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

EU Law is not enough: Why FIFA's TPO ban survived its first challenge before the Brussels Court


Star Lawyer Jean-Louis Dupont is almost a monopolist as far as high profile EU law and football cases are concerned. This year, besides a mediatised challenge against UEFA’s FFP regulations, he is going after FIFA’s TPO ban on behalf of the Spanish and Portuguese leagues in front of the EU Commission, but also before the Brussels First Instance Court defending the infamous Malta-based football investment firm Doyen Sport. FIFA and UEFA’s archenemy, probably electrified by the 20 years of the Bosman ruling, is emphatically trying to reproduce his world-famous legal prowess. Despite a first spark at a success in the FFP case against UEFA with the Court of first instance of Brussels sending a preliminary reference to the Court of Justice of the EU (CJEU), this has proven to be a mirage as the CJEU refused, as foretold, to answer the questions of the Brussels Court, while the provisory measures ordered by the judge have been suspended due to UEFA’s appeal. But, there was still hope, the case against FIFA’s TPO ban, also involving UEFA and the Belgium federation, was pending in front of the same Brussels Court of First Instance, which had proven to be very willing to block UEFA’s FFP regulations. Yet, the final ruling is another disappointment for Dupont (and good news for FIFA). The Court refused to give way to Doyen’s demands for provisional measures and a preliminary reference. The likelihood of a timely Bosman bis repetita is fading away. Fortunately, we got hold of the judgment of the Brussels court and it is certainly of interest to all those eagerly awaiting to know whether FIFA’s TPO ban will be deemed compatible or not with EU law.


I.               Facts and Procedure

The case was introduced in March 2015 by Doyen Sports Investments Limited, the Maltese investment fund specialised in football and an obscure Belgium football club, the RFC Seresien/Seraing United, against the Belgium federation (URBSFA), FIFA and UEFA. For its part, FIFPro decided to voluntarily intervene in the debates.

Seraing United plays in the Proximus League, the Belgium Second Division, and signed a specific collaboration contract with Doyen Sports on 30 January 2015. This collaboration contract foresees that Doyen and Seraing United will collaborate to select at least two players in each summer transfer window to be recruited by Seraing via a TPI (Third-Party Investment). In return, Doyen will contribute 300 000€ for the 2015/2016 season to Seraing’s budget and own 30% of rights of the players it has picked. For example, during this summer’s transfer window Seraing and Doyen have concluded a TPI contract to finance the recruitment of Ferraz Pereira. It is this contract that led to the present dispute. Indeed, as Seraing indicated in its filing for registration that Ferraz Perreira was recruited via a TPI contract, the URBSFA decided to block the registration of the player in the FIFA TMS system. The procedure regarding the release of an International Transfer Certificate is still on-going in front of FIFA’s internal bodies.

The claimants demanded that the judge blocked any attempt of FIFA, UEFA and the Belgium federation to implement the TPO ban (in the form of FIFA Circular 1464) and, if necessary, to send a preliminary reference to the CJEU.


II.             Jurisdiction of the Brussels Court

The first key question, as in the FFP case, was whether the Brussels Court had jurisdiction over the matter. This was unproblematic as far as the demands against the Belgium federation are concerned, as it is seated in Belgium and a potential arbitration clause does not hinder the demand of provisory measures to the national judge under Belgium law.

As far as UEFA and FIFA are concerned, however, the question is more complex. The Brussels Court quickly side-lined the objection based on a putative CAS arbitration clause, but it went into greater details concerning its international jurisdiction on the basis of the Lugano Convention. Under article 6 par. 1 of the Lugano Convention a defendant can be sued in the court of a place where one of the defendants is domiciled if “the claims are so closely connected that it is expedient to hear and determine them together to avoid the risk of irreconcilable judgments resulting from separate proceedings”. In the FFP case, it is this close connection between the claims raised against UEFA and the Belgium Federation that could not be decisively proven and that led the Court to declare itself incompetent to deal with the matter. In the present case, the Court clearly distinguishes between FIFA and UEFA.

Concerning the claims raised against FIFA, the Court considers that:

“The relations between FIFA and the URBSFA are characterized by the fact that FIFA is the association adopting the international regulations which national federations, members of FIFA, including the URBSFA, have the duty to respect and enforce against their own members, i.e. the football clubs.” (para.42 of the judgment)

It deduces from this consideration that the URBSFA will have to implement FIFA’s TPO ban. However, this close connection exists only insofar as the claims raised are connected with provisory measures to be applied on the Belgian territory. In the eyes of the Court, FIFA’s objections to its jurisdiction based on article 22.2 of the Lugano Convention are not relevant, insofar that the case does not involve primarily a question of company or association law. The Court, contrary to the FFP case against UEFA, concludes that it has jurisdiction to deal with the claims raised against FIFA. This is a first, clear, legal victory for Jean-Louis Dupont. Yet this does not apply to UEFA as it did not adopt the regulations challenged, nor is the Belgium federation implementing its rules when enforcing the TPO ban. Thus, a close link in the sense of article 6 par. 1 of the Lugano Convention is missing[1]. Neither is article 31 of the Lugano Convention suitable to ground the Court’s jurisdiction against UEFA[2]. Hence, the Court declares itself incompetent to deal with the claims raised against UEFA.

The Court’s recognition that it has jurisdiction to deal with the claims directed against FIFA’s TPO ban insofar as FIFA’s rules have to be implemented by the URBSFA on the Belgium territory meant that this time Dupont could hope for a viable preliminary reference. Yet, as we will see, this did not lead to the award of the provisory measures hoped by the claimants.

 

III.           The conditions for awarding provisory measures under Belgium law

Under Belgium law two main conditions need to be fulfilled to lead to the granting of provisory measures: there need to be urgency and “appearance of right” (condition de l’apparence), which is analogous to the likelihood to prevail. There is urgency when it is feared that harm of certain intensity, or the likelihood of a serious inconvenience, make an immediate decision preferable. In the present case, the Court considers that Doyen is necessarily negatively affected by the TPO ban, as it is unable to exercise its economic activity[3]. The ban prejudices also Seraing United, which is deprived of an opportunity to finance its activities in a difficult context (URBSFA’s new regulations restricting the conditions to be considered a professional club). Thus, the Court finds that the urgency of the matter is given.

However, and this is the crux of the case, the judge refuses to consider that there is an appearance of right. In other words, he denied that the claimants are likely to prevail on the substance of the application of EU competition law. This is the most important part of the judgment, as it is the first time that a judicial authority adopts a legally binding (though provisional) opinion on the potential compatibility of the TPO ban with EU competition law (the much-cited Spanish’s Competition Authority opinion is advisory and does not cover the application of EU competition law). The claimants argued that the TPO ban is contrary to EU competition law (Article 101 and 102 TFEU) and to the EU free movement rights (Article 63, 56 and 45 TFEU). While, FIFPro, to which the Court recognized the privilege of expressing the collective opinion of professional players, FIFA and UEFA considered that it is compatible with EU law. 

The Court, first, refers to the Piau ruling of the CJEU to affirm that FIFA has a dominant position on the market for the services of players’ agents[4]. This is not surprising. In fact the judge insists that the key legal question is whether there is an abuse of this dominant position. In this regard it considers that both abuses of dominant position under article 102 TFEU and restrictions on free competition under article 101 par. 1 TFEU must be analysed with due consideration to the specific sector in which FIFA is active and to the legitimate objectives it claims to pursue.[5] Subsequently, the judgment lists a number of factors highlighted by FIFA and FIFPro underlying the legitimate objectives of the ban:

·      These practices are mainly the deed of investment firms

·      From which we do not know the shareholders

·      Which conclude contracts with different clubs, potentially directly competing against each other on the field

·      These contracts are opaque as they are not registered

·      They can be easily transferred

·      The third-party investors are interested in the players’ quick transfers, in short sequences, as they will then reap their benefits

·      This is contradictory with the objective of contractual stability during the players contract with their club

·      If the transfer is not effectuated before the end of the employment contract (knowing that at this time the player recovers his full contractual freedom), the clubs are due to pay compensation […].[6]

The Court concludes that it is likely that third-party investors/owners will be in a conflict of interest, with equally important risks of manipulations and match-fixing arising, all of this in a totally opaque environment. Thus, though the TPI/TPO practice is apparently of financial nature, it is deemed to have important sporting consequences. Moreover, the Court remarks that the ban on the influence of third parties on clubs introduced by FIFA a few years ago via article 18 bis of the FIFA RSTP has proven ineffective. This hints at the necessity of a total ban. Additionally, it referred to the legitimate objectives of the ban invoked by FIFPro as representative of the point of view of the players.

In fine, the Court concluded that the likelihood that FIFA’s TPO ban would fail the tests of proportionality and necessity is not proven “with the force necessary” to warrant awarding provisional measures and, subsequently, rejects the demands of the claimants.


Conclusion: EU law is no magic bullet against FIFA’s regulations

Jean-Louis Dupont lost a new battle, but as far as FIFA’s TPO ban is concerned it is only the beginning of a long legal war. He still has a case to defend in the main proceedings and the opening of an investigation of the EU Commission to hope for (as well as a potential appeal to the CJEU in case the complaint on behalf of Doyen and the Iberian leagues is rejected). Nevertheless, this decision is no good omen for the future of his case. It is a worthy reminder that EU law is no magic bullets against the regulations of Sports Governing Bodies (SGBs), and FIFA in particular. The Meca-Medina/Wouters inherency test prevailing in competition cases and the similar proportionality test applied in the context of free movement rights ensure that the legitimate objectives of the regulatory practices of the SGBs are duly taken into account in the judicial or administrative review process. In fact, despite the recurrent complaints voiced by SGBs against EU law’s deregulatory bias and insensitivity to sports’ specificity, in reality the case law of the CJEU and the decisional practice of the Commission has been rather (too?) accommodating with sport’s specificities, regulatory needs and ideals. What EU law imposes is a duty to properly justify private regulations that find no sufficient legitimacy, to say the least, in the democratic nature of their legislative process[7]. Yet, especially when the diverse set of stakeholders active in a specific sporting field converge in favour of a particular policy orientation, as is the case with the TPO ban, which is supported by ECA and FIFPro, there is a strong presumption that the regulations concerned will be deemed proportionate and in the general interest. The implicit presumption of legitimacy and necessity of FIFA’s TPO ban can only be rebutted with extremely thorough arguments from the part of the claimants and will probably require that they convincingly demonstrate the easy availability of a less restrictive alternative system to deal with the perceived risks resulting from the widespread recourse to TPO/TPI agreements. As the Belgium Court aptly put it, the EU free movement rights are not absolute; if necessary they can, and will, be restricted in the name of the general interest[8].

 

[1] Ordinance, Brussels Court of First Instance, n°15/67/C, 24.07.2015, para.53-54

[2] Ibid, para. 55-57

[3] Ibid, para. 87.

[4] Ibid, para.94

[5]« L’existence d’un éventuel abus de position dominante (article 102 TUE) mais également celle d’une éventuelle restriction de la concurrence (article 101.1 TUE) sont notamment analysées au regard du secteur spécifique dans lequel la Fifa est active et des objectifs légitimes qui sous-tendent l’interdictiom nouvelle des TPI/TPO », Ibid, para.95.

[6] My translation of the bullet points included at para.95 of the decision.

[7] On this important role of EU law, see B. Van Rompuy, ‘The Role of EU Competition Law in Tackling Abuse of Regulatory Power by Sports Associations’, Maastricht Journal of European and Comparative Law, Vol.22, Issue 2, 2015 pp.179-208.

[8] « Ces droits ne sont pas absolus, mais peuvent connaître des limites nécessitées par l’intérêt général ». Para.99 of the decision.

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Asser International Sports Law Blog | Multi-Club Ownership in European Football – Part II: The Concept of Decisive Influence in the Red Bull Case – By Tomáš Grell

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

Multi-Club Ownership in European Football – Part II: The Concept of Decisive Influence in the Red Bull Case – By Tomáš Grell

 

Introduction 

The first part of this two-part blog on multi-club ownership in European football outlined the circumstances leading to the adoption of the initial rule(s) aimed at ensuring the integrity of the UEFA club competitions (Original Rule) and retraced the early existence of such rule(s), focusing primarily on the complaints brought before the Court of Arbitration for Sport and the European Commission by the English company ENIC plc. This second part will, in turn, introduce the relevant rule as it is currently enshrined in Article 5 of the UCL Regulations 2015-18 Cycle, 2017/18 Season (Current Rule). It will then explore how the UEFA Club Financial Control Body (CFCB) interpreted and applied the Current Rule in the Red Bull case, before drawing some concluding remarks. 

 

The Red Bull case: The concept of decisive influence

Background 

The company Red Bull GmbH (Red Bull) started building its football empire[1] in 2005 by transforming the Austrian club SV Wüstenrot Salzburg[2] into what would henceforth be known as FC Red Bull Salzburg (RB Salzburg). As regards its legal form, RB Salzburg is currently a limited liability company (GmbH) wholly owned by the association FC Red Bull Salzburg e.V. Until 2015, when the club began a disengagement process from Red Bull, the statutes of FC Red Bull Salzburg e.V. conferred on Red Bull the right to appoint and remove the members of the association's board.

In 2009, with the objective of playing the top-flight Bundesliga within a decade, Red Bull invested in the German club SSV Markranstädt, at that time competing in the fifth tier of German football. The club was subsequently rechristened as RasenBallsport[3] Leipzig (RB Leipzig) and rebranded. Although RB Leipzig thrived on the pitch, it attracted much criticism off the pitch for attempting to circumvent the so-called '50+1 rule', according to which German football clubs may not allow investors to acquire a majority of their voting rights.

Since Red Bull's takeover of RB Leipzig in 2009, the two clubs have maintained a close cooperation involving an increased transfer activity which has seen players moving from one club to the other on a regular basis. With the help of players like Naby Keïta, who moved from RB Salzburg to RB Leipzig in the summer of 2016, the German club finished second in the 2016/17 Bundesliga season, its first-ever in the top flight, and qualified for the 2017/18 UCL group stage. RB Salzburg, for their part, added in the 2016/17 campaign another domestic title to their collection and secured a spot in the 2017/18 UCL second qualifying round.

The Current Rule  

As mentioned above, the Current Rule is encapsulated in Article 5 of the UCL Regulations 2015-18 Cycle, 2017/18 Season (UCL Regulations). It preserves the structure of the Original Rule, making admission to the UEFA club competitions conditional upon fulfilment of three specific criteria. In terms of substance, however, the Current Rule differs in two important aspects. First, unlike the Original Rule which outlawed ownership, personal and other links only between clubs participating in the same UEFA club competition, the Current Rule extends this prohibition to clubs participating both in the UCL and the UEFA Europe League. Second, an individual or legal entity is now deemed to have control over a club not only if he/she/it (i) holds a majority of the shareholders' voting rights; (ii) is authorized to appoint or remove a majority of the members of the administrative, management or supervisory body; or (iii) is a shareholder and single-handedly controls a majority of the shareholders' voting rights, but also if he/she/it (iv) is able to exercise by any means a decisive influence in the decision-making of the club.[4] The purpose of this latter change is to address situations where an individual or legal entity falls short of having de jure control over a club, but nevertheless remains able to exercise such an influence that may, if exercised in more than one club, jeopardize the integrity of the UEFA club competitions. As will be discussed in the next section, the concept of decisive influence played a pivotal role in the Red Bull case.

Furthermore, the club coefficient no longer serves as a principal criterion in determining which of the two or more commonly owned clubs should participate in a UEFA club competition. Under the Current Rule, the club which qualifies on sporting merit for the more prestigious UEFA club competition is to be favoured.[5] If two or more commonly owned clubs qualify for the same UEFA club competition, then the club which was best-ranked in its domestic championship should be admitted.[6]

Proceedings before the CFCB

On 15 May 2017, soon after RB Salzburg and RB Leipzig had both secured their place in the 2017/18 UCL, the UEFA General Secretary dispatched a letter to the CFCB, expressing his concern that the clubs might not fulfil the criteria enshrined in the Current Rule. The subsequent investigation conducted by the CFCB Investigatory Chamber relied to a great extent on compliance reports prepared by independent auditors. On 26 May 2017, the CFCB Chief Investigator referred the case to the CFCB Adjudicatory Chamber, concluding that the clubs had failed to satisfy the criteria set out in the Current Rule and, as a result, only RB Salzburg should be admitted to the 2017/18 UCL.[7] In particular, the CFCB Chief Investigator suggested that Red Bull exercised decisive influence in the decision-making of both RB Salzburg and RB Leipzig, and identified several ways in which this influence manifested itself. For instance, the CFCB Chief Investigator drew attention to the presence of certain individuals allegedly linked to Red Bull in the decision-making bodies of both clubs or an unusually high level of income received by the clubs from Red Bull via sponsorship agreements.[8]

In its decision handed down on 16 June 2017, the CFCB Adjudicatory Chamber paid attention mainly to the changes made by RB Salzburg as part of the club's disengagement process from Red Bull. As noted above, Red Bull ceased to have the right to appoint and remove the board members of FC Red Bull Salzburg e.V. in 2015, when the association's statutes were amended accordingly. With this in mind, the CFCB Adjudicatory Chamber had to examine whether Red Bull was not able to exercise decisive influence in the decision-making of RB Salzburg (and RB Leipzig) by any other means.

The CFCB Adjudicatory Chamber was confronted with an onerous task, in particular because the UCL Regulations do not specify when an individual or legal entity is deemed to have decisive influence in the decision-making of a club. Nor do these regulations clarify how such a level of influence could be attained. Having examined the wording and purpose of the Current Rule, the CFCB Adjudicatory Chamber asserted that ''the benchmark for establishing decisive influence is a high one'',[9] finding support for its conclusion in the EU Merger Regulation.[10] For the avoidance of doubt, the Chamber further noted that the concept of decisive influence is not to be confused with that of significant influence which features in the UEFA Club Licensing and Financial Fair Play Regulations, Edition 2015.[11]

In determining whether Red Bull was indeed capable of exercising decisive influence in the decision-making of both clubs, the CFCB Adjudicatory Chamber observed from the aforementioned compliance reports that RB Salzburg had removed certain individuals allegedly linked to Red Bull from the club's decision-making bodies and terminated certain loan agreements entered into with the beverage company.[12] With the aim of refuting the CFCB Chief Investigator's allegations, RB Salzburg presented additional documentary evidence. According to the CFCB Adjudicatory Chamber, it followed from such evidence, inter alia, that Red Bull had reduced the amount of sponsorship money paid to the Austrian club or that a cooperation agreement between the two clubs had been terminated.[13] This evidence alleviated the CFCB Chief Investigator's concerns to such an extent that he eventually decided to withdraw his objection to the admission of RB Salzburg and RB Leipzig to the 2017/18 UCL.[14] Consequently, the CFCB Adjudicatory Chamber held that, at the time of its decision, Red Bull's relationship with RB Salzburg resembled ''only a standard sponsorship relationship''.[15] Having concluded that Red Bull did not have decisive influence in the decision-making of RB Salzburg, there was no need for the Chamber to consider Red Bull's relationship with RB Leipzig.[16]

Furthermore, the CFCB Adjudicatory Chamber verified whether one of the clubs did not exercise decisive influence over the other. In this regard, the Chamber referred to the cooperation agreement and the increased transfer activity between the clubs. Nonetheless, the Chamber eventually stated that there was insufficient evidence to arrive at the conclusion that RB Salzburg exercised decisive influence over RB Leipzig or vice versa.[17]

 

Further implications and concluding remarks

Rules aimed at ensuring the integrity of club competitions also exist at the national level. In England, the Rules of the Premier League stipulate, inter alia, that a person[18] – be it either natural person, legal entity, firm or unincorporated association – may not (i) be involved in or have any power to determine or influence the management or administration of more than one club participating either in the Premier League or the English Football League;[19] and (ii) hold or acquire any significant interest in more than one club participating in the Premier League. A person is deemed to have acquired significant interest in a club if he/she/it holds 10 per cent or more of the shareholders' voting rights.[20] In Spain, an individual or legal entity may not hold 5 per cent or more of the shareholders' voting rights in more than one club participating in a professional competition at the state level.[21]

It follows that both in England and Spain, the pertinent regulations set a relatively low threshold of the shareholders' voting rights that an individual or legal entity may not exceed in more than one club participating in the same domestic club competition. Moving back to UEFA, the Current Rule sets the relevant threshold at 50 per cent (majority of the shareholders' voting rights), but complements it with the 'catch-all' notion of decisive influence.

I believe that the CFCB Adjudicatory Chamber may have missed a golden opportunity in the Red Bull case to clarify further the rather vague concept of decisive influence. Unfortunately, the Chamber limited itself to stating that ''the benchmark for establishing decisive influence is a high one'',[22] without providing any concrete examples of how such a level of influence could be attained or manifested in practice.[23] The concept of decisive influence therefore remains shrouded in legal uncertainty. Moreover, in order to avoid speculations, the Chamber could have provided more details about the changes made by RB Salzburg. For instance, it could have specified which individuals allegedly linked to Red Bull were removed from the club's decision-making bodies or how the amount of sponsorship money paid to the club was reduced. Such details become particularly important if the concept of decisive influence plays a central role, because in this context the general public will not be able to access most of the relevant information via commercial registers. In contrast, this will not be the case with legal systems in England or Spain which employ a threshold of the shareholders' voting rights as a key criterion. Thus, if UEFA fails to provide such details (subject to confidentiality rules) in its decisions, its credibility might suffer.

Despite the fact that this post has identified certain flaws of the concept of decisive influence, I do not believe that a modification of the Current Rule should be a matter of urgency. As suggested above, a well-reasoned decision may foster UEFA's credibility and help reduce the legal uncertainty emanating from the concept of decisive influence. Bearing in mind the recent revitalization of multi-club ownership in European football, UEFA might soon get another opportunity to deliver such decision.


[1]   It should be noted that in addition to FC Red Bull Salzburg and RasenBallsport Leipzig, Red Bull also owns the U.S. club New York Red Bulls and the Brazilian club Red Bull Brasil.

[2]   It was often referred to as SV Austria Salzburg, a name that was given to the club at its foundation in 1933.

[3]   In fact, due to the rules prohibiting clubs to be named after their sponsors, the abbreviation 'RB' does not officially stand for Red Bull, but rather for RasenBallsport which can be roughly translated as 'lawn ball sports'.

[4]   UCL Regulations, Article 5.01(c).

[5]   Ibid. Article 5.02(a).

[6]   Ibid. Article 5.02(b).

[7]   As the Austrian club finished first in its domestic championship (whilst RB Leipzig finished second).

[8]   CFCB Adjudicatory Chamber AC-01/2017 RasenBallsport Leipzig GmbH and FC Red Bull Salzburg GmbH, Decision of 16 June 2017, para. 11.

[9]   Ibid. para. 41.

[10] Council Regulation (EC) No 139/2004 of 20 January 2004 on the control of concentrations between undertakings, Article 3(2). See also Commission Consolidated Jurisdictional Notice under Council Regulation (EC) No 139/2004 on the control of concentrations between undertakings.

[11] CFCB Adjudicatory Chamber decision (n 8) para. 40.

[12] Ibid. para. 50.

[13] Ibid. para. 51.        

[14] Ibid. para. 52.

[15] Ibid. para. 55.

[16] Ibid. para. 57.

[17] Ibid. para. 58.

[18] Rules of the Premier League to be found in the Premier League Handbook, Season 2017/18, Rule A.1.122.

[19] Ibid. Rule F.1.2. This provision in essence corresponds to Article 5.01(b) of the UCL Regulations.

[20] Rules of the Premier League, Rule F.1.3.

[21] Royal Decree No 1251/1999 on Sports Limited Liability Companies, Article 17(1) and (2). Professional football competitions at the state level include only La Liga and Segunda División A.

[22] See CFCB Adjudicatory Chamber decision (n 8) para. 41.

[23] Such examples could only be inferred from the changes made by RB Salzburg.

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