Asser International Sports Law Blog

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

Blog Symposium: FIFA’s TPO ban and its compatibility with EU competition law - Introduction - Antoine Duval & Oskar van Maren

Day 1: FIFA must regulate TPO, not ban it.
Day 2: Third-party entitlement to shares of transfer fees: problems and solutions
Day 3: The Impact of the TPO Ban on South American Football.
Day 4: Third Party Investment from a UK Perspective.
Day 5: Why FIFA's TPO ban is justified.

On 22 December 2014, FIFA officially introduced an amendment to its Regulations on the Status and Transfers of Players banning third-party ownership of players’ economic rights (TPO) in football. This decision to put a definitive end to the use of TPO in football is controversial, especially in countries where TPO is a mainstream financing mechanism for clubs, and has led the Portuguese and Spanish football leagues to launch a complaint in front of the European Commission, asking it to find the FIFA ban contrary to EU competition law.

Next week, we will feature a Blog Symposium discussing the FIFA TPO ban and its compatibility with EU competition law. We are proud and honoured to welcome contributions from both the complainant (the Spanish football league, La Liga) and the defendant (FIFA) and three renowned experts on TPO matters: Daniel Geey ( Competition lawyer at Fieldfisher, aka @FootballLaw), Ariel Reck (lawyer at Reck Sports law in Argentina, aka @arielreck) and Raffaele Poli (Social scientist and head of the CIES Football Observatory). The contributions will focus on different aspects of the functioning of TPO and on the impact and consequences of the ban.

Before the five blogs (starting with the complainant, La Liga, on Tuesday) will be published next week on a daily basis, we have the pleasure to kick off today with a light introduction to TPO. At the end of next week we will synthesise the debate and provide our preliminary take on the ban’s compatibility with EU law.

With this exciting Blog Symposium on one of the hottest sports law topics, we celebrate the first anniversary of the ASSER International Sports Law Blog (last year’s opening blog is here). We hope you will enjoy the read and feel free to comment! 

What is TPO? 

The use of the notion of TPO is often criticized because it misrepresents the situation it purposes to qualify. Indeed, no third-party owns a player, but only a share of the “economic right” linked to the transfer of the player’s “federative right”[1]. This is why, as you will see later next week, some of our authors refuse to use the term and have opted for alternative concepts, such as TPE (third-party entitlements) or TPI (third-party investment). Due to our legal obsession with the written word, we will personally hold onto TPO as it is the notion enshrined in FIFA’s regulations.

Beyond this semantic debate, a plurality of contractual constellations is captured under the umbrella term TPO. What is common to all cases is that a company or an individual provides a football club or a player with money in return for being entitled to a share of a player’s future transfer value. Thus, TPO is enshrined in a separate private law contract between a third-party and a club or a player. The plurality of TPO situations derives from this contractual basis. The parties are free under national private law to creatively draft those contracts as they see fit, each one of them being a specific type of TPO in itself. 

The main aim of the practice is to finance clubs. Often TPO is used to externalise the costs of recruiting a player, sometimes it is used to finance the general functioning of a club. However, the use of TPO is always intimately connected to the drive of professional clubs to diversify their funding sources in order to leverage their competitiveness in national and international competitions. Nowadays, a club like Atletico Madrid would probably not have been able to reach the final of the Champions League or win La Liga without having widespread recourse to it.

What are the problems with TPO?

We do not want to spoil too much of next week’s discussion, but we need to at least mention the possible problems that have been linked with the use of TPO and that might serve as a potential justification for banning it. TPO is first and foremost seen as an intrusion of a third-party in the life of a football club and a player with the potential for an illegitimate influence on the management of the team and the player’s career. The many conflicts of interest that might arise in the shadow of multiple, sometimes contradictory, investments are particularly feared. TPO is also seen as a dubious financing technique used to circumvent the new UEFA Financial Fair Play regulations and to prop up clubs that are chronically in financial troubles. Finally, there is a moral dimension. For example, UEFA president Michel Platini likened TPO to a type of modern “slavery”. In short, should it be acceptable for someone to own a share of an economic right personally attached to a player? Can a player be forced-sold on the basis of a TPO agreement? All these issues will be discussed extensively next week; they are central to the evaluation of the ban’s compatibility with EU competition law. 

Regulating TPO or banning it? That is the question!

TPO has been banned for some time in England, France and Poland, while it was authorized in the rest of the World. The English FA, profoundly traumatized by the Carlos Tévez case, decided to ban the practice as early as 2008. In other countries, particularly Spain, Portugal and South America, TPO has been, and still is, part of the “football culture”. For example, it is estimated that in Brazil’s top division 90% of the players are subjected to a TPO agreement. In these countries TPO is seen as a necessity for national football clubs - not only to compete with clubs in richer countries, but also for professional football to be financially viable. It was no surprise that the leagues and clubs of the abovementioned countries were against a blanket ban of TPO and would rather see it being regulated. They consistently expressed this opposition during the FIFA Congress in June 2014 and the working groups created by FIFA in September 2014 with the aim of tackling the issue. Nonetheless, on 26 September the FIFA executive committee took the decision to ban third-party ownership of players’ economic rights (TPO) with a short transitional period. Following this announcement, the FIFA circular fleshing out the legal details of the ban was published on 22 December. Article 18bis of the Regulations on the Status and Transfers of Players was amended and the Regulations now include a new Article 18ter.[2] These new articles came into force on 1 January 2015 and, after a transition period, TPO will officially be banned as of 1 May 2015.

This total ban raises many practical and legal questions. What is to become of the already signed TPO agreements? Will the ban be fully enforced? Or, will creative schemes arise to circumvent it? Was there a less restricting alternative to attain its objective? And…is it compatible with EU competition law? 

The debate is open!

[1] The legal construction underlying TPO is clearly explained (unfortunately only in Italian) by Leandro Cantamessa in his article, ‘Un Tema Semi-Nuovo di Diritto Sportivo Internazionale: la Third Party Ownership (TPO)’, in L’Europa e lo sport (a cura di) S. Bastianon, G. Giappichelli Editore, 2014, pp.123-134.

[2] Article 18bis(1) will now read : “No club shall enter into a contract which enables the counter club/counter clubs, and vice versa, or any third party to acquire the ability to influence in employment and transfer-related matter its independence, its policies or the performance of its teams.”

Article 18ter:

1.      No club or player shall enter into an agreement with a third party whereby a third party is being entitled to participate, either in full or in part, in compensation payable in relation to the future transfer of a player from one club to another, or is being assigned any rights in relation to a future transfer or transfer compensation.

2.      The interdiction as per paragraph 1 comes into force on 1 May 2015.

3.      Agreements covered by paragraph 1 which predate 1 May 2015 may continue to be in place until their contractual expiration. However, their duration may not be extended.

4.      The validity of any agreement covered by paragraph 1 signed between 1 January 2015 and 30 April 2015 may not have a contractual duration of more than 1 year beyond the effective date.

5.      By the end of April 2015, all existing agreements covered by paragraph 1 need to be recorded within the Transfer Matching System (TMS). All clubs that have signed such agreements are required to upload them in their entirety, including possible annexes or amendments, in TMS, specifying the details of the third party concerned, the full name of the player as well as the duration of the agreement.

6.      The FIFA Disciplinary Committee may impose disciplinary measures on clubs or players that do not observe the obligations set out in this article.

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