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

I’m A Loser Baby, So Let’s Kill Transparency – Recent Changes to the Olympic Games Host City Selection Process - By Ryan Gauthier (Thompson Rivers University)

Editor's Note: Ryan Gauthier is Assistant Professor at Thompson Rivers University in Canada. Ryan’s research addresses the governance of sports organisations, with a particular focus on international sports organisations. His PhD research examined the accountability of the International Olympic Committee for human rights violations caused by the organisation of the Olympic Games.

Big June 2019 for Olympic Hosting

On June 24, 2019, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) selected Milano-Cortina to host the 2026 Winter Olympic Games. Milano-Cortina’s victory came despite a declaration that the bid was “dead” just months prior when the Italian government refused to support the bid. Things looked even more dire for the Italians when 2006 Winter Games host Turin balked at a three-city host proposal. But, when the bid was presented to the members of the IOC Session, it was selected over Stockholm-Åre by 47 votes to 34. 

Just two days later, the IOC killed the host selection process as we know it. The IOC did this by amending two sections of the Olympic Charter in two key ways. First, the IOC amended Rule 33.2, eliminating the requirement that the Games be selected by an election seven years prior to the Games. While an election by the IOC Session is still required, the seven-years-out requirement is gone.

Second, the IOC amended Rule 32.2 to allow for a broader scope of hosts to be selected for the Olympic Games. Prior to the amendment, only cities could host the Games, with the odd event being held in another location. Now, while cities are the hosts “in principle”, the IOC had made it so: “where deemed appropriate, the IOC may elect several cities, or other entities, such as regions, states or countries, as host of the Olympic Games.”

The change to rule 33.2 risks undoing the public host selection process. The prior process included bids (generally publicly available), evaluation committee reports, and other mechanisms to make the bidding process transparent. Now, it is entirely possible that the IOC may pre-select a host, and present just that host to the IOC for an up-or-down vote. This vote may be seven years out from the Games, ten years out, or two years out. More...

A New Chapter for EU Sports Law and European Citizenship Rights? The TopFit Decision - By Thomas Terraz

Editor’s note: Thomas Terraz is a third 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

Christmas has come very early this year for the EU sports law world in the form of the Court of Justice of the European Union’s (CJEU) judgment in TopFit eV, Daniele Biffi v Deutscher Leichtathletikverband eV by exclusively analyzing the case on the basis of European citizenship rights and its application to rules of sports governing bodies that limit their exercise. The case concerned an Italian national, Daniele Biffi, who has been residing in Germany for over 15 years and participates in athletic competitions in the senior category, including the German national championships. In 2016, the Deutscher Leichtathletikverband (DLV), the German Athletics Federation, decided to omit a paragraph in its rules that allowed the participation of EU nationals in national championships on the same footing as German citizens. As a result, participation in the national championship was subject to prior authorization of the organizers of the event, and even if participation was granted, the athlete may only compete outside of classification and may not participate in the final heat of the competition. After having been required to compete out of classification for one national championship and even dismissed from participating in another, Mr. Biffi and TopFit, his athletics club based in Berlin, brought proceedings to a German national court. The national court submitted a request for a preliminary ruling to the CJEU in which it asked essentially whether the rules of the DLV, which may preclude or at least require a non-national to compete outside classification and the final heat, are contrary to Articles 18, 21 and 165 TFEU. Articles 18 and 21 TFEU, read together, preclude discrimination on the basis of nationality against European citizens exercising their free movement. The underlying (massive) question here is whether these provisions can be relied on by an amateur athlete against a private body, the DLV.

Covered in a previous blog, the Advocate General’s (AG) opinion addressed the case from an entirely different angle. Instead of tackling the potentially sensitive questions attached with interpreting the scope of European citizenship rights, the opinion focused on the application of the freedom of establishment because the AG found that participation in the national championships was sufficiently connected to the fact Mr. Biffi was a professional trainer who advertised his achievements in those competitions on his website. Thus, according to the AG, there was a sufficient economic factor to review the case under a market freedom. The CJEU, in its decision, sidelined this approach and took the application of European citizenship rights head on.

The following will dissect the Court’s decision by examining the three central legal moves of the ruling: the general applicability of EU law to amateur sport, the horizontal applicability of European citizenship rights, and justifications and proportionality requirements of access restrictions to national competitions. More...

International and European Sports Law – Monthly Report – April and May 2019. By Tomáš Grell

Editor's note: This report compiles all relevant news, events and materials on International and European Sports Law based on the daily coverage provided on our twitter feed @Sportslaw_asser. You are invited to complete this survey via the comments section below, feel free to add links to important cases, documents and articles we might have overlooked.


The Headlines 

Caster Semenya learns that it is not always easy for victims of discrimination to prevail in court

The world of sport held its breath as the Secretary General of the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) Matthieu Reeb stood before the microphones on 1 May 2019 to announce the verdict reached by three arbitrators (one of them dissenting) in the landmark case involving the South African Olympic and world champion Caster Semenya. Somewhat surprisingly, the panel of arbitrators came to the conclusion that the IAAF’s regulations requiring female athletes with differences of sexual development to reduce their natural testosterone level below the limit of 5 nmol/L and maintain that reduced level for a continuous period of at least six months in order to be eligible to compete internationally at events between 400 metres and a mile, were necessary, reasonable and proportionate to attain the legitimate aim of ensuring fair competition in female athletics, even though the panel recognised that the regulations were clearly discriminatory. Ms Semenya’s legal team decided to file an appeal against the ruling at the Swiss Federal Tribunal. For the time being, this appears to be a good move since the tribunal ordered the IAAF at the beginning of June to suspend the application of the challenged regulations to Ms Semenya with immediate effect, which means that Ms Semenya for now continues to run medication-free.


Champions League ban looms on Manchester City

On 18 May 2019, Manchester City completed a historic domestic treble after defeating Watford 6-0 in the FA Cup Final. And yet there is a good reason to believe that the club’s executives did not celebrate as much as they would under normal circumstances. This is because only two days before the FA Cup Final the news broke that the chief investigator of the UEFA Club Financial Control Body (CFCB) had decided to refer Manchester City’s case concerning allegations of financial fair play irregularities to the CFCB adjudicatory chamber for a final decision. Thus, the chief investigator most likely found that Manchester City had indeed misled UEFA over the real value of its sponsorship income from the state-owned airline Etihad and other companies based in Abu Dhabi, as the leaked internal emails and other documents published by the German magazine Der Spiegel suggested. The chief investigator is also thought to have recommended that a ban on participation in the Champions League for at least one season be imposed on the English club. The club’s representatives responded to the news with fury and disbelief, insisting that the CFCB investigatory chamber had failed to take into account a comprehensive body of irrefutable evidence it had been provided with. They eventually decided not to wait for the decision of the CFCB adjudicatory chamber, which is yet to be adopted, and meanwhile took the case to the CAS, filing an appeal against the chief investigator’s referral.


The Brussels Court of Appeal dismisses Striani’s appeal on jurisdictional grounds

The player agent Daniele Striani failed to convince the Brussels Court of Appeal that it had jurisdiction to entertain his case targeting UEFA’s financial fair play regulations. On 11 April 2019, the respective court dismissed his appeal against the judgment of the first-instance court without pronouncing itself on the question of compatibility of UEFA’s financial fair play regulations with EU law. The court held that it was not competent to hear the case because the link between the regulations and their effect on Mr Striani as a player agent, as well as the link between the regulations and the role of the Royal Belgian Football Association in their adoption and enforcement, was too remote (for a more detailed analysis of the decision, see Antoine’s blog here). The Brussels Court of Appeal thus joined the European Court of Justice and the European Commission as both these institutions had likewise rejected to assess the case on its merits in the past.


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League of Legends European Championships - Challenging the Boundaries of Sport in EU Law - By Thomas Terraz

Editor’s note: Thomas Terraz is a third 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

The surge of e-sports has stimulated a lively discussion on the essential characteristics of sport and whether e-sports, in general, can be considered a sport. However, one should not overlook the fact that e-sports encompass a broad range of video games that fundamentally differ from one another. Thus, as one commentator recently underlined, “the position of video games and the e-sport competitions based on them should be analysed on a case-by-case basis.”[1] In this spirit, this blog aims to provide a concise analysis of one of these e-sports, League of Legends (LoL), and one of its main competitions, the League of Legends European Championship (LEC), to assess whether it could be considered a sport in the sense of EU law. The LEC offers a fascinating opportunity to examine this issue especially since the previous European League of Legends Championship Series (EU LCS) was rebranded and restructured this year into the LEC. More...

Will the World Cup 2022 Expansion Mark the Beginning of the End of FIFA’s Human Rights Journey? - By Daniela Heerdt

Editor's note: Daniela Heerdt is a PhD candidate at Tilburg Law School in the Netherlands. Her PhD research deals with the establishment of responsibility and accountability for adverse human rights impacts of mega-sporting events, with a focus on FIFA World Cups and Olympic Games.

About three years ago, the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) adopted a new version of its Statutes, including a statutory commitment to respect internationally recognized human rights. Since then, FIFA undertook a human rights journey that has been praised by various stakeholders in the sports and human rights field. In early June, the FIFA Congress is scheduled to take a decision that could potentially undo all positive efforts taken thus far.

FIFA already decided in January 2017 to increase the number of teams participating in the 2026 World Cup from 32 to 48. Shortly after, discussions began on the possibility to also expand the number of teams for the 2022 World Cup hosted in Qatar. Subsequently, FIFA conducted a feasibility study, which revealed that the expansion would be feasible but require a number of matches to be hosted in neighbouring countries, explicitly mentioning Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). One does not have to be a human rights expert to be highly alarmed by this list of potential co-hosting countries. Nevertheless, the FIFA Council approved of the possibility to expand in March 2019, paving the way for the FIFA Congress to take a decision on the matter. Obviously, the advancement of the expansion decision raises serious doubts over the sincerity of FIFA’s reforms and human rights commitments. More...

How Data Protection Crystallises Key Legal Challenges in Anti-Doping - 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. Her interests focus on interdisciplinary approaches as a way of designing effective solutions in the field of anti-doping and other science-based domains. Her book “Evidence in Anti-Doping at the Intersection of Science & Law” was published through T.M.C Asser Press / Springer in late 2015. She participates as a co-author on a project hosted by the University of Neuchâtel to produce the first article-by-article legal commentary of the 2021 World Anti-Doping Code. In her practice, she regularly advises international federations and other sports organisations on doping and other regulatory matters, in particular on aspects of scientific evidence, privacy or research regulation. She also has experience assisting clients in arbitration proceedings before the Court of Arbitration for Sport or other sport tribunals.

Since the spectre of the EU General Data Protection Regulation (‘GDPR’) has loomed over the sports sector,[1] a new wind seems to be blowing on anti-doping, with a palpable growing interest for stakes involved in data processing. Nothing that would quite qualify as a wind of change yet, but a gentle breeze of awareness at the very least.

Though the GDPR does mention the fight against doping in sport as a potential matter of public health in its recitals,[2] EU authorities have not gone so far as to create a standalone ground on which anti-doping organisations could rely to legitimise their data processing. Whether or not anti-doping organisations have a basis to process personal data – and specifically sensitive data – as part of their anti-doping activities, thus remains dependent on the peculiarities of each national law. Even anti-doping organisations that are incorporated outside the EU are affected to the extent they process data about athletes in the EU.[3] This includes international sports federations, many of which are organised as private associations under Swiss law. Moreover, the Swiss Data Protection Act (‘DPA’) is currently under review, and the revised legal framework should largely mirror the GDPR, subject to a few Swiss peculiarities. All anti-doping organisations undertake at a minimum to abide by the WADA International Standard for Privacy and the Protection of Personal Information (‘ISPPPI’), which has been adapted with effect to 1 June 2018 and enshrines requirements similar to those of the GDPR. However, the ISPPPI stops short of actually referring to the GDPR and leaves discretion for anti-doping organisations to adapt to other legislative environments.

The purpose of this blog is not to offer a detailed analysis of the requirements that anti-doping organisations must abide by under data protection laws, but to highlight how issues around data processing have come to crystallise key challenges that anti-doping organisations face globally. Some of these challenges have been on the table since the adoption of the first edition of the World Anti-Doping Code (‘WADC’) but are now exposed in the unforgiving light of data protection requirements. More...

What happens in Switzerland stays in Switzerland: The Striani Judgment of the Brussels Court of Appeals

In the last five years, the Striani case has been the main sword of Damocles hanging over UEFA’s Financial Fair Play Regulations. At the very least, the only real judicial threat they have faced (apart from the relatively harmless challenge mounted in the Galatasaray case at the CAS). Indeed, a Belgian player agent, Daniele Striani, represented by Bosman’s former lawyer Jean-Louis Dupont, attempted, in various fora, to challenge the compatibility of UEFA’s CL&FFP Regulations with EU law. Striani lodged a complaint with the European Commission (which was quickly rejected in October 2014) and initiated a private action for damages before the Brussels Court of First Instance. The latter deemed itself not competent to decide on the matter, but nevertheless accepted to order a provisory stay of the enforcement of the UEFA FFP Regulations pending a preliminary reference to the Court of Justice of the EU (see Ben van Rompuy’s blog on the case here). The CJEU unsurprisingly rejected to enter into the matter, but UEFA and Striani decided to appeal the first instance ruling to the Court of Appeal, which rendered its decision on 11 April. It is unclear at this stage whether Striani will attempt to challenge it at the Belgian Cour de Cassation (Highest Civil Court), however this would entail considerable risks and costs and his lawyers to date have not indicated that they would do so (see here). 

While the ruling of the Court of Appeal does not touch upon the much-discussed question of the compatibility of UEFA’s FFP Regulations with EU law (see our many blogs on the question here, here and here), it remains an interesting decision to discuss broader questions related to the procedural ease in challenging regulatory decisions passed by sports governing bodies (SGBs) based in Switzerland. Competition law constitutes the main legal tool available to sports stakeholders looking to challenge existing regulatory arrangements from the outside (e.g. not going through the internal political systems of the SGBs or the CAS route). Recent cases, such as the ISU decision of the European Commission, the Pechstein case in front of the German courts or the Rule 40 decision of the German competition authority, have demonstrated the potency of competition law to question the legality of the rules and decisions of the SGBs.[1] In this regard, the decision of the Brussels Court of Appeal narrows the range of parties allowed to challenge in European courts the SGBs’ rules and decisions on the basis of competition law. More...

Can European Citizens Participate in National Championships? An Analysis of AG Tanchev’s Opinion in TopFit e.V. Daniele Biffi v Deutscher Leichtathletikverband e.V. - By Thomas Terraz

Editor’s note: Thomas Terraz is a third 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

To many it may seem obvious that athletes in a national championship should only be able to participate if they have the nationality of the relevant state. The Dutch Road Cycling National Championships should have Dutch cyclists, and the German Athletics Championships should have German athletes and so forth. However, in reality, foreign competitors are allowed to participate in many national championships in the EU, and there is a wide discrepancy between the rules of national sport governing bodies on this issue. There is no unified practice when investigating this point by country or by sport, and rules on participation range from a complete ban on foreign competitors to absolutely no mention of foreign athletes.[1] Thus, the question arises: should foreign athletes be able to participate in national sport championships?

The Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) will soon be required to provide an, at least partial, answer to this dilemma as a result of an application for a preliminary ruling.  A German Court has referred three questions to the CJEU on the case TopFit e.V. Daniele Biffi v Deutscher Leichtathletikverband e.V. (DLV) which in essence ask whether EU citizenship rights and in particular, the requirement of non-discrimination on the basis of nationality, should be applied to non-nationals wishing to participate in an athletics national championship in Germany. In the meantime, the Advocate General (AG), who provides a non-binding opinion to the Court before a decision is delivered, Evgeni Tanchev has delivered an interesting opinion on the case. It addresses the claims from the applicants based on EU citizenship rights and urges the CJEU to instead review the case on the basis of the freedom of establishment.

This blog will dissect the AG’s opinion to assess the main arguments put forward in relation to freedom of establishment and EU citizenship. Furthermore, it will weigh the ramifications this case may have on the boundaries of EU law in relation to sport. To fully appreciate the AG’s opinion, it is necessary to first discuss the intriguing factual and legal background colouring this case. After all, this will not be the first time the CJEU faces thorny issues concerning discrimination on the basis of nationality and sport. More...

International and European Sports Law – Monthly Report – February and March 2019. By Tomáš Grell

Editor's note: This report compiles all relevant news, events and materials on International and European Sports Law based on the daily coverage provided on our twitter feed @Sportslaw_asser. You are invited to complete this survey via the comments section below, feel free to add links to important cases, documents and articles we might have overlooked.


The Headlines

The Court of Arbitration for Sport bans 12 Russian track and field athletes

On 1 February 2019, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) communicated that it had rendered another 12 decisions in the seemingly endless saga concerning the state-sponsored doping programme in Russia. These first-instance decisions of the CAS involve 12 Russian track and field athletes who were all found guilty of anti-doping rule violations based on the evidence underlying the reports published by professor Richard McLaren and suspended from participating in sports competitions for periods ranging from two to eight years. Arguably the most prominent name that appears on the list of banned athletes is Ivan Ukhov, the 32-year-old high jump champion from the 2012 Olympic Games in London.

The case was brought by the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF) that sought to convince the arbitrators that the athletes in question had participated in and/or benefited from anabolic steroid doping programmes and benefited from specific protective methods (washout schedules) in the period between the 2012 Olympic Games in London and the 2013 IAAF World Championships in Moscow. The CAS was acting in lieau of the Russian Athletics Federation that remains suspended and thus unable to conduct any disciplinary procedures. The athletes have had the opportunity to appeal the decisions to the CAS Appeals Arbitration Division.

Federal Cartel Office in Germany finds Rule 40 of the Olympic Charter disproportionately restrictive

At the end of February, the German competition authority Bundeskartellamt announced that it had entered into a commitment agreement with the German Olympic Sports Confederation (DOSB) and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in which these two organisations had agreed to considerably enhance advertising opportunities for German athletes and their sponsors during the Olympic Games. The respective agreement is a direct consequence of the Bundeskartellamt’s finding that the IOC and the DOSB had abused their dominant position on the market for organising and marketing the Olympic Games by demanding that the athletes refrain from promoting their own sponsors while the Games are ongoing, as well as shortly before and after the Games. This restriction stems from Rule 40(3) of the Olympic Charter under which no competitor who participates in the Games may allow his person, name, picture or sports performances to be used for advertising purposes, unless the IOC Executive Board allows him/her to do so.

As part of fulfilling its obligations under the commitment agreement, the DOSB has relaxed its guidelines on promotional activities of German athletes during the Olympic Games. For its part, the IOC has declared that these new guidelines would take precedence over Rule 40(3) of the Olympic Charter. However, it still remains to be seen whether in response to the conclusions of the German competition authority the IOC will finally change the contentious rule.

The Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights refuses to pronounce itself on Claudia Pechstein’s case

Claudia Pechstein’s challenge against the CAS brought before the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) has not yielded the desired result for the German athlete. On 5 February 2019, a Panel of the Grand Chamber of the ECtHR decided that the Grand Chamber would not entertain the case. This means that the judgment handed down by the 3rd Chamber of the ECtHR on 2 October 2018, in which the ECtHR confirmed that except for the lack of publicity of oral hearings the procedures of the CAS are compatible with the right to a fair trial under Article 6(1) of the European Convention on Human Rights, has now become final and binding. However, the protracted legal battle between the five-time Olympic champion in speed skating and the CAS is not over yet since there is one more challenge against the CAS and its independence pending before the German Constitutional Court.  More...

New Event! FIFA and Human Rights: Impacts, Policies, Responsibilities - 8 May 2019 - Asser Institute

In the past few years, FIFA underwent intense public scrutiny for human rights violations surrounding the organisation of the World Cup 2018 in Russia and 2022 in Qatar. This led to a reform process at FIFA, which involved a number of policy changes, such as:

  • Embracing the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights;
  • The inclusion of human rights in the FIFA Statutes;
  • Adopting new bidding rules including human rights requirements;
  • And introducing a Human Rights Advisory Board.

To take stock of these changes, the Asser Institute and the Netherlands Network for Human Rights Research (NNHRR), are organising a conference on the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) and human rights, which will take place at the Asser Institute in The Hague on 8 May 2019.

This one-day conference aims to take a deeper look at FIFA’s impacts on human rights and critically investigate the measures it has adopted to deal with them. Finally, we will also address FIFA’s potential legal responsibilities under a variety of human rights laws/instruments.

Preliminary Programme

9:00 Registration & Coffee

9:45 Welcome by Antoine Duval (Asser Institute) & Daniela Heerdt (Tilburg University)

10:00 Opening Remarks by Andreas Graf (Human Rights Officer, FIFA)

10:30 Panel 1: FIFA & Human Rights: Impacts

  • Zoher Shabbir (University of York) – The correlation between forced evictions and developing nations hosting the FIFA World Cup
  • Roman Kiselyov (European Human Rights Advocacy Centre) - FIFA World Cup as a Pretext for a Crackdown on Human Rights
  • Eleanor Drywood (Liverpool University) - FIFA and children’s rights: theory, methodology and practice 

12:00 Lunch

13:00 Panel 2: FIFA & Human Rights: Policies

  • Lisa Schöddert & Bodo Bützler (University of Cologne) – FIFA’s eigen-constitutionalisation and its limits
  • Gigi Alford (World Players Association) - Power Play: FIFA’s voluntary human rights playbook does not diminish Switzerland’s state power to protect against corporate harms
  • Brendan Schwab (World Players Association) & Craig Foster - FIFA, human rights and the threatened refoulement of Hakeem Al Araibi 

14:30 Break

15:00 Panel 3: FIFA & Human Rights: Responsibilities

  • Daniel Rietiker (ECtHR and University of Lausanne) - The European Court of Human Rights and Football: Current Issues and Potential
  • Jan Lukomski (Łukomski Niklewicz law firm) - FIFA and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights : Obligations, duties and remedies regarding the labour rights         protected under the ICESCR
  • Raquel Regueiro Dubra (Complutense University of Madrid) - Shared international responsibility for human rights violations in global events. The case of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.
  • Wojciech Lewandowski (Polish Academy of Sciences/University of Warsaw) - Is Bauer the new Bosman? – The implications of the newest CJEU jurisprudence for FIFA and other sport governing bodies

17:00 Closing Remarks by Mary Harvey (Chief Executive, Centre for Sports and Human Rights)

More information and registration at

Asser International Sports Law Blog | Mitigating Circumstances and Strict Liability of Clubs in Match-fixing: Are We Going in the Wrong Direction? An Analysis of the Novara and Pro Patria Cases - By Mario Vigna

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

Mitigating Circumstances and Strict Liability of Clubs in Match-fixing: Are We Going in the Wrong Direction? An Analysis of the Novara and Pro Patria Cases - By Mario Vigna

Editor’s note: Mario Vigna is a Senior Associate at Coccia De Angelis Vecchio & Associati in Rome, Italy. His main practice areas are sports law, commercial law, and IP law. He also has extensive experience in the Anti-doping field, serving as Deputy-Chief Prosecutor of the Italian NADO and as counsel in domestic and international sports proceedings. He is a frequent speaker at various conferences and workshops. He was not involved in either of the cases discussed below.

I.               Introduction 

Gambling in football is a popular and potentially lucrative activity. It also raises numerous issues. When faced with the issue of gambling, the European Court of Justice (now Court of Justice of the EU) determined that gambling was economic activity per se, notwithstanding gambling’s vulnerability to ethical issues, and thus could not be prohibited outright.[1] With the legality of gambling established, it was left to the proper legislative bodies (national legislatures, national and international federations, etc.) to regulate gambling in order to guard against fraud and corruption. Gambling was not going to disappear; the dangers inherent to gambling would require attention. 

Given the amounts of money sometimes at stake, it is unsurprising that fraud and corruption are constant threats in football gambling. Match-fixing, i.e. wherein participants in a match deliberately attempt to secure a specific result to allow certain gamblers to obtain favorable rewards, is one prominent form of such corrupt activity. FIFA and UEFA, as well as other relevant bodies, have attempted to regulate match-fixing to protect the integrity of football competitions. After all, illicit gambling not only enables unjust enrichment on behalf of the corrupt gamblers and their accomplices; illicit gambling undermines the trust that spectators have in an activity and can lead to a decline in interest as a result.

The Italian Football Federation (FIGC) has adopted a strict liability approach to deter and punish match-fixing. Under the operative rules, clubs and federations whose agents or members engage in match-fixing activity are liable for match-mixing regardless of whether the club or federation itself knew of or condoned the conduct. Unfortunately, two relatively recent appeal decisions—Novara and Pro Patria—have handicapped this strict liability regime by allowing clubs to escape or reduce their liability on account of dubious mitigating circumstances. These decisions have undermined the efficacy of strict liability as a doctrine, and consequently diminish the efforts against match-fixing.

This blog post argues first that strict liability is effective in deterring match-fixing activity so long as adjudicatory bodies enforce it with appropriate rigidity. In fact, the doctrine of strict liability is widespread, in sports law and other fields, precisely because it can be effective. Next, this post critiques the decisions in Novara and Pro Patria, contending that both decisions misapply the principle of proportionality and erroneously recognize certain circumstances to mitigate against liability. As a corrective to these two decisions, this post concludes by outlining an effective application of strict liability and highlighting important regulatory efforts that out to be adopted. And while the discussion herein focuses on Italian football, the ideas explained are widely applicable across all sports and throughout all levels of competition. 


II.             Italian Law, Rules, and Regulations Against Match-fixing in Football

On the eve of the 2006 World Cup, which Italy won, Italian investigators uncovered efforts involving several major football clubs aimed at rigging referee selection for matches. This scandal became known as Calciopoli and implicated clubs from both Serie A and Serie B (respectively the first and second divisions in Italian football). Subsequent investigations in 2011 and 2015 led to additional scandals concerning clubs competing in Serie B and Lega Pro (the third division of Italian football), among them Scommessopoli (Bet City), Last Bet, Dirty Soccer, and Treni del Gol. Match-fixing, it was revealed, was a real problem in Italian football.

The FIGC, as the national football federation, maintains regulatory and disciplinary authority over all Italian football competitions and activity. To address the problem of match-fixing, the FIGC employs a set of regulation that deems match-fixing activity improper and sanctionable under a strict liability principle. Article 4 of the FIGC Code of Sport Justice (CSJ) states:

2. Clubs are strictly liable for disciplinary purposes for the actions of their managers, members and the individuals set forth in art. 1, par. 5


5. Clubs are presumptively liable for the wrongdoing committed for their benefit by any person. Liability is excluded when it is clearly or reasonably doubtful that the club participated in the wrongdoing or ignored it. [2]

Thus, clubs are liable for match-fixing even if they are not intimately aware of or complicit in the match-fixing efforts that benefit the club; liability is found once someone associated with the club—a player, an agent, etc.—engages via their acts or omissions in match-fixing activity. Match-fixing is explicitly prohibited in Article 7 of the CSJ[3], which also provides that strict liability applies for match-fixing and is punishable subject to the degree of fault borne by the club.[4] Here, it is important to note that under Article 7 the adjudicating body has discretion to assess a club’s degree of fault and reduce accordingly the corresponding sanction(s). This discretion is important; it is, however, in making use of this discretion that the appeal bodies erred in Novara and Pro Patria.


III.           Novara and Pro Patria: Setting the Wrong Precedent

The FIGC Code of Sport Justice applies strict liability to clubs for match-fixing but allows for consideration of mitigating circumstances to reduce the sanction(s) if appropriate. The problem is that currently there is no standard for what qualifies as appropriate mitigating circumstances. Novara and Pro Patria highlight this problem. In both cases, Italian football clubs—Novara Calcio and Aurora Pro Patria—were sanctioned for match-fixing, but later had those sanctions reduced on appeal on the basis of mitigating factors. This blog post contends that those reductions were ill-informed. If strict liability is to work as a deterrent and truly discourage match-fixing, acceptable mitigating factors against strict liability require greater scrutiny than provided in these two cases.

A.    Novara Calcio

An investigation by the Italian media, coined Scommessopoli, uncovered one of the largest match-fixing schemes in Italian footnall history. Scommessopoli was a wide-ranging, multi-dimensional enterprise; players were involved, as were Italian and foreign criminal groups—in total, the investigation alleged that at least twenty-two clubs and sixty-one people participated in match-fixing efforts. One of the individuals involved, Cristian Bertani, played for Novara Calcio, a club in the Italian Serie B. According to the findings of the National Disciplinary Commission, Bertani conspired with a foreign gambling group and a local criminal group to fix matches. Consequently, the National Disciplinary Commission sanctioned Bertani’s club Novara Calcio under the strict liability regime in effect. Novara Calcio was fined EUR 35,000 and received a four-point deduction from the league table.[5]

The club appealed the decision to the FIGC Court of Justice. On appeal, the court reduced the deduction to three points and eliminated the fine entirely:

“[The reduced sanction] leads to a more accurate assessment of the overall conduct of the Appellant of all the activity carried out by the club, whether in a preventative or subsequent manner, specifically aimed at fighting the phenomenon of illicit sports or eliminating the consequences… In this sense, recalling among others, the approval by Novara Calcio of the first organizational model of the legislative decree no. 231/2001 related to the Code of Ethics; earning the ISO 9001:2008 certification of quality, being the first football association to earn it; having contracted since February 2012 the professional services in order to study the betting quota over the matches played by the club, bringing a discipline scheme over those studies thanks to an Antifraud Code in April 2012 [6]

In essence, the Court reduced the sanctions on account of the club’s implementation of self-protection tools in accordance with the organizational model set forth in the Legislative Decree no. 231/2001. The problem with this decision, however, is that the efforts in question were taken after the incident. The Court treated this post-incident measures as mitigating circumstances, even though these measures were not operative when Bertani attempted to fix matches.

Such allowance of post-incident mitigating factors is inappropriate and undercuts the effort to prevent match-fixing. Indeed, only the prior adoption of an adequate organizational model against match-fixing by a club should (potentially) mitigate against strict liability. Two requirements should be satisfied: (1) prior adoption, and (2) adequate measures. Legislative decree no. 231/2001 and Italian jurisprudence both distinguish between superficial adoption of an organizational model—which is insufficient by itself—and the adoption of an organizational model with demonstrated sufficient, concrete measures to prevent wrong-doing. Only the latter satisfactorily deters potential wrong-doing, and only the latter should (potentially) shield against strict liability so long as a club can prove its preventative efforts were adequately effected. With Novara Calcio, the problem was that the adoption of an organization model was merely superficial, in addition to being after-the-fact, and that the club did not have to prove that the adopted measures were or would be effective in combatting match-fixing.

B.    Aurora Pro Patria 

In 2015, the Catanzaro Police Department arrested more than forty individuals for alleged participation in match-fixing in matches of the Italian 4th Division. Three arrestees were former members of the club Aurora Pro Patria—two players and one coach—accused of match-fixing activities while employed by Pro Patria. All three were found guilty in the ensuing proceedings. Thus, under the doctrine of strict liability, Pro Patria received a seven-point deduction as a sanction for the conduct of its employees.[7]

Pro Patria appealed the ruling and sanction. And like the Novara case, the sanction was reduced: 

Having found the defendant liable, it cannot but follow the confirmation of the strict liability held by the association (Club). As marked by the vast jurisprudence, indeed, the referred liability cannot be avoided but graduated in the presence of circumstances that would see to deserve special consideration.

… the thorough preventative activity put in action by Aurora Pro Patria, that even when they were not obliged to, they still adopted the model of conduct as set out in the rule Legislative Decree no. 231/2001, they imposed a Code of anti-fraud and have entered into a contract with Federbet [a monitoring company] by which said company will check the flux of the bets related to the activity of the club, we determine that, given the relevant circumstances, the sanction against the association (club) must be reduced…”[8]

The Court reduced the sanction to a three-point deduction. Although the appeal court affirmed strict liability, it undercut its potency by accepting as mitigating circumstances factors that were not in place when the unlawful conduct occurred. The appeal court was in some ways excusing a violation, at least partially, for efforts the responsible party undertook to not commit the same violation again in the future. The efforts had no impact on the violation that already took place.

C.    Problems Posed by the Novara and Pro Patria Rulings 

After being charged with match-fixing, both Novara and Pro Patria hired monitoring companies that supposedly help prevent, or at least detect, potential match-fixing activity. These post-facto efforts were deemed by ruling bodies compelling enough to reduce sanctions imposed for match-fixing. This precedent of reducing on account of mitigating circumstances occurring after the match-fixing activity occurred poses two issues.

First, the precedent undermines the strict liability regime by allowing the reduction of a club’s liability where it fixes the problem ex post facto, thereby providing clubs with a loophole to escape with minimal harm. Second, the precedent does not consider the actual efficacy of the hired monitoring companies or their methods. Without a regulatory framework and established standards for monitoring companies and certification of their services, i.e. no way of assessing whether the hired companies actually make any difference when it comes to the prevalence of match-fixing, nothing separates effective monitoring from the appearance or claim of monitoring.


IV.           A Better Way of Evaluating Mitigating Circumstances

An adjudicatory body rightfully must consider the particular context of each case. Accurate and fair decisions acknowledge that not all cases concerning similar issues deserve equal treatment. Mitigating circumstances are an important aspect of any fair legal system. With Novara and Pro Patria, however, the appeal bodies erred by giving weight to certain post-incident mitigating circumstances that had no bearing on the issue at hand. Further, allowing the hire of a monitoring company to mitigate a club’s liability introduces a separate issue, i.e. the efficacy of the monitoring company and its services. Both appeal decisions reduced the capacity of strict liability to deter match-fixing. If a strict liability regime is to be effective in combatting match-fixing, then clear standards for evaluating mitigating circumstances in cases like Novara and Pro Patria are necessary.

Before proposing a way forward, it is important to first try and understand why the appeal decisions reduced the sanctions in the cases at hand. Inherent to the appeals’ justification is the doctrine of proportionality, or the notion that any punishment must fit the crime and cannot be more extreme than is warranted. In Novara and Pro Patria, it seems that the appeal bodies thought that the clubs’ liability for the conduct of their employees should be limited. In other words, while the appeal bodies certainly assigned liability to the clubs, they were unwilling to allow that liability to support too onerous sanctions.

This, of course, misses the point of strict liability in the first place. Strict liability is used to assign liability notwithstanding immediate fault because the liable party is best positioned to absorb the liability and/or work to prevent the wrongful conduct. Punishments for strict liability in match-fixing, if reduced to minimal amounts, do little to nothing to promote clubs to actively prevent match-fixing. The Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) re-affirms this point:

With regard to the alleged disproportionality of the Decision, the Panel first of all wishes to stress that the fight against match-fixing is considered to be extremely important for the purpose of preserving confidence in and the integrity of sport.[9]

Part of the proportionality calculus must be the severity of the wrongdoing concerned. Match-fixing is, arguably, the greatest wrong in sports. Therefore, hefty punishments should not violate proportionality. 

The Novara and Pro Patria appeal decisions also over-value the post-incident preventative actions (which is an oxymoron!). The treatment of post-incident actions as mitigating circumstances suggests future offenders will be able to correct wrongful conduct after-the-fact simply by hiring a company that claims to monitor match-fixing activity. Even if a club were to hire a monitoring company prior to any wrongful conduct, the mere signing of a contract with a monitoring company is generally a questionable preventative measure. Clubs that employ monitoring companies and are then subsequently charged with liability for match-fixing should only have sanctions (and thus liability) reduced if they prove to the court that the monitoring company undertook actual and sufficient efforts to monitor and prevent match-fixing.

Merely employing a monitoring company without any regard for the efficacy of its services is an inadequate escape route from strict liability. After all, these companies are unregulated and unaccredited; there is no guarantee that the companies do any work, or that any work the company performs is effective. At a minimum, then, a club must demonstrate that in conjunction with a monitoring company it undertook significant and adequate measures to prevent match-fixing by its employees and agents.

A standard for monitoring companies is important in light of the Novara and Pro Patria rulings, which will support a booming (and unregulated) market for monitoring companies. Clubs may now look to symbolically contract with these companies to escape liability if/when they are accused of match-fixing. The football community should not allow such a deregulated and opaque market to emerge.


V.             Conclusion

Match-fixing poses one of the most elemental dangers to professional football—it damages the credibility of the sport and could potentially damage the market. The doctrine of strict liability discourages a club’s participation in match-fixing activities, and incentivizes clubs to put into place measures that ensure their employees abide by anti-match-fixing regulations. Judges and tribunals must not lose sight of the broader picture when determining sanctions in match-fixing cases. In light of the Novara and Pro Patria decisions, this blog post offers a way forward to maintain strict liability’s capacity to effectively combat match-fixing: (1) post-incident efforts should not be considered as mitigating circumstances, and (2) monitoring companies and their services must meet a certain standard if they are to absolve, partially or fully, a club from its liability.

Strict liability can be effective so long as courts and tribunals do not unduly handicap it. Match-fixing is still a prominent threat in football and in sports in general. Now is not the time to weaken the most effective tool (strict liability) available to combat match-fixing. While the preceding discussion focuses on Italian football, the lessons are universal for all sports, at all levels.

[1] Case Her Majesty's Customs and Excise v. Gerhart Schindler and Jôrg Schindler, C-275/92 Judgement of 24th March 1994 [1994] ECR 1-01039.

[2] Unofficial translation from Italian: “Responsabilità delle società 1 […]; 2. Le società rispondono oggettivamente, ai fini disciplinari, dell'operato dei dirigenti, dei tesserati e dei soggetti di cui all’art. 1 bis, comma 5; 3 […]; 4 […] 5. Le società sono presunte responsabili degli illeciti sportivi commessi a loro vantaggio da persone a esse estranee. La responsabilità è esclusa quando risulti o vi sia un ragionevole dubbio che la società non abbia partecipato all'illecito o lo abbia ignorato; 6 […].”

[3] “Committing, by any means, acts to alter the development or outcome of a match or competition or to assure any advantages in the ranking constitutes a sporting wrongdoing.” Unofficial translation from Italian: “1. Il compimento, con qualsiasi mezzo, di atti diretti ad alterare lo svolgimento o il risultato di una gara o di una competizione ovvero ad assicurare a chiunque un vantaggio in classifica costituisce illecito sportivo.”

[4] Art. 7, par. 4: It is considered the strict liability of a club in the sense of art. 4, par. 5 and the fact is punishable subject to the degree of fault, with the sanctions foreseen in art. 18, par. 1 sections (g), (h), (i), (l), and (m). Unofficial translation from Italian: “Se viene accertata la responsabilità oggettiva o presunta della società ai sensi dell'art. 4, comma 5, il fatto è punito, a seconda della sua gravità, con le sanzioni di cui alle lettere g), h), i), l), m) dell’art. 18, comma 1.” The sanctions consist, broadly speaking, in the deduction of points, to be sent to the bottom of the table, to be disqualified from the competition, to have a tittle taken away or the barred from participating in a specific competition.

[5] The sport prosecutor had sought a six-point deduction.

[6] Unofficial translation from Italian: “A ciò conduce una più attenta valutazione della complessiva condotta della reclamante, di tutta la attività da questa posta in essere, invero tanto in via preventiva che successiva ed espressamente finalizzata a combattere il fenomeno degli illeciti sportivi ovvero ad eliminarne le conseguenze… In questo ambito vanno riassuntivamente richiamati, tra gli altri interventi, l’approvazione da parte del Novara Calcio del primo modello organizzativo ex decreto legislativo n. 231/01 e relativo Codice etico; l’approvazione nel gennaio del 2012 di un nuovo modello organizzazione e di gestione; il conseguimento nel marzo ancora di quest’anno di certificazione di qualità ISO 9001:2008 come prima società calcistica in Italia; l’aver affidato nel febbraio 2012 a soggetto professionale lo studio dell’andamento delle quote di scommesse legate alle partite che avrebbe giocato il Novara da quel momento alla fine del campionato, successivamente deliberando di continuare l’opera di monitoraggio delle partite; disciplinando infine tale sistema con l’adozione di un Codice Antifrode.”

[7] The sport prosecutor sought a twenty-point reduction as an exemplary punishment and to increase its deterrent effect.

[8] Federazione Italiana Giouco Calcio; COMUNICATO UFFICIALE N. 48/TFN – Sezione Disciplinare (2015/2016), p. 81.

[9] CAS 2013/A/3297 Public Joint-Stock Company “Football Club Metalist” v. UEFA & PAOK FC, award of 29 November 2013. (Case about match-fixing and sanctions under UEFA rules.)

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