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

RFC Seraing at the Court of Arbitration for Sport: How FIFA’s TPO ban Survived (Again) EU Law Scrutiny

Doyen (aka Doyen Sports Investment Limited) is nothing short of heroic in its fight against FIFA’s TPO ban. It has (sometimes indirectly through RFC Seraing) attacked the ban in front of the French courts, the Belgium courts, the European Commission and the Court of Arbitration for Sport. This costly, and until now fruitless, legal battle has been chronicled in numerous of our blogs (here and here). It is coordinated by Jean-Louis Dupont, a lawyer who is, to say the least, not afraid of fighting the windmills of sport’s private regulators. Yet, this time around he might have hit the limits of his stubbornness and legal ‘maestria’. As illustrated by the most recent decision of the saga, rendered in March by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) in a case opposing the Belgium club RFC Seraing (or Seraing) to FIFA. The arguments in favour of the ban might override those against it. At least this is the view espoused by the CAS, and until tested in front of another court (preferably the CJEU) it will remain an influential one. The French text of the CAS award has just been published and I will take the opportunity of having for once an award in my native language to offer a first assessment of the CAS’s reasoning in the case, especially with regard to its application of EU law. More...

The Validity of Unilateral Extension Options in Football – Part 1: A European Legal Mess. By Saverio Spera

Editor’s Note: Saverio Spera is an Italian lawyer and LL.M. graduate in International Business Law at King’s College London. He is currently an intern at the ASSER International Sports Law Centre.

                 

In the football world the use of unilateral extension options (hereafter UEOs) in favour of the clubs is common practice. Clubs in Europe and, especially, South America make extensive use of this type of contractual clauses, since it gives them the exclusive possibility to prolong the employment relationship with players whose contracts are about to come to an end. This option gives to a club the right to extend the duration of a player’s contract for a certain agreed period after its initial expiry, provided that some previously negotiated conditions are met. In particular, these clauses allow clubs to sign young promising players for short-term contracts, in order to ascertain their potential, and then extend the length of their contracts.[1] Here lies the great value of UEOs for clubs: they can let the player go if he is not performing as expected, or unilaterally retain him if he is deemed valuable. Although an indisputably beneficial contractual tool for any football club, these clauses are especially useful to clubs specialized in the development of young players.[2] After the Bosman case, clubs have increasingly used these clauses in order to prevent players from leaving their clubs for free at the end of their contracts.[3] The FIFA Regulations do not contain any provisions regulating this practice, consequently the duty of clarifying the scope and validity of the options lied with the national courts, the FIFA Dispute Resolution Chamber (DRC) and the CAS. This two-part blog will attempt to provide the first general overview on the issue.[4] My first blog will be dedicated to the validity of UEOs clauses in light of national laws and of the jurisprudence of numerous European jurisdictions. In a second blog, I will review the jurisprudence of the DRC and the CAS on this matter. More...

Call for papers: ISLJ Annual Conference on International Sports Law - 26-27 October 2017

The editorial board of the International Sports Law Journal (ISLJ) is very pleased to invite you to submit abstracts for its first Annual Conference on International Sports Law. The ISLJ, published by Springer in collaboration with ASSER Press, is the leading publication in the field of international sports law. Its readership includes both academics and many practitioners active in the field. On 26-27 October 2017, the International Sports Law Centre of the T.M.C. Asser Instituut and the editorial board of the International Sports Law Journal will host in The Hague the first ever ISLJ Annual Conference on International Sports Law. The conference will feature panels on the Court of Arbitration for Sport, the world anti-doping system, the global governance of sports, the FIFA transfer regulations, comparative sports law, and much more.

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International and European Sports Law – Monthly Report – March 2017. 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.

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The legality of surety undertakings in relation to minor football players: the Lokilo case. By Adriaan Wijckmans

Editor's note: Adriaan Wijckmans is an associate specialized in sports law at the Belgium law firm Altius.

In a recent judgment, the Brussels Court of First Instance confirmed the legality of a so-called surety undertaking, i.e. an agreement in which the parents of a minor playing football guarantee that their child will sign a professional contract with a football club as soon as the child reaches the legal age of majority.

This long-awaited ruling was hailed, on the one hand, by clubs as a much needed and eagerly anticipated confirmation of a long-standing practice in Belgian football[1] and, on the other hand, criticised by FIFPro, the international player’s trade union, in a scathing press release. More...



Kosovo at the Court of Arbitration for Sport – Constructing Statehood Through Sport? By Ryan Gauthier (Thompson Rivers University)

Editor's Note: Ryan is Assistant Professor at Thompson Rivers University, he defended his PhD at Erasmus University Rotterdam in December 2015. His dissertation examined human rights violations caused by international sporting events, and how international sporting organisations may be held accountable for these violations. 


“Serious sport…is war minus the shooting.” – George Orwell

 

In May 2016, the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) admitted the Football Federation of Kosovo (Kosovo) as a member. The voting was close, with 28 member federations in favour, 24 opposed, and 2 whose votes were declared invalid. The practical outcome of this decision is that Kosovo would be able participate in the UEFA Euro championship, and that Kosovo teams could qualify for the UEFA Champions’ League or Europa League. More...


International and European Sports Law – Monthly Report – February 2017. 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. More...

FIFA's Responsibility for Human Rights Abuses in Qatar – Part II: The Zurich Court's Ruling - By Tomáš Grell

Editor’s note: Tomáš Grell comes from Slovakia and is currently an LL.M. student in Public International Law at Leiden University. He contributes also to the work of the ASSER International Sports Law Centre as a part-time intern.

This is a follow-up contribution to my previous blog on FIFA's responsibility for human rights abuses in Qatar published last week. Whereas the previous part has examined the lawsuit filed with the Commercial Court of the Canton of Zurich ('Court') jointly by the Dutch trade union FNV, the Bangladeshi Free Trade Union Congress, the Bangladesh Building and Wood Workers Federation and the Bangladeshi citizen Nadim Shariful Alam ('Plaintiffs') against FIFA, this second part will focus on the Court's ruling dated 3 January 2017 ('Ruling').[1]  More...



FIFA's Responsibility for Human Rights Abuses in Qatar - Part I: The Claims Against FIFA - By Tomáš Grell

Editor’s note: Tomáš Grell comes from Slovakia and is currently an LL.M. student in Public International Law at Leiden University. He contributes also to the work of the ASSER International Sports Law Centre as a part-time intern.

On 2 December 2010, the FIFA Executive Committee elected Qatar as host of the 2022 FIFA World Cup ('World Cup'), thereby triggering a wave of controversies which underlined, for the most part, the country's modest size, lack of football history, local climate, disproportionate costs or corruption that accompanied the selection procedure. Furthermore, opponents of the decision to award the World Cup to the tiny oil-rich Gulf country also emphasized the country's negative human rights record.

More than six years later, on 3 January 2017, the Commercial Court of the Canton of Zurich ('Court') dismissed the lawsuit filed against FIFA[1] jointly by the Dutch trade union FNV, the Bangladeshi Free Trade Union Congress, the Bangladesh Building and Wood Workers Federation and the Bangladeshi citizen Nadim Shariful Alam ('Plaintiffs').[2] The Plaintiffs requested the Court to find FIFA responsible for alleged human rights violations of migrant workers in connection with the World Cup in Qatar. Had the Plaintiffs' claims been upheld by the Court, such decision would have had far-reaching consequences on the fate of thousands of migrants, mostly from India, Nepal and Bangladesh, who are currently working on the construction of sporting facilities and other infrastructure associated with organization of the World Cup. More...

Asser International Sports Law Blog | State Aid and Sport: does anyone really care about rugby? By Beverley Williamson

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

State Aid and Sport: does anyone really care about rugby? By Beverley Williamson

There has been a lot of Commission interest in potential state aid to professional football clubs in various Member States.  The huge sums of money involved are arguably an important factor in this interest and conversely, is perhaps the reason why state aid in rugby union is not such a concern. But whilst the sums of money may pale into comparison to those of professional football, the implications for the sport are potentially no less serious.

At the end of the 2012/2013 season, Biarritz Olympique (Biarritz) were relegated from the elite of French Rugby Union, the Top 14 to the Pro D2.  By the skin of their teeth, and as a result of an injection of cash from the local council (which amounted to 400,000€), they were spared administrative relegation to the amateur league below, the Fédérale 1, which would have occurred as a result of the financial state of the club. Article 8 of the Statuts et Règlements Générqaux (the rules that govern professional rugby) states that if it is determined by the DNACG (Direction Nationale d’Aide et de Contrôl de Gestion; the organisation charged with overseeing the administrative, financial and legal aspects of rugby in France) that a professional team is unable to satisfy its projected financial commitments, it will be relegated to the amateur leagues. Biarritz have been one of the great Top 14 clubs, having won the league in 2005 and 2006, having reached the Heineken Cup final in 2010 and won the smaller of the European competitions, the Challenge Cup in 2012 and they look set to make their return to the Top 14 next year, something that would not have been possible had the local council not intervened, an intervention that was permitted by the DNACG.

Article 107 TFEU provides for a very inclusive definition of state aid, declaring as incompatible with the internal market any aid whatsoever, granted by the State or funded with state resources, which distorts or threatens to distort competition by favouring certain undertakings in so far as it affects trade between Member States. There is a four part test for determining whether or not state aid has been granted; (i) did the money come from state resources; (ii) was it given to an undertaking; (iii) did that money confer selective advantage; and (iv)did it have the potential to distort competition. 

The definition of state resources in this context is fairly wide, and covers money provided by local government and so is easily satisfied in this case. The European jurisprudence is clear that a sporting club or association can be considered to be an undertaking within the meaning of the Treaty provisions in so far as its economic activity is concerned; again, this is easily satisfied in this instance. Given the lack of information available as to the nature of Biarritz’s financial concerns or the terms of the grant, it is difficult to determine whether selective advantage has been conferred by the grant. Selective advantage, of this particular type, is conferred when the undertaking could not have obtained that economic advantage under normal market conditions (market economy operator principle), so had Biarritz been unable to obtain a grant on similar terms to that which was provided by the Council, selective advantage will have been obtained. Finally, the aid has to have the potential to distort competition, and idea that is explored below alongside its affect upon trade between Member States.  

The Pro D2 is an entirely domestic league, it has no international fixtures whatsoever, so potentially is a purely domestic matter. In Stevenage Borough Football Club v The Football League (1996) Times Law Review, 6 July, it was deemed too remote that Stevenage would be able to compete for a place in European competitions and so there was no effect on trade between Member States in that case. However, the Commission have been clear that trade between Member States may be affected by aid given to an undertaking that is not itself, trading across borders (Case C-102/87 France v Commission [1988] ECR 4067, para.19) and indeed, have recently opened an investigation into a second division football team in the Netherlands. The Stevenage case can be contrasted with Biarritz where, despite a rocky start to the season, they have now climbed the table and sit second place. They have a serious chance of being promoted back into the Top 14, or at the very least, occupying one of the coveted promotion playoffs spots, thereby altering who could potentially win promotion (in France two teams go up and two teams come down).  Every team in the Top 14 competes in one of two European competitions: the European Championship Cup or the European Challenge Cup.  The potential effect on trade between Member States starts therefore, to become more evident. The concept of ‘trade between Member States’ has traditionally been given a wide interpretation and can be said to include situations which affect the competitive structure of the market, within its scope. The Top 14 has fixtures with other European countries, including England, Ireland and Italy.  Who enters (and who leaves) therefore will affect the competitive structure of those international fixtures. Article 107 however, states that aid is only prohibited ‘in so far as it’ has an effect on trade between Member States, rather than in Article 101 or 102 which rely on ‘may’ as a limiting concept. The jurisprudence is clear that it is the effect of the aid, rather than the intent or form of the aid which is determinative.  A full market analysis of the effect on trade, as occurs under Article 101 and 12, is not required under Article 107, although justification for the finding of a distortion of competition, or threatened distortion, would be necessary (Case 730/79 Philip Morris Holland BV v Commission, [1980] ECR 2671). In the case of Biarritz, the provision of the 400,000€ saved the team from relegation to the Fédéral 1 and therefore put them in a position in which they could immediately fight for promotion back into the Top 14 (which they look likely to achieve). It does not appear therefore, that an investigation would stumble at this stage of its inquiry.   

Due to the inclusive nature of the Article 107 prohibition, many investigations turn on whether they satisfy the exemption criteria of 107(3). The one most typically utilised in the case of investigations of professional football clubs in 107(3)(c) which states that aid used to facilitate the development of certain economic areas or activities may not be incompatible with the internal market, or the ‘failing firm’  defence. The local mayor hinted at the economic implications for the town itself of the teams fall from professionalism, as the primary motive for providing the aid. There is however, no (public) suggestion that the club would have folded without the injection of cash, merely that it would have had to compete in the amateur Fédérale 1. The definition of a failing firm is necessarily flexible. Nevertheless, it is a requirement when considering rescue aid (as opposed to restructuring aid as appears to be the case here) that the difficulties faced by the firm be short/medium term difficulties that are dependent upon short term government help for their resolution. As Biarritz have performed so well this season, it seems that there is an argument to be made that their difficulties were indeed short-term in nature, and have been resolved by the injection of cash provided by the local council. The aid itself would also have to be a ‘one time, last time’ injection of financial help, something that is not entirely clear from the local media reports. Further, the question of whether demotion to an amateur league is comparable to the outright failure of a firm would have to be addressed. Fellow former Top 14 great and rival, Union Sportive Montalbanaise (Montauban) faced administrative relegation in 2010. The local council there did not provide the club with the money required to prevent their fall. The club filed for bankruptcy after being unable to prove to the DNACG that they would be able to address the rumoured 1.7 million Euro shortfall in their budget for that season. After 4 years in the amateur league they succeeded in winning promotion back into the Pro D 2 for the 2014/2015 season, where they currently sit mid-table. Using this as an example, and provided that the criteria laid out in 3.1.1. of the Community Guidelines on State Aid for Rescuing and Restructuring Firms in Difficulty are satisfied, it seems there is at least a basis for defending the council loan. 

However, as there is very little by the way of detailed information available as to the nature of the financial difficulties of the club or the terms of the financial assistance provided by the Council, it is impossible to be determinative as to its standing under Article 107. On the face of it though, the case of Biarritz looks at least worthy of some Commission interest and could well be an example of unlawful state aid, aid that looks likely to have enabled Biarritz re-admittance to the Top 14, the ‘richest league in the world’. 400,000€ may seem like peanuts when compared with the figures the Commission is looking at in respect of professional football, but in this case it seems, paying peanuts gets you a lot more than monkeys. 

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