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Dahmane v KRC Genk: Bosman 2.0 or Storm in a Teacup?

Mohamed Dahmane is a professional football player of French-Algerian origin, who has played for a variety of European clubs, including French club US Mauberge, Belgian club RAEC Mons and Turkish club Bucaspor. However, he will mostly be remembered as the player whose legal dispute with his former club (Belgian club KRC Genk) revived the debate on football players’ labour rights.  

Journalists wasted no time in comparing it to the Bosman case.[1] Fair enough, Dahmane and Bosman do show some striking similarities: the two cases concerned players employed by mediocre Belgian football clubs claiming their right to be treated as normal workers. Furthermore, in both cases the respective Courts met (to a large extend) the players’ demands. The Bosman case not only changed labour conditions for all footballers, it shook the whole transfer system. In Dahmane, the case is essentially about whether it is justifiable to have a special law that obliges professional football players who unilaterally break their players’ contract to compensate their club for up to 36 months of salary. After all, “normal” workers are only obliged to pay a 12 months of salary compensation in an identical situation. Whether the Dahmane case will have the same weight as Bosman depends on the effects of the judgment on footballers in Belgium, but also on the European football sector in general. Therefore, a close look at the ruling is needed to understand its potential consequences.

Dahmane signed a four-year contract with KRC Genk on 1 July 2007, he then unilaterally terminated the contract in January 2008 following a row with his coach. Due to the contract termination, KRC Genk demanded a compensation amounting to EUR 878.888,88. The demand was based on Articles 4 § 4 and 5 § 2 of the Law for Professional Athletes and the Royal Decree of 13 July 2004. Indeed, according to the Royal Decree, the compensation had to be equal to 36 months of salary. Dahmane disagreed with KRC Genk’s demands and argued that the compensation should be calculated in accordance with Article 40 § 1 of the general Labour Agreements Law. Pursuant to this Article the severance pay can only amount to a maximum of 12 months of salary.

In a judgment of 25 May 2009, the Labour Court (Court of first instance) concurred with the demands of KRC Genk and ordered Dahmane to compensate KRC Genk for EUR 878.888,88.

Dahmane placed an appeal with The Court of Labour arguing that Article 4 § 4 of the Law for Professional Athletes and the Royal Decree breached Articles 10 and 11 of the Belgian Constitution on equal treatment and non-discrimination.[2] KRC Genk, for its part, argued that the difference between labour agreements of professional footballers on the one hand and “normal” labour agreements on the other is based on the ‘specific character of labour agreements of professional footballers and the specific character of sport in general’. Thus, the ‘specificity of sport’ would imply a special status for sport, whereby ‘normal’ law (i.e. the general Labour Agreements Law) cannot be applied unabridged. KRC Genk highlighted that to achieve the objectives inherent to football, which include avoiding competition distortions and the preservation of the stability of participating sport clubs, certain specific measures, such as the Royal Decree of 2004, can be taken in order to safeguard the legal certainty of labour relationships in the sport sector.[3]

The Court of Labour dismissed the arguments raised by KRC Genk, and held that the Royal Decree applies to all professional sports, not only to football, thereby denying validity to RKC Genk’s claims on the specificity of football.[4]

The Court agreed with KRC Genk that sport exhibits certain characteristics that can deviate from other labour relationships between employer and employee. However, the Royal Decree in question did not mention the specificity of sport in its text, nor does it provide any objective justifications as to why separate rules regarding compensation after a unilateral termination of a labour contract is necessary for the sport sector. Furthermore, the pursuit of financial profits, and the importance of preserving a fair competition have to be taken into account. Those economic objectives are not specific to the sport sector. Therefore, the Court saw no valid reason justifying a separate Royal Decree, when sport’s economic dimension can be equally covered by existing legislation. In other words, the same laws should be used to achieve the same objectives.[5]

As regards KRC Genk’s view that some rules preventing richer clubs from buying all the good players from smaller clubs, thereby distorting competition, are justifiable, the Court found that to be incorrect. Even though it is true that football’s transfer system is different from “normal” movement of workers, a distinction needs to be made between buying and selling of players on the one hand, and the unilateral termination of a player’s contract on the other hand. Here again the Court found the breach of the Constitutional Articles on equal treatment and non-discrimination based on the specificity of the football transfer system was not objectively justified in the Royal Decree.

The Court reminded the parties that the transfer system, which only allows two periods a year for clubs to buy and sell players, would limit the possibility for professional footballers to change clubs. Moreover, it highlighted that compensation equal to 12 months of salary comprises two transfer periods, and should therefore not be seen as unreasonable. Lastly, the Court took into account that the average career of a professional sportsman is relatively short (12 years according to KRC Genk and six to eight years according to Dahmane). A compensation amounting to 36 months of salary would, for many professional players, amount to 1/3 of the player’s revenue during his career and should therefore be deemed unjustifiable.[6]

Hence, the Court considered that a Royal Decree imposing a compensation of 36 months of salary on a player breaching his contract is disproportionate. Furthermore, the Court found the Royal Decree unjustifiable under the Constitutional principle of equal treatment and non-discrimination.

Dahmane revives a debate that has occupied academics in the fields of sports law, labour law and other fields of law for many decades. Is sport special and do its specificities oblige the European and national legislators to make laws that answer the specificities of sport? Should professional athletes be treated different from normal workers because sport is “special”? After Bosman, no transfer fees needed to be paid for players whose contract had ended and no limitations on the number of EU nationals were allowed to be imposed by the football clubs. In other words, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) found professional footballers to be very much like normal workers. Similarly, the Dahmane case lead the Belgian Court of Labour to deny any difference between professional athletes and normal workers regarding compensation after a unilateral termination of the labour contract. Even though Dahmane, as appellant, had asked the Court to raise a preliminary question to the ECJ on the compatibility of the law with the free movement of workers[7], the Court decided the case under Belgian law only.[8] It is therefore highly unlikely that Dahmane will have the same transnational effect as Bosman and mass unilateral contract terminations by professional athletes across the EU are not to be expected. 

Dahmane could set a precedent and encourage professional players in Belgium to simply break their contract, move to another club and pay compensation equal to 12 months of salary. This would be the worst-case scenario for Belgian clubs, since a compensation equal to 12 months of salary will nearly always be inferior to a transfer fee. On the other hand, mass unilateral contract terminations by footballers in Belgium would vindicate the need for specific regulation for football clubs.

In many ways the Belgian Court of Labour has “passed the ball” back to the Belgian legislator. Should the Belgian legislator feel that professional athletes, or footballers for that matter, have to be treated differently compared to normal workers then it could always decide to adopt specific laws or Royal Decrees for professional athletes. However, Dahmane will serve as a warning that these separate laws or Royal Decrees will need proper objective justifications as to why professional athletes are to be treated differently.

[1] See for example: Zaak-Dahmane krijgt allure van zaak-Bosman

[2] Arrest A.R. 2009/AH/199 (6 may 2014) Sub II, §1

[3] Ibid, Sub III §6

[4] Ibid, §7

[5] Ibid, §6

[6] Ibid, §7

[7] Ibid, Sub II, §1

[8] Ibid, Sub III §12

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