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Overdue payables in action: Reviewing two years of FIFA jurisprudence on the 12bis procedure – Part 2. By Frans M. de Weger and Frank John Vrolijk.

Editor's Note: Frans M. de Weger is legal counsel for the Federation of Dutch Professional Football Clubs (FBO) and CAS arbitrator. De Weger is author of the book “The Jurisprudence of the FIFA Dispute Resolution Chamber”, 2nd edition, published by T.M.C. Asser Press in 2016. Frank John Vrolijk specialises in Sports, Labour and Company Law and is a former legal trainee of FBO and DRC Database.

This second blog will focus specifically on the sanctions available for FIFA under Article 12bis. It will provide explanatory guidelines covering the sanctions imposed during the period surveyed.


Introduction

The possibility to impose sanctions under article 12bis constitutes one of the pillars of the 12bis procedure. Pursuant to Article 12bis of the RSTP, edition 2016, the DRC and the PSC may impose a sanction on a club if the club is found to have delayed a due payment for more than 30 days without a prima facie contractual basis[1] and the creditor have put the debtor club in default in writing, granting a deadline of at least 10 days.[2] The jurisprudence in relation to Article 12bis also shows that sanctions are imposed ex officio by the DRC or the PSC and not per request of the claimant.

If the basic conditions for the application of Article 12bis are fulfilled, said provision provides for the following sanctions that may be imposed on the defaulting club:

1.    a warning;

2.    a reprimand;

3.    a fine; or

4.    a ban from registering any new players, either nationally or internationally, for one or two entire and consecutive registration periods (hereinafter: “the registration ban”).[3]

Based on the wording of Article 12bis, i.e. the use of the word ‘may’, it is left to the discretionary power of the DRC and the PSC to decide whether or not to impose a sanction on the debtor club.[4] However, this discretionary power has never been used in favour of a defendant in all the published DRC or PSC decisions under review. In other words, a sanction, going from a warning to a transfer ban of two entire and consecutive periods, was imposed in all decisions. Despite the fact that it follows from Article 12bis(4) that sanctions may apply cumulatively, this option was only used once.[5] It seems that it will come into play only if the debtor club did not comply with its obligations on multiple occasions and only after the maximum sanction of a transfer ban of two entire and consecutive periods has been imposed on the debtor club. The discretionary power under Article 12bis is different from the sanction of a transfer ban as laid down in Article 17(4) of the RSTP. The latter article states that the competent body ‘shall’ sanction, as opposed to Article 12bis, which states that the competent body ‘may’ sanction.[6]


 The Warning

Out of the 99 published 12bis decisions of the DRC, 17 warnings have been imposed. Additionally, seven warnings have been imposed out of the 38 published 12bis decisions before the PSC. As follows from the jurisprudence of FIFA,[7] (only) a warning will be given by the FIFA committees in the event two conditions are cumulatively met:

1.             the club (duly) replied to the claim; and

2.             it is not a repeated offence.

It is however important to note that the height of the outstanding amount of overdue payables is not correlated with the imposition of a warning. The outstanding overdue payables in the 24 proceedings ending with a warning range from an overdue payable of 3,468 Euros (hereinafter: “EUR”) in two decisions of the DRC,[8] up to an amount of EUR 1,000,000 in a PSC decision.[9]

The jurisprudence also points out that the debtor club must reply to the claim in order to contain the possible sanction to a warning. Although several decisions refer to the fact that the club should have “duly replied to the claim”,[10] other decisions do not mention “duly” and these consider it enough that the club only “replied to the claim”.[11] Despite this difference in terminology, we conclude that almost any form of reply provided by the debtor club will be considered sufficient. In fact, no distinctive value is ascribed to the word “duly”.

The respondents gave divergent reasons for their non-compliances. One club contested the applicability of Article 12bis,[12] other clubs stated to have administrative difficulties[13] or financial difficulties,[14] whereas others claimed that they were communicating with the player’s agent to settle the matter amicably.[15] Apart from the claim related to the applicability of Article 12bis, which was rejected because the claimant lodged his claim after the entry into force of Article 12bis RSTP,[16] all the arguments raised were not considered valid reasons for non-payment of the outstanding monies. Although the jurisprudence does not give an exact answer to the question what would be considered “a prima facie contractual basis”, it can be concluded that the aforementioned circumstances did not fulfil these criteria.

Notwithstanding the above, the condition of having “(duly) replied to the claim” has recently been tackled by the DRC. In its decision of 23 May 2016, the respondent replied to the claim per e-mail.[17] The DRC considered this reply not to be sufficient to fulfil the standards of “(duly) replied to the claim” because “the Respondent only replied to the claim by e-mail and e-mail petitions shall have no legal effect in accordance with art. 16 par. 3 of the Procedural Rules.” In other words, the respondent should have replied by fax or ordinary mail.

Additionally and in line with the above, the DRC or the PSC has only imposed a warning when there was no repeated offence. In other words, the respondent in a 12bis procedure must actually be considered as a “first offender” in order to (only) get a warning. From the 24 decisions in which a warning has been imposed, there is only one not fulfilling the abovementioned two conditions.[18] In this (PSC) decision, the respondent party did not reply to the claim. However, during the course of the proceedings the respondent made a partial payment to the claimant.[19] Therefore, the PSC decided to impose a warning on the respondent, irrespective of the absence of a reply. In light of this decision, it must be kept in mind that making a partial payment during the course of the 12bis proceedings might alleviate the duty to ‘reply to the claim’.


 The Reprimand

Only two of the decisions published by FIFA contain a reprimand.[20] One decision was issued by the DRC,[21] the other one by the PSC.[22]

In the DRC decision, overdue payables of EUR 40,000 were due to the claimant based on a termination agreement.[23] In its reply to the claim, the respondent admitted that it had to pay compensation to the claimant, but only until he would have found a new club. The respondent considered that, since the claimant found a new club immediately after the agreed termination, no compensation was due.[24] Notwithstanding this, the DRC judge considered that there was no documentary evidence with regard to the argument of the respondent. Therefore, the DRC judge considered that the respondent had delayed a due payment for more than 30 days without a prima facie contractual basis. Based on the foregoing paragraph and the fact that the respondent replied to the claim, one would think that a sanction in the form of a warning should be imposed on the respondent. However, the DRC highlighted that the DRC judge had already imposed a warning on the respondent previously. Thus, it referred to Article 12bis(6), which establishes that “a repeated offence will be considered as an aggravating circumstance and lead to more severe penalty”.[25] Therefore, a reprimand was imposed.[26] In a similar decision of 26 May 2016, the PSC also imposed a reprimand.[27]

In conclusion, one could say that a reprimand is considered as a severe sanction and thus will not be imposed on a first offender. Although there have only been two (published) decisions of FIFA wherein a reprimand was actually imposed, one can expect that a reprimand will be imposed on a repeated offender who replied to the claim in his first and second 12bis procedure. The crucial advice that can be derived from the above analysis is that a respondent club should always reply in a 12bis procedure, because the warning and reprimand do not bring any financial or sportive consequences with it, contrary to the fine and the registration ban, which will be discussed hereunder.


The Fine
Introduction 

The only sanction that leads to direct financial consequences is the fine. The fine is a sanction that can be imposed in a 12bis procedure and needs to be paid by the debtor club to FIFA. As opposed to the warning and the reprimand, the jurisprudence shows that a fine will be imposed in the event that the respondent did not reply to the claim.

66 out of the 99 DRC and 29 out of the 38 PSC decisions involved a fine. After analysing the jurisprudence, we conclude that it is necessary to distinguish between a fine in a DRC procedure and a PSC procedure. In fact, the amount of the outstanding overdue payables differs considerably in both procedures.[28] Additionally, the level of the corresponding fines in DRC procedures compared to the PSC procedures are different.[29] The amounts of overdue payables in a 12bis procedure before the PSC are structurally higher than the amounts in a 12bis procedure before the DRC, while the amount of the fine is not structurally higher in a PSC procedure. Due to these differences between the DRC and the PSC, we decided to discuss the use of fines in the DRC and PSC procedures separately. Our aim was to determine how the judges define the level of the fine in a 12bis procedure. To do so, we use the so-called “category method”, which will be explained below.

Fines imposed by the DRC 

After analysing the decisions of FIFA in which fines were imposed, it seems that they do not correspond to a percentage of the outstanding overdue payables.[30] Instead, the level of a fine can be determined by means of several categories of fines. At least four general conclusions can be derived from the jurisprudence regarding the level of the fine for a defaulting club. 

Firstly, the level of the fine imposed by the DRC increases when the overdue payable is higher. Secondly, there are three categories of fines: i) a fine for the club which did not reply to the claim and is considered to be a first offender (First Category Offence);[31] ii) a fine for a club which did not reply to the claim and has been found by the DRC to have neglected its contractual obligations in the recent past (not being a 12bis procedure) (Second Category Offence) ;[32] and iii) a fine for a club which did not reply to the claim and has been sanctioned in a 12bis procedure previously (Third Category Offence).[33] Thirdly, the fine for a respondent club in a Second Category Offence is double the size of the fine for a respondent club in a First Category Offence.[34] Finally, the fine in a Third Category Offence is three times the size of the given fine in a First Category Offence.[35]

Based on our comprehensive study, we can conclude that the DRC determines the level of the fine by taking into consideration the above-mentioned three categories (First, Second and Third Category Offence) subject to an approximate range in relation to the outstanding amount due. Although the ranges are very hard to define with only 66 published DRC decisions yet, the below table sheds some light and provides for eight standard situations referring to various ranges of overdue payables: 

Situation

Range overdue payables  (in $/€)

Height of the fine (in CHF)

 

Situation 1

 

0,01 – 11,000

First Category  Offence: 1,000

Second Category  Offence: 2,000

Third Category  Offence: 3,000

 

Situation 2

 

11,001 – 20,000[36]

First Category  Offence: 2,000

Second Category  Offence: 4,000

Third Category  Offence: 6,000

 

Situation 3

 

20,001 – 50,000

First Category  Offence: 5,000

Second Category Offence: 10,000

Third Category Offence: 15,000

 

Situation 4

 

50,001 – 75,000

First Category Offence: 7,500

Second Category Offence: 15,000

Third Category Offence: 22,500

 

Situation 5

 

75,001 – 100,000

First Category Offence: 10,000

Second Category Offence: 20,000

Third Category Offence: 30,000

 

Situation 6

 

100,001 – 150,000

First Category Offence: 15,000

Second Category Offence: 30,000

Third Category Offence: 45,000

 

Situation 7

 

150,000 > at least 350,000

First Category Offence: 20,000

Second Category Offence: 40,000

Third Category Offence: 60,000

 

Situation 8

 

950,000[37] and higher

First Category Offence: 30,000

Second Category Offence: 60,000

Third Category Offence: 90,000

Figure 2[38]


Fines imposed by the PSC 

With regard to the PSC decisions, the authors tried to use the same method as for the DRC procedures. At first sight, it looks as if the PSC and the DRC use the same ranges for fines. However, the PSC decisions seem more arbitrary. It is therefore more difficult to draw definitive conclusions in relation to the PSC 12bis decisions. For example, in the decision of 12 October 2015, decided by a PSC’s Single Judge, a fine of CHF 15,000 was handed out to a first offender club with an overdue payable of EUR 1 million.[39] However, one can doubt whether this fine can be considered appropriate. In fact, a first offender club in another decision received the same fine, although with smaller overdue payables of EUR 200,000.[40] Another striking decision involves a fine of CHF 7,500 based on an overdue payable of USD 50,000.[41] In a comparable situation before the DRC, also with regard to a first offender, the club was sanctioned with a fine of CHF 5,000.[42] It is also remarkable that (only) in some cases the single judges did motivate the higher fines by mentioning the criteria for a Second- or Third Category Offence. After analysing these decisions more closely, one notices that two of the three Single Judges always mention the criteria of the Second- or Third Category Offence, while one only did it once (out of his six decisions). Because of this absence of motivation, one cannot definitely conclude whether these decisions fall into the Second- and Third Category Offence as defined in the context of the DRC’s jurisprudence. However, looking past these (minor) inconsistencies, we believe that most of the PSC decisions do fall within the ranges set out in Figure 2.[43] Additionally, one starts to see emerging an additional category, which is the fine of CHF 25,000. Figure 3 provides an overview of the height of the fines in relation to the various overdue payables in PSC proceedings.

 

Situation

Range overdue payable ($/€)

Height of the fine (in CHF)

 

Situation 1

 

0,01 – 11,000

First Category Offence: 1,000

Second Category Offence: 2,000

Third Category Offence: 3,000

 

Situation 2

 

11,000 – 20,000[44]

First Category Offence: 2,000

Second Category Offence: 4,000

Third Category Offence: 6,000

 

Situation 3

 

20,000 – 50,000

First Category Offence: 5,000

Second Category Offence: 10,000

Third Category Offence: 15,000

 

Situation 4

 

50,000 – 75,000

First Category Offence: 7,500

Second Category Offence: 15,000

Third Category Offence: 22,500

 

Situation 5

 

75,000 – 100,000

First Category Offence: 10,000

Second Category Offence: 20,000

Third Category Offence: 30,000

 

Situation 6

 

100,000 – 250,000[45]

First Category Offence: 15,000

Second Category Offence: 30,000

Third Category Offence: 45,000

 

Situation 7

 

250,000 – 500,000[46]

 

First Category Offence: 20,000

Second Category Offence: 40,000

Third Category Offence: 60,000

 

Situation 8

 

500,000 – 750,000[47]

First Category Offence: 25,000

Second Category Offence: 50,000

Third Category Offence: 75,000

 

Situation 9

 

750,000 and higher[48]

First Category Offence: 30,000

Second Category Offence: 60,000

Third Category Offence: 90,000

Figure 3


Transfer Ban

The toughest sanction that can be imposed by the DRC or the PSC in a 12bis procedure is the ban from registering any new players, either nationally or internationally, for one or two entire and consecutive registration periods. Contrary to the transfer ban enshrined in Article 17(4) of the RSTP, in a 12bis procedure a club can be banned from registering new players for the next one or two registration periods. This ban will be imposed if the amount due to the claimant is not paid by the respondent within 30 days as from the date of notification of an Article 12bis decision.[49]

Out of the 137 published 12bis decisions, 16 decisions (15 from the DRC, 1 from the PSC) indicated that a ban will be imposed if the amount due to the respective claimant is not paid by the respondent within 30 days as from the date of notification of the decision. Moreover, 13 decisions refer to a ban for one entire registration period. In three decisions the DRC decided to threaten a ban for the next entire two registration periods. 

What is striking is that in all decisions the respondents did not only not reply to the claim (or only after the investigation phase was closed which is equivalent to not replying)[50], but more importantly the respondents were found to have breached their financial obligations several times before. Either, the defaulting clubs were found to have delayed several outstanding payments for more than 30 days, or the respondent had (also) been found by the DRC as well as the DRC judge responsible for not complying with its financial obligations on various other recent occasions. We also encountered cases in which both conditions were met.[51]

Another striking element of the decisions in 12bis procedures is that the amount due is not deemed relevant to justify the imposition of a registration ban on the debtor club. In fact, a registration ban has been imposed with regard to an overdue payable of EUR 7,500,[52] but also regarding an overdue payable of EUR 250,000.[53]  

It seems that a ban for one entire period will be imposed in two situations:

1) the debtor club has been found by the DRC or the PSC to have delayed a due payment for more than 30 days without a prima facie contractual basis once, as a result of which a fine was imposed, and the debtor club has been found by the DRC to be responsible for not complying with its financial obligations towards players on various occasions in the recent past;[54] or

2) the debtor club has been found by the DRC or the PSC to have delayed a due payment for more than 30 days without a prima facie contractual basis twice, as a result of which a fine was imposed in at least one of the decisions.[55]

Put differently: the jurisprudence of the DRC and the PSC clearly shows a debtor club systematically receiving a registration ban for one entire period if the club had neglected its financial obligation towards players in more than one earlier decision by the DRC or the PSC, and if in these proceedings the respondent failed to reply to the claim and therefore received a fine from FIFA. What remains not entirely clear is what the DRC and PSC exactly mean by “various occasions in the recent past”. This could also refer to convictions in employment-related matters prior to the introduction of the 12bis procedure on 1 April 2015.

In the only PSC decision wherein a registration ban for one entire period was imposed, the debtor club had only once been found by the PSC to have delayed a due payment for more than 30 days without a prima facie contractual basis, as a result of which a fine was imposed.[56] The decision of the PSC did not mention that the respondent was responsible for not complying with its financial obligations towards players on various occasions in the recent past. This might suggest a differing interpretation between the DRC and the PSC.

The two years of jurisprudence further show that a registration ban for two entire and consecutive periods will be imposed when the debtor club has been found by the DRC or the PSC to have delayed a due payment for more than 30 days without a prima facie contractual basis twice, as a result of which fines (or even a registration ban of 1 period)[57] has been imposed and the debtor club has been found by the DRC to be responsible for not complying with its financial obligations towards players on various occasions in the recent past.[58]


Final Remarks 

The 12bis procedure can be considered as a powerful instrument for swift dispute resolution, which could be of great benefit to players and clubs. FIFA has put in place a fast track procedure and a strong enforcement system with respect to overdue payables by defaulting clubs towards players and clubs. So far, FIFA has contributed to the resolution of international disputes in 12bis procedures in a very efficient manner leading to a shortened timeframe for decisions, with an average duration of approximately two months.

The sanctioning power of FIFA is one of the fundamental strengths of the 12bis procedure. In all the 137 published decisions of the DRC and the PSC, a sanction was imposed on the defaulting clubs, varying from a warning to a registration ban. 

From the FIFA decisions, in which fines were imposed on defaulting clubs, it can also be derived that the level of the fine is determined by taking into consideration the earlier-mentioned three categories of wrongdoings (First, Second and Third Category Offence), subject to an approximate range in relation to the outstanding amount due. However, the 12bis decisions of the DRC so far are more systematic and predictable than the PSC’s. Finally, the heaviest sanction, the transfer ban, will only be imposed in case the defaulting club not only did not reply to the claims, but also breached its financial obligations several times in the past. Fortunately, FIFA does not shy away from using sanctions, but only clubs that went too far will face the more severe ones.

Although the conclusions drawn by the authors can help practitioners confronted to 12bis procedures, they are based only on the published jurisprudence between 1 April 2015 and 1 April 2017. It must be taken into account that FIFA committees might change their interpretation and implementation practice regarding the 12bis procedure in the future. However, the jurisprudence of FIFA committees reviewed and analysed in this article can at least shed some light on the functioning of FIFA’s 12bis procedure, and in particular on its effective sanctioning regime, over the last two years.


[1] Art. 12bis(2) RSTP, edition 2016.

[2] Art. 12bis(3) RSTP, edition 2016.

[3] Art. 12bis(4) RSTP, edition 2016.

[4] Art. 12bis(2) RSTP and Art. 12bis(4) RSTP, edition 2016.

[5] DRC 14 November 2016, no. op11161545-E. For a more detailed analysis of DRC decisions, the authors make reference to this more extensive ISLJ article.

[6] Although it follows however from a literal interpretation of Art. 17(4) RSTP that it is a duty of the competent body to impose sporting sanctions whenever a club is found to have breached an employment contract during the protected period, according to the CAS there is a well-accepted and consistent practice of the FIFA DRC not to apply automatically a sanction but to leave it to its free discretion to evaluate the particular and specific circumstances on a case by case basis. See CAS 2014/A/3765 Club X. v. D. & FIFA, award of 5 June 2015.

[7] See inter alia DRC 16 February 2016, no. op02161765.

[8] DRC 28 January 2016, no. op1501703 and DRC 28 January 2016, no. op01161539.

[9] See PSC 7 May 2015, no. op0515353. Even EUR 50,000 higher in PSC 2 June 2016, no. op0616540. The highest outstanding payable in a DRC decision is EUR 950,000. See DRC 11 September 2015, no. 09151030.

[10] See inter alia DRC 28 January 2016, no. op01161539.

[11] See inter alia DRC 13 January 2016, no. op0116826.

[12] DRC 15 October 2015, no. op1015914. See also CAS 2015/A/4153 Al-Gharafa SC v. Nicolas Fedor & FIFA, award of 9 May 2016 and CAS 2016/A/4387 Delfino Pescara 1936 v. Royal Standard Liège & FIFA, award of 8 July 2016. 

[13] PSC 9 July 2015, no. op0715599 and PSC 7 May 2015, no. op0515353.

[14] DRC 13 January 2016, no. op0116826, DRC 25 April 2016, no. op0416115, DRC 7 July 2016, no. op0716778, PSC 2 June 2016, no. op0616540 and PSC 13 September 2016, no. op09161090.

[15] DRC 16 February 2016, no. op02161765 and DRC 15 March 2016, no. op0316303.

[16] Also confirmed in CAS 2016/A/4387 Delfino Pescara 1936 v. Royal Standard Liège & FIFA, award of 8 July 2016.

[17] DRC 23 May 2016, no. op0516571. The DRC can be quite sceptical towards information that is contained in emails. See inter alia DRC 31 July 2013, no. 07133206.

[18] PSC 3 June 2015, no. op0615400.

[19] For a more detailed analysis of the DRC decision, see our pending ISLJ article.

[20] However, some decisions – wherein a heavy sanction such as a transfer ban was issued – refer to an earlier conviction of the debtor club wherein a reprimand was given. See inter alia DRC 26 October 2016, no. op10160931-E.

[21] See DRC 26 November 2015, no. op11151356.

[22] See PSC 26 May 2016, no. op05160482.

[23] DRC 26 November 2015, no. op11151356.

[24] DRC 26 November 2015, no. op11151356, paras. (II) 7 and 8.

[25] DRC 26 November 2015, no. op11151356, para. (II) 17.

[26] DRC 26 November 2015, no. op11151356, para. (II) 18.

[27] For a more detailed analysis of this decision, see our pending ISLJ article.

[28] For a more detailed analysis of DRC decisions in this regard, see our pending ISLJ article.

[29] Cf. DRC 28 January 2016, no. op01161541 and PSC 12 October 2015, no. op10151035. In the DRC decision, the debtor club had an overdue payable of USD 100,807. In this case, the DRC imposed a fine of CHF 15,000. In the PSC decision, the debtor club had an overdue payable of EUR 1 million. However, the PSC imposed the same fine of CHF 15,000.

[30] For a more detailed analysis of the “percentage method”, see our pending ISLJ article.

[31] If these criteria were cumulatively met, the jurisprudence points out that a fine was given by FIFA to a club in a 12bis procedure. A First Category Offence was also given to a debtor club who responded to the claim, but was already sanctioned with a warning and reprimand in earlier 12bis procedures. In that case, the warning and the reprimand sanctions were exhausted and, thus, a fine was ordered by the DRC.

[32] See inter alia DRC 18 May 2016, no. op0516646. For a more detailed analysis of the DRC decisions, see our pending ISLJ article.

[33] See inter alia DRC 3 July 2015, no. op0715641. For a more detailed analysis of the DRC decision, t see our pending ISLJ article.

[34] For a more detailed illustration of DRC decisions, see our pending ISLJ article.

[35] Idem.

[36] This range differs from the range the authors have set in a previous article (see Global Sports Law and Taxation Reports, ‘Overview of the jurisprudence of the FIFA DRC in 12bis procedures’, March 2017). This difference is based on recently published jurisprudence: see DRC 28 February 2017, no. op02172117-E.

[37] DRC 11 September 2015, no. 09151030.

[38] For a more detailed analysis of DRC decisions, see our pending ISLJ article.

[39] PSC 12 October 2015, no. op10151035.

[40] PSC 12 October 2015, no. op10151010. Even more striking is the fact that this decision was dealt with on the same date as the aforementioned decision in footnote 61 above, by the same Single Judge. Only two weeks later, in PSC 29 October 2015, no. op10151014, the PSC imposed a fine of CHF 25,000 with regard to an overdue payable of EUR 590,000 to a first offender club.

[41] PSC 9 July 2015, no. op0715584.

[42] DRC 5 October 2015, no. op10151049.

[43] Only PSC 12 October 2015, no. op10151035 seems to be the odd one out.

[44] See footnote  58.

[45] This border is brought to 250,000, based on PSC 16 November 2015, no. op11151300, wherein a fine based on a Third Category Offence of CHF 45,000 was imposed with an overdue payable of USD 250,000, which sets the border at approximately 250,000.

[46] This border is brought to 500,000, based on PSC 25 February 2016, no. op0216170, wherein a fine of CHF 20,000 based on a First Category Offence was imposed with an overdue payable of EUR 450,093, which sets the border at approximately 500,000.

[47] This border is brought to 750,000, based on the decision PSC 29 June 2016, no. op0616676, wherein a fine of CHF 30,000 based on a First Category Offence was imposed with an overdue payable of EUR 750,000. In a decision with an overdue payable of EUR 675,000 (PSC 24 November 2015, no. op11151385), a fine of CHF 50,000 based on a Second Category Offence was given, which sets the border at approximately 750,000.

[48] At least until an overdue payable of USD 1,367,500 falls within this category; see PSC 21 August 2015, no. op0815530.

[49] See inter alia DRC 8 September 2016, no. op0916308. However, this may differ in a situation where sanctions are imposed cumulatively.

[50] See DRC 8 September 2016, no. op0916308 and DRC 15 July 2016, no. op0716703.

[51] In the context of a retroactive application of Article 12bis, as discussed in the context of the CAS award of 17 June 2016 (see CAS 2015/A/4310 Al Hilal Saudi Club v. Abdou Kader Mangane, award of 17 June 2016), it can be questioned whether the decisions of FIFA bodies prior to the date of 1 April 2015 (which per definition were decisions in ‘regular’ FIFA proceedings) can be taken into account and held against the club in default. For a more detailed analysis of this legal issue of retro-active application, see our pending ISLJ article. See also Lombardi, P., Worlds Sports Law Report, September 2016, “Article 12bis of the FIFA Regulations: 18 months on”, p. 5.

[52] DRC 26 May 2016, no. op0516585.

[53] PSC 20 June 2016, no. op0616676.

[54] See inter alia DRC 8 September 2016, no. op0916308.

[55] See inter alia DRC 27 October 2015, no. op10151248, wherein the debtor club had received a fine in both earlier decisions. In DRC 17 October 2016, no. op10161355-E, the debtor club had only received a fine in the second decision.

[56] PSC 20 June 2016, no. op0616676.

[57] DRC 29 July 2016, no. op0716699. The previous decision, wherein a transfer ban for one entire period was imposed, is also published: DRC 4 February 2016, no. op02161733.

[58] See inter alia DRC 13 September 2016, no. op09161247.

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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

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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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