Meanwhile, Mr. Karim had appealed FIFA’s lifetime ban to the CAS and the CAS Panel’s decision has recently been released. In its decision, the Panel upheld both the lifetime ban and the 1,000,000 CHF fine, finding that due to the particular egregious nature of Karim’s acts, ‘they warrant the most severe sanction possible available under the FCE’. Since both Karim and his witnesses were unable to be heard, the case raises questions connected to the respect of fundamental procedural rights at the CAS.  More...

International and European Sports Law – Monthly Report – March-May 2020 by Thomas Terraz

Editor's note: This report compiles the most relevant legal news, events and materials on International and European Sports Law based on the daily coverage provided on our twitter feed @Sportslaw_asser. 

 

The Headlines

Coronavirus Pandemic Takes Over Sports

Since the last monthly report, the coronavirus pandemic has completely taken over the headlines and has had enormous impacts on the sports field. The most significant of these impacts so far was the rather slow (see here and here) decision by the IOC to move the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games to 2021 after a widespread push among athlete stakeholders to do so. Concerns were raised that besides the wellbeing of the participants, athletes under lockdowns would not have the access to the training facilities, meaning preparations for the Games would suffer. The IOC has already started its new planning for Tokyo 2021 and sees this new opportunity to be ‘an Olympic flame’ at the end of a ‘dark tunnel’ for the entire world.

Besides the Olympics, football has also experienced colossal effects as this crisis landed right as leagues were approaching the end of their season. In this context, FIFA has released specific guidelines on player contracts and transfer windows, which has included extending player contracts to the new postponed end of season dates. It has also organized a working group on COVID-19, which has already made recommendations to postpone all men and women’s international matches that were to be played during the June 2020 window. Earlier in March, UEFA had already announced that the EURO 2020 was also postponed by 12 months and has also recently approved guidelines on domestic competitions. These guidelines place emphasis on ‘sporting merit’ and urge ‘National Associations and Leagues to explore all possible options to play all top domestic competitions giving access to UEFA club competitions to their natural conclusion’. Nevertheless, UEFA also emphasizes that the health of all stakeholders must remain the top priority.

In the end, numerous sport federations have also had to amend their calendars due to the pandemic (see UCI and FIBA) and a variety of sport stakeholders have been confronted with immense financial strain (e.g. football, tennis and cycling). For example, UEFA has acted preemptively in releasing club benefit payments to try to alleviate the economic pressure faced by clubs. There have also been efforts to support athletes directly (e.g. FIG and ITF). All in all, the social and economic impacts of the coronavirus pandemic on sport have been unprecedented and will require creative solutions while continuing to place public health as the top priority.

Platini’s ECtHR Appeal Falls Flat

There have also been a few other stories that have (understandably) been overshadowed by the pandemic. One of these include Michel Platini’s unsuccessful appeal to the ECtHR challenging his 2015 football ban. The ECtHR’s decision concerned the admissibility of his appeal and in the end found it to be ‘manifestly ill-founded’. This is because he failed to raise his procedural rights concerns under Article 6 (1) ECHR in his proceedings at the Swiss Federal Tribunal. Besides rejecting his other claims based on Article 7 and 8 ECHR, the ECtHR decision also touched upon the issue of CAS’ procedural and institutional independence. In doing so, it referred to its Pechstein decision and once more affirmed that the CAS is sufficiently independent and impartial (see para 65), further giving credence to this notion from its case law. However, there are still concerns on this matter as was highlighted in the Pechstein dissent. Overall, the decision indicates that the ECtHR is willing to give the CAS the benefit of the doubt so long as it sufficiently takes into account the ECHR in its awards.

Mark Dry – UKAD Dispute

In February, Mark Dry was suspended by UKAD after a decision of the National Anti-Doping Panel (NADP) Appeal Tribunal  for four years after having given a ‘false account’ in order to ‘subvert the Doping Control process’. Specifically, Dry had told anti-doping authorities that he had been out fishing after he had missed a test at his residence. After further investigation, Dry admitted that he had forgotten to update his whereabouts while he was actually visiting his parents in Scotland and in panic, had told anti-doping authorities that he had been out fishing. Following the decision of the NADP Appeal Tribunal, athlete stakeholders have argued the four-year ban was disproportionate in this case. In particular, Global Athlete contended that Whereabouts Anti-Doping Rule Violations only occur in cases where an athlete misses three tests or filing failures within a year. Furthermore, even if Dry had ‘tampered or attempted to tamper’, a four-year sanction is too harsh. Subsequently, UKAD responded with a statement, arguing that ‘deliberately providing false information’ is ‘a serious breach of the rules’ and that the UKAD NADP Appeal Tribunal ‘operates independently’. In light of the mounting pressure, Witold Bańka, WADA President, also responded on Twitter that he is ‘committed to ensuring that athletes’ rights are upheld under the World Anti-Doping Code’. More...

Anti-Doping in Times of COVID-19: A Difficult Balancing Exercise for WADA - By Marjolaine Viret

Editor's note: Marjolaine is a researcher and attorney admitted to the Geneva bar (Switzerland) who specialises in sports and life sciences.


I.               Introduction

The COVID-19 pandemic has shaken the manner in which we approach human interactions that suppose close and prolonged physical contact. Across the world, authorities are having to design ways to resume essential activities without jeopardising participants’ health, all the while guaranteeing that other fundamental rights are paid due respect. The fight against doping is no exception. Anti-doping organizations – whether public or private – have to be held to the same standards, including respect for physical integrity and privacy, and considerate application of the cornerstone principle of proportionality.

Throughout this global crisis, the World Anti-Doping Agency (‘WADA’) has carefully monitored the situation, providing anti-doping organizations and athletes with updates and advice. On 6 May 2020, WADA issued the document called ‘ADO Guidance for Resuming Testing’ (‘COVID Guidance’). A COVID-19 ‘Q&A’ for athletes (‘Athlete Q&A’) is also available on WADA’s website, and has been last updated on 25 May 2020. This article focuses on these two latest documents, and analyses the solutions proposed therein, and their impact on athletes.

Like many public or private recommendations issued for other societal activities, the WADA COVID Guidance is primarily aimed at conducting doping control while limiting the risk of transmission of the virus and ensuing harm to individuals. More specifically, one can identify two situations of interest for athletes that are notified for testing:

  1. The athlete has or suspects that they may have been infected with COVID-19, or has come in close contact with someone having COVID-19;
  2. The athlete fears to be in touch with doping control personnel that may be infected with COVID-19.

Quite obviously, either situation has the potential to create significant challenges when it comes to balancing the interests of anti-doping, with individual rights and data protection concerns. This article summarises how the latest WADA COVID Guidance and Athlete Q&A address both situations. It explores how the solutions suggested fit in with the WADA regulatory framework and how these might be assessed from a legal perspective.

The focus will be on the hypothesis in which international sports federations – i.e. private entities usually organised as associations or similar structures – are asked to implement the COVID Guidance within their sport. National anti-doping organizations are strongly embedded in their national legal system and their status and obligations as public or semi-public organisations are likely to be much more dependent on the legislative landscape put in place to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic in each country. Nevertheless, the general principles described in this article would apply to all anti-doping organizations alike, whether at international or national level. More...



(A)Political Games: A Critical History of Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter - By Thomas Terraz

Editor’s note: Thomas Terraz is a fourth year LL.B. candidate at the International and European Law programme at The Hague University of Applied Sciences with a specialisation in European Law. Currently he is pursuing an internship at the T.M.C. Asser Institute with a focus on International and European Sports Law.

 

Since its inception, the Olympic Movement, and in particular the IOC, has tirelessly endeavored to create a clean bubble around sport events, protecting its hallowed grounds from any perceived impurities. Some of these perceived ‘contaminants’ have eventually been accepted as a necessary part of sport over time (e.g. professionalism in sport),[1] while others are still strictly shunned (e.g. political protest and manifestations) and new ones have gained importance over the years (e.g. protection of intellectual property rights). The IOC has adopted a variety of legal mechanisms and measures to defend this sanitized space.  For instance, the IOC has led massive efforts to protect its and its partners’ intellectual property rights through campaigns against ambush marketing (e.g. ‘clean venues’ and minimizing the athletes’ ability to represent their personal sponsors[2]). Nowadays, the idea of the clean bubble is further reinforced through the colossal security operations created to protect the Olympic sites.

Nevertheless, politics, and in particular political protest, has long been regarded as one of the greatest threats to this sanitized space. More recently, politics has resurfaced in the context of the IOC Athletes’ Commission Rule 50 Guidelines. Although Rule 50 is nothing new, the Guidelines stirred considerable criticism, to which Richard Pound personally responded, arguing that Rule 50 is a rule encouraging ‘mutual respect’ through ‘restraint’ with the aim of using sport ‘to bring people together’.[3] In this regard, the Olympic Charter aims to avoid ‘vengeance, especially misguided vengeance’. These statements seem to endorse a view that one’s expression of their political beliefs at the Games is something that will inherently divide people and damage ‘mutual respect’. Thus, the question naturally arises: can the world only get along if ‘politics, religion, race and sexual orientation are set aside’?[4] Should one’s politics, personal belief and identity be considered so unholy that they must be left at the doorstep of the Games in the name of depoliticization and of the protection of the Games’ sanitized bubble? Moreover, is it even possible to separate politics and sport?  

Even Richard Pound would likely agree that politics and sport are at least to a certain degree bound to be intermingled.[5] However, numerous commentators have gone further and expressed their skepticism to the view that athletes should be limited in their freedom of expression during the Games (see here, here and here). Overall, the arguments made by these commentators have pointed out the hypocrisy that while the Games are bathed in politics, athletes – though without their labor there would be no Games – are severely restrained in expressing their own political beliefs. Additionally, they often bring attention to how some of the most iconic moments in the Games history are those where athletes took a stand on a political issue, often stirring significant controversy at the time. Nevertheless, what has not been fully explored is the relationship between the Olympic Games and politics in terms of the divide between the ideals of international unity enshrined in the Olympic Charter and on the other hand the de facto embrace of country versus country competition in the Olympic Games. While the Olympic Charter frames the Games as ‘competitions between athletes in individual or team events and not between countries’, the reality is far from this ideal.[6] Sport nationalism in this context can be considered as a form of politics because a country’s opportunity to host and perform well at the Games is frequently used to validate its global prowess and stature.

To explore this issue, this first blog will first take a historical approach by investigating the origins of political neutrality in sport followed by an examination of the clash between the ideal of political neutrality and the reality that politics permeate many facets of the Olympic Games. It will be argued that overall there has been a failure to separate politics and the Games but that this failure was inevitable and should not be automatically viewed negatively. The second blog will then dive into the Olympic Charter’s legal mechanisms that attempt to enforce political neutrality and minimize sport nationalism, which also is a form of politics. It will attempt to compare and contrast the IOC’s approach to political expression when exercised by the athletes with its treatment of widespread sport nationalism.More...

International and European Sports Law – Monthly Report – February 2020 - By Thomas Terraz

Editor's note: This report compiles the most relevant legal news, events and materials on International and European Sports Law based on the daily coverage provided on our twitter feed @Sportslaw_asser. 

 

The Headlines

Manchester City sanctioned by UEFA’s Financial Fair Play

Manchester City has been sanctioned under UEFA’s Financial Fair Play (FFP) regulations for two seasons for ‘overstating its sponsorship revenue in its accounts and in the break-even information’ it had provided UEFA. The February 14 decision of the Adjudicatory Chamber of the Club Financial Control Body (CFCB) likely heralds the start of a long and bitter legal war between Manchester City and UEFA, which may end up settling many of the questions surrounding the legality of FFP rules. Since its introduction in 2010, the compatibility of FFP with EU law, especially in terms of free movement and competition law, has been a continued point of contention amongst the parties concerned and commentators (see discussion here, here and here). It was only a matter of time that a case would arise to test this issue and the present circumstances seem to indicate that this may go all the way.                                 

Regardless, the ban will not be enforced this season and in light of the appeal process, it is hard to predict when the CFCB’s decision will have any effect. Indeed, Manchester City has shown an incredible willingness to fighting this out in the courts and shows no signs of backing down. The next stop will be the CAS and perhaps followed by the Swiss Federal Tribunal. It should also be recalled that the CAS has already examined FFP in its Galatasaray award, where it found FFP compatible with EU law (see commentary here). There is even a decent chance that this emerging saga may end up in front of the European Commission and eventually the Court of Justice of the European Union.

Sun Yang CAS award published

After a much-anticipated public hearing, the Panel’s award in the Sun Yang case has finally been published, sanctioning Sun Yang with an eight-year period of ineligibility (see here for a detailed commentary). The decision does not reveal anything groundbreaking in terms of its legal reasoning and in many ways the case will most likely be remembered for its historical significance: the case that jumpstarted a new era of increased public hearings at the CAS.

Perhaps of some interest is the extent to which the panel took into account Sun Yang’s behavior during the proceedings in order to support its assessment of the case. For example, the panel describes how Sun Yang had ignored the procedural rules of the hearing by inviting ‘an unknown and unannounced person from the public gallery to join him at his table and act as an impromptu interpreter’. The Panel interpreted this as Sun Yang attempting ‘to take matters into his own hands’ which it found resembled the athlete’s behavior in the case (see para 358). The Panel also found it ‘striking’ that Sun Yang did not express any remorse concerning his actions during the proceedings. Since the proceedings were held publicly and have been recorded, it is possible to verify the Panel’s assessment in this regard.

In the end, it is possible that Sun Yang may seek to reduce the period of ineligibility once the 2021 WADA Code comes into force (see para 368). For now, Sung Yang may also try to appeal the award to the Swiss Federal Tribunal on procedural grounds, and has already indicated his wish to do so. More...

Mega-sporting events and human rights: What role can EU sports diplomacy play? - Conference Report – By Thomas Terraz

Editor’s note: Thomas Terraz is a fourth year LL.B. candidate at the International and European Law programme at The Hague University of Applied Sciences with a specialisation in European Law. Currently he is pursuing an internship at the T.M.C. Asser Institute with a focus on International and European Sports Law.

 

1.     Introduction

 On March 05, the T.M.C. Asser Institute hosted ‘Mega-sporting events and human rights: What role can EU sports diplomacy play?’ a Multiplier Sporting Event organized in the framework of a European research project on ‘Promoting a Strategic Approach to EU Sports Diplomacy’. This project funded by the European Commission through its Erasmus+ program aims to help the EU adopt a strategic approach to sports diplomacy and to provide evidence of instances where sport can help amplify EU diplomatic messages and forge better relations with third countries. In particular, Antoine Duval from the Asser Institute is focusing on the role of EU sports diplomacy to strengthen human rights in the context of mega sporting events (MSE) both in Europe and abroad. To this end, he organized the two panels of the day focusing, on the one hand, on the ability of sport governing bodies (SGB) to leverage their diplomatic power to promote human rights, particularly in the context of MSEs and, on the other, on the EU’s role and capacity to strengthened human rights around MSEs. The following report summarizes the main points raised during the discussions. More...

Special Issue Call for Papers: Legal Aspects of Fantasy Sports - International Sports Law Journal

The International Sports Law Journal (ISLJ) invites submissions to a special issue focusing on legal aspects of fantasy sports. For some time, fantasy sports has been a major phenomena in North America and this has been reflected in the sports law literature. Fantasy sports have more recently grown in popularity in the rest of world, raising a number of novel legal questions. The ISLJ wants to support fruitful global discussions about these questions through a special issue. We welcome contributions from different jurisdictions analyzing fantasy sports from the perspective of various areas of law including, but not limited to, intellectual property law, gambling law, and competition law.

Please submit proposed papers through the ISLJ submission system (http://islj.edmgr.com/) no later than November 15, 2020. Submissions should have a reccomended length of 8,000–12,000 words and be prepared in accordance with the ISLJ's house style guidelines (https://www.springer.com/journal/40318/submission-guidelines). All submissions will be subject to double-blind peer review.

Question about the special issue can be directed to the Editor–in-Chief, Johan Lindholm (johan.lindholm@umu.se).

Free Event! Mega-sporting events and human rights: What role can EU sports diplomacy play? - 5 March at the Asser Institute in The Hague

The upcoming 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar and its links to human rights violations has been the subject of many debates in the media and beyond. In particular, the respect of migrant workers’ labour rights was at the forefront of much public criticisms directed against FIFA. Similarly, past Olympics in Rio, Sochi or Beijing have also been in the limelight for various human rights issues, such as the lack of freedom of the press, systematic discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or forced evictions. These controversies have led sports governing bodies (SGBs) to slowly embrace human rights as an integral part of their core values and policies. Leading to an increased expectation for SGBs to put their (private) diplomatic capital at the service of human rights by using their leverage vis-à-vis host countries of their mega-sporting events (MSEs). In turn, this also raises the question of the need for the EU to accompany this change by putting human rights at the heart of its own sports diplomacy.


Research collective 
This Multiplier Sporting Event, organised in the framework of the transnational project on ‘Promoting a Strategic Approach to EU Sports Diplomacy’ funded by the Erasmus + Programme, aims to trigger discussions on the role of an EU sports diplomacy in strengthening respect for human rights in the context of MSEs both at home and abroad. It will feature two roundtables focused on the one hand on the diplomatic power and capacity of SGBs to fend for human rights during MSEs and on the other on the EU’s integration of human rights considerations linked to MSEs in its own sports diplomacy.


Programme

13:20 – 14:00 – Welcome and opening speech –Antoine Duval (Asser Institute)
14:00 - 15:30 - Panel 1: Leveraging the Diplomatic Power of the Sports Governing Bodies for Human Rights

  • Lucy Amis (Unicef UK/Institute for Human Rights and Business)
  • Guido Battaglia (Centre for Sport and Human Rights)
  • Florian Kirschner (World Players Association/UNI Global Union)
  • Claire Jenkin (University of Hertfordshire)

15:30 – 16:00 - Coffee Break

16:00 - 17:30 - Panel 2: A Human Rights Dimension for the EU’s Sports Diplomacy?

  • Arnout Geeraert (Utrecht University)
  • Agata Dziarnowska (European Commission)
  • Alexandre Mestre (Sport and Citizenship)
  • Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport (TBC)

17:30 - Reception

How 2019 Will Shape the International Sports Law of the 2020s - By Thomas Terraz

Editor’s note: Thomas Terraz is a fourth year LL.B. candidate at the International and European Law programme at The Hague University of Applied Sciences with a specialisation in European Law. Currently he is pursuing an internship at the T.M.C. Asser Institute with a focus on International and European Sports Law.

 

1.     Introduction

As we begin plunging into a new decade, it can be helpful to look back and reflect on some of the most influential developments and trends from 2019 that may continue to shape international sports law in 2020 and beyond. Hence, this piece will not attempt to recount every single sports law news item but rather identify a few key sports law stories of 2019 that may have a continued impact in the 2020s. The following sections are not in a particular order.More...

International and European Sports Law – Monthly Report – January 2020 - By Thomas Terraz

Editor's note: This report compiles the most relevant legal news, events and materials on International and European Sports Law based on the daily coverage provided on our twitter feed @Sportslaw_asser. 

 

The Headlines

IOC Athlete Commission releases its Rule 50 Guidelines for Tokyo 2020

The IOC Athlete Commission presented its Rule 50 Guidelines for Tokyo 2020 at its annual joint meeting with the IOC Executive Board. It comes as Thomas Bach had recently underlined the importance of political neutrality for the IOC and the Olympic Games in his New Year’s message. Generally, rule 50 of the Olympic Charter prohibits any political and religious expression by athletes and their team during the Games, subject to certain exceptions. The Guidelines clarify that this includes the ‘field of play’, anywhere inside the Olympic Village, ‘during Olympic medal ceremonies’ and ‘during the Opening, Closing and other official ceremonies’. On the other hand, athletes may express their views ‘during press conferences and interview’, ‘at team meetings’ and ‘on digital or traditional media, or on other platforms. While rule 50 is nothing new, the Guidelines have reignited a debate on whether it could be considered as a justified restriction on one’s freedom of expression.

 

The IOC has made the case that it is defending the neutrality of sport and that the Olympics is an international forum that should help bring people together instead of focusing on divisions. Specifically, Richard Pound has recently made the argument that the Guidelines have been formulated by the athletes themselves and are a justified restriction on free expression with its basis in ‘mutual respect’. However, many commentators have expressed their skepticism to this view (see here, here and here) citing that politics and the Olympics are inherently mixed, that the IOC is heavily involved in politics, and that the Olympics has often served as the grounds for some of history’s most iconic political protests. All in all, the Guidelines have certainly been a catalyst for a discussion on the extent to which the Olympics can be considered neutral. It also further highlights a divide between athlete committees from within the Olympic Movement structures and other independent athlete representation groups (see Global Athlete and FIFPro’s statements on rule 50).

 

Doping and Corruption Allegations in Weightlifting 

The International Weightlifting Federation (IWF) has found itself embroiled in a doping and corruption scandal after an ARD documentary was aired early in January which raised a wide array of allegations, including against the President of the IWF, Tamás Aján. The documentary also included hidden camera interviews from a Thai Olympic medalist who admits having taken anabolic steroids before having won a bronze medal at the 2012 London Olympic Games and from a team doctor from the Moldovan national team who describes paying for clean doping tests. The IWF’s initial reaction to the documentary was hostile, describing the allegations as ‘insinuations, unfounded accusations and distorted information’ and ‘categorically denies the unsubstantiated’ accusations. It further claims that it has ‘immediately acted’ concerning the situation with the Thai athletes, and WADA has stated that it will follow up with the concerned actors. However, as the matter gained further attention in the main stream media and faced increasing criticism, the IWF moved to try to ‘restore’ its reputation. In practice, this means that Tamás Aján has ‘delegated a range of operation responsibilities’ to Ursual Papandrea, IWF Vice President, while ‘independent experts’ will conduct a review of the allegations made in the ARD documentary. Richard McLaren has been announced to lead the investigation and ‘is empowered to take whatever measures he sees fit to ensure each and every allegation is fully investigated and reported’. The IWF has also stated that it will open a whistleblower line to help aid the investigation.More...


Asser International Sports Law Blog | Bailing out your local football club: The Willem II and MVV State Aid decisions as blueprint for future rescue aid (Part 2)

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

Bailing out your local football club: The Willem II and MVV State Aid decisions as blueprint for future rescue aid (Part 2)

This is part two of the blog on the Willem II and MVV State Aid decisions. Where part one served as an introduction on the two cases, part two will analyze the compatibility assessment made by the Commission in two decisions.


The compatibility of the aid to MVV and Willem II (re-)assessed

Even though it was the Netherlands’ task to invoke possible grounds of compatibility and to demonstrate that the conditions for such compatibility were met, the aid granted to both Willem II and MVV was never notified. The Netherland’s failure to fulfill its notification obligation, therefore, appears to be at odds with the Commission’s final decision to declare the aid compatible with EU law. Yet, a closer look at the Commission’s decision of 6 March 2013 to launch the formal investigation shows that the Commission was giving the Netherlands a ‘second chance’ to invoke grounds that would lead to a justification of the measures. In paragraph 74, the Commission itself reached the conclusions that the clubs in question faced financial difficulties, consequently indicating that the Rescue and Restructuring Guidelines might apply. In fact, the Commission even suggested possible compensatory measures, which are very much related to “the peculiar nature of professional football”[1]. These suggested compensatory measures included:

- limiting the club’s number of registered players for a season or several seasons;

- accepting a cap on the relation between salaries and turnover;

- banning the payment of transfer fees for a certain period;

- offering additional expenditure on “pro bono” activities to the benefit of the community and training of amateurs.[2]

Furthermore, it invited the Dutch authorities “to provide all useful information allowing the Commission to decide whether the aid measures can be considered compatible with the Guidelines”.[3]

The observations and information submitted by the Netherlands between March 2013 and July 2016 proved more than sufficient for the Commission to carry out its compatibility assessment. As was insinuated in the decision to launch a formal investigation, the Rescue and Restructuring Guidelines proved fundamental to this assessment.  


Willem II and MVV as firms in financial difficulties

This first condition of the Guidelines was easily complied with. As regards Willem II, in the accounting year 2008/2009, it made a loss of €3.9 million on a turnover of €11.4 million. Meanwhile, its own equity decreased from €4.1 million to €200.000. The losses increased to €4.4 million on a turnover of €9.9 million for the 2009/2010 season, while its own equity decreased further from €200.000 to minus €2.1 million.[4]

MVV clearly was financially not doing much better. As the Commission itself summarizes in the MVV decision, “in 2008/2009, MVV made a loss of €1.1 million and its own equity was minus €3.8 million. By March 2010 additional losses amounting to €1.3 million had occurred and the own equity had dropped to minus €5.17 million. In April 2010, MVV was no longer able to pay salaries and other current expenditure and was on the brink of bankruptcy.”[5]

Another consequence of being in financial difficulties relates to the licensing system put in place by the Dutch football federation KNVB. As is explained in paragraph 11 of the decision to open a formal investigation, one of the obligations for clubs under the current system is submitting three financial reports a year to the KNVB. On the basis of these reports clubs are scaled in three categories (I: insufficient, II: sufficient, III: good). Clubs in category I may be obliged to present a plan for improvement in order to reach categories II or III. If the club fails to comply with the plan, sanctions may be imposed by the KNVB, including an official warning, a reduction of competition points and – as ultimate sanction – withdrawal of the licence.[6] At the time the State aid was granted, both Willem II and MVV were scaled in the insufficient category I.  


Willem II and MVV as small enterprises or medium-sized enterprises

This particular assessment is important for the two conditions below, i.e. the introduction of restructuring plans and compensatory measures. Depending on the size of the firm (or enterprise), different conditions apply. Willem II employed 53 people in 2012 and had an annual turnover of €11.4 million in 2008/2009.[7] Pursuant to the Annex of the Commission Recommendation concerning the definition of micro, small and medium-sized enterprises, Willem II just managed to be considered a medium-sized enterprise.[8]

MVV, on the other hand, is considered a small enterprise. In the season 2009/2010 it had 38 employees and in the season 2010/2011 it had 35 employees. Its turnover and balance sheet total remained well below €10 million in both years.[9] 


Restructuring plans

Though not initially communicated to the Commission, both rescue measures were subject to certain restructuring conditions. In principle, these consisted of reducing personnel costs, by introducing new managements, selling players, and signing players free of transfer payments. In the case of Willem II, in the two years following the rescue measure personnel costs were reduced by 30%.[10] The effects of MVV’s restructuring plan were even better, since it managed to book profits for the three seasons following the aid and was scaled in the highest category (III) by the KNVB in the beginning of the season 2011/2012.[11] 


Compensatory measures

For the compensatory measures it is important to take into account point 41 of the Rescue and Restructuring Guidelines. Under this provision, small enterprises, such as MVV, are not required to take compensatory measures. However, this exception did not apply to Willem II. The Commission noted more expenditure of Willem II for public benefit by the training of amateurs and a reduction of the number of registered players from 31 to 27. Similarly, no transfer payments were made during the restructuring period.[12] Potentially as a result of this, Willem II was relegated to the second league in 2011 and again in 2013. In the end, the Commission concluded that “the compensatory measures required by the Guidelines were taken, which had the effect of weakening Willem II's competitive position in professional football”.[13] 


Aid limited to a minimum

Since the aid measures rescued both football clubs from bankruptcy without creating equity surplus, the Commission believed the amount of aid granted limited to what was necessary. Furthermore, the Commission highlighted that the restructuring plans were to a large extent financed by external contributors just as the Rescue and Restructuring Guidelines requested. Private entities had agreed to lend €2.25 million to Willem II for the restructuring, which is well over the 40% of €2.4 million (the total amount of State aid granted) required for medium-sized enterprises under the Guidelines.[14] In the case of MVV, several private creditors decided to waive (part of) their debt, which amounted to €2.25 million. This amount is more than 25% of the €5.8 million granted by the Netherlands, the minimum requirement for a small enterprise like MVV.[15] 


One time, last time

The Commission believes this condition to be fulfilled, as the Netherlands specified that Willem II and MVV did not receive rescue or restructuring aid in the ten years before the aid measures, nor will it award any new rescue or restructuring aid to the clubs during a period of ten years.[16] 


Conclusion

At the time of writing, the non-confidential versions of the positive decisions regarding State aid granted in favour of the Dutch professional football clubs FC Den Bosch and NEC Nijmegen are not published. Nonetheless, this does not prevent us from drawing the following lessons from the Willem II and MVV decisions.

First of all, these decisions show that there is no need to draft sector specific guidelines for State aid to professional football clubs in difficulty. The Rescue and Restructuring Guidelines are all the Commission needs in order to carry out the compatibility assessment. This approach is radically different when compared to the Commission’s decisional practice for the State aid to sport infrastructure cases between 2011 and 2013.[17] Only after the Commission dealt with ten different cases, was its approach (to a large extent) codified in Article 55 of the 2014 General Block Exemption Regulation.[18]

In this regard it is important to highlight that the Commission seems to take into account “the peculiar nature of professional football”[19] when assessing the compatibility of State aid measures under the Rescue and Restructuring Guidelines. For example, it showed demonstrated its awareness of the UEFA Club Licensing and Financial Fair Play Regulations[20] as well as national (KNVB) licensing rules when assessing the compensatory measures taken by Willem II. Moreover, it clearly endorsed the decision taken by the club not to make transfer payments during the restructuring period, since this prevents the club from spending money it might not have, while simultaneously limiting the club’s competitiveness on the field.

A further lesson that can be drawn from these decisions is that, in my opinion, the threshold to ‘pass the compatibility test’ under the Rescue and Restructuring Guidelines is quite low. With regard to the condition that the club needs to be in financial difficulties in order to get the State aid, it is clear that granting State aid to professional football clubs in financial difficulties is one of the most (if not the most) common form of State aid in the sector. This was the case for the five Dutch clubs scrutinized by the Commission, as well as the three clubs from Valencia of which the non-confidential version of the decision still needs to be published. Other clubs like FC Twente and Sporting de Gijón have also received State aid over financial difficulties, even though the Commission did not investigate these measures (yet).[21] In other words, a majority of the cases are assessable under these Guidelines.

The condition that the beneficiary football club needs to stick to a restructuring plan in order to receive the State aid is key. As is elucidated in the two decisions, the restructuring plans consisted of selling players, reducing the costs of wages and not paying transfer fees for new players for a period of three years. In my view, these conditions are rather proportionate when considering that the clubs in question were on the verge of bankruptcy prior to the State aid measures. In fact, one could argue that FIFA’s transfer ban imposed on FC Barcelona for international transfers of minors, or excluding FC Dynamo from the next UEFA club competition for which the club would otherwise qualify in four seasons (i.e. the 2015/16, 2016/17, 2017/18 and 2018/19 seasons) for breaching UEFA’s FFP Regulations,[22] are harsher than the restructuring conditions accepted by the Commission.

The same can be said about the need to take compensatory measures. The measures taken by Willem II (reducing the number of employees and players, and reducing the cost of wages to 48% of the turnover) could be considered a direct consequence of the abovementioned restructuring plans. The only additional compensatory measure taken by Willem II was increasing expenditure of the club for the training of amateurs, though the decision does not specify what this implied in practice.

Perhaps the only condition that could be problematic for some football clubs is the “one time, last time” criterion. Under this condition, the public authorities cannot rescue Willem II and MVV again until at least 2020. Although Willem II and MVV are currently in category III and II on the KNVB’s scale respectively, falling back to category I before 2020 could have dramatic consequences.

Be that as it may, now that the Commission’s approach for the assessment of State aid to professional football clubs in financial difficulties is out in the open, public authorities and football clubs alike should use this knowledge to their own advantage. They should remember that the Commission is willing to accept rescue aid and that the restructuring conditions are far from impossible to match. One can even wonder whether a club like FC Twente would have turned to Doyen when it was facing financial difficulties, if it had been aware of the conditions imposed by the European Commission for receiving compatible State aid under the Rescue and Restructuring Guidelines.



[1] Commission Decision on State Aid SA.40168 of 4 July 2016 implemented by the Netherlands in favour of the professional football club Willem II in Tilburg, para. 50.

[2] Commission Decision SA.33584 of 6 March 2013 – The Netherlands Alleged municipal aid to the Professional Dutch football clubs Vitesse, NEC, Willem II, MVV, PSV and FC Den Bosch in 2008-2011, para. 80.

[3] Ibid, para. 77.

[4] SA.40168, para. 45.

[5] Commission Decision on State Aid SA.41612 of 4 July 2016 implemented by the Netherlands in favour of the professional football club MVV in Maastricht, para. 13.

[6] SA.33584, para. 11.

[7] SA.40168, para. 9.

[8] A firm is not considered a small enterprise i fit has more than 50 employees and an annual turnover of more than €10 million. See footnote 27.

[9] SA.41612, para. 9.

[10] SA.40168, para. 48.

[11] SA.41612, para. 52.

[12] SA.40168, para. 51. Indeed, according to www.transfermarkt.de, Willem II only paid a mere €20.000 for the signing of Kevin Brands in July 2012.

[13] Ibid.

[14] SA.40168, para. 52.

[15] SA.41612, para. 54.

[16] SA.40168, para. 55 and SA.41612, para. 61.

[17] Commission Decision of 9 November 2011, SA.31722 – Hungary - Supporting the Hungarian sport sector via tax benefit scheme; Commission Decision of 2 May 2013, SA.33618 Uppsala arena; Commission Decision of 15 May 2013, SA.33728 Multiarena in Copenhagen; Commission Decision of 20 March 2013, SA.35135 Multifunktionsarena der Stadt Erfurt; Commission Decision of 20 March 2013, SA.35440 Multifunktionsarena der Stadt Jena; Commission Decision of 18 December 2013, SA.35501 Financement de la construction et de la renovation des stades pour l’EURO 2016; Commission Decision of 2 October 2013, SA.36105 Fuβballstadion Chemnitz; Commission Decision of 20 November 2013, SA.37109 Football stadiums in Flanders; Commission Decision of 9 April 2014, SA.37342 Regional Stadia Development in Northern Ireland; and Commission Decision of 13 December 2013, SA.37373 Contribution to the renovation of ice arena Thialf in Heerenveen.

[18] For a deeper analysis of whether sport-specific guidelines are necessary, see Oskar van Maren, “EU State Aid Law and Professional Football: A threat or a Blessing?”, European State Aid Law Quarterly, Volume 15 1/2016, pages 31-46. To find out how sector-specific rules for State aid are usually articulated, 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.

[19] SA.40168, para. 50.

[20] In paragraph 51 of SA.40168, the Commission referred to a UEFA rule, which holds that the cost of salaries should not exceed 70%.

[21] For more information of the precarious financial situation of these two clubs, see our previous blogs: “Unpacking Doyen’s TPO Deals: FC Twente's Game of Maltese Roulette”, and “TPO and Spanish football, friends with(out) benefits?”.

[22] For more information on the FC Dynamo case, see our blog “UEFA’s FFP out in the open: The Dynamo Moscow Case”.

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