Asser International Sports Law Blog

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

The Evolution of UEFA’s Financial Fair Play Rules – Part 3: Past reforms and uncertain future. By Christopher Flanagan

Part Two of this series looked at the legal challenges FFP has faced in the five years since the controversial ‘break even’ requirements were incorporated. Those challenges to FFP’s legality have been ineffective in defeating the rules altogether; however, there have been iterative changes during FFP’s lifetime. Those changes are marked by greater procedural sophistication, and a move towards the liberalisation of equity input by owners in certain circumstances. In light of recent statements from UEFA President Aleksander Čeferin, it is possible that the financial regulation of European football will be subject to yet further change.


FFP from 2010 to 2015 

FFP was integrated into UEFA’s licensing requirements in the Club Licensing and Financial Fair Play Regulations Edition 2010.  In the 2010 Edition, implementation of FFP was to be overseen by the UEFA Club Financial Control Panel. Disciplinary action was carried out by the UEFA Control and Disciplinary Body, whose decisions could be appealed to the UEFA Appeals Board.

In the Club Licensing and Financial Fair Play Regulations Edition 2012, the oversight and disciplinary procedure of FFP was amended. The functions of the Club Financial Control Panel, Control and Disciplinary Body, and Appeals Board were replaced with a two-tier Club Financial Control Body (CFCB). The two chambers of the CFCB are the Investigatory Chamber, which actively monitors FFP compliance; and the Adjudicatory Chamber, which levies sanctions for non-compliance.

Under Article 53.1 of the 2012 Edition rules, the CFCB “carries out its duties as specified in the present regulations and the Procedural rules governing the UEFA Club Financial Control Body” (the Procedural Rules). The bespoke Procedural Rules establish a framework for the composition of the CFCB, the decision making processes of both the Investigatory and Adjudicatory Chambers, and the rules applicable to the whole proceedings. Like the Club Licensing and FFP Regulations, the Procedural Rules have gone through iterative changes (2014, and 2015 editions).

The Procedural Rules are a welcome development to FFP, ensuring the independence of the CFCB (Articles 6 and 7); bestowing broad investigatory powers upon the Investigatory Chamber (Article 13); and setting clear parameters for disciplinary action and process, including setting out potential disciplinary measures (Article 29). Overall, the Procedural Rules increase the legal sophistication of the end-to-end FFP process, and in doing so reduce the risk of irrational or arbitrary outcomes.  This protects clubs and UEFA; clubs who are in breach of FFP have clear guidance on the process that will be followed; clubs who adhere to FFP are reassured that those clubs who breach the rules will be put through a sophisticated investigation and (if necessary) disciplinary process (and additionally, pursuant to Article 22, where third party clubs and member associations are affected and have a legitimate interest in joining proceedings before the Adjudicatory Chamber, may do so); and UEFA, in having a clear and detailed rules governing procedure, helps to insulate FFP from legal challenge.

(By way of aside, in light of the changes to the procedure governing FFP sanctions, it is noteworthy that Bursaspor, in CAS 2014/A/3870 Bursaspor Kulübü Derneği v. Union des Associations Européennes de Football, argued that Control and Disciplinary Body and Appeals Board were “not professional on financial subjects”, although the Turkish club was unsuccessful in its appeal, and UEFA’s rebuttal was to highlight that the Club Financial Control Panel was made up of “financial and legal experts” and that the creation of the CFCB was “principally motivated by a desire to streamline the process”.)

Amongst the Procedural Rules, Article 33 stipulates that decisions of the Adjudicatory Chamber are to be published (subject to redaction to protect confidential information or personal data), which has the effect not just of increasing the transparency of UEFA’s decision making, but also of increasing the transparency of the financial affairs of European club football.


Settlement Agreements

One of the more dramatic changes implemented by the Procedural Rules was the implementation of ‘Settlement Agreements’, which are “aimed at ensuring that clubs in breach of the break-even requirement become compliant within a certain timeframe and are designed to be effective, equitable and dissuasive.

Settlement Agreements have been described as “basically a plea bargain”. Redolent of the settlement procedures in many competition law or white collar crime regimes, Settlement Agreements are consensual agreements entered into between a party who has breached FFP and the CFCB, which avoid the need for a breach to be referred to the Adjudicatory Chamber (Article 15.1).   Settlement Agreements have been viewed by the CAS as effectively giving clubs a ‘second chance’ to comply with FFP (CAS 2016/A/4692 Kardemir Karabükspor v. UEFA), albeit with more stringent conditions applied.

Settlement Agreements may include sanctions and timeframes for compliance (Article 15.2) and are monitored by the CFCB Chief Investigator (Article 15.4). If there is a breach of a settlement agreement, the matter is then referred to the Adjudicators Chamber.


FFP from 2015

The next major changes to FFP were implemented in the Club Licensing and Financial Fair Play Regulations Edition 2015.

Introduction of Voluntary Agreements 

In contrast to the ex post compliance approach of Settlement Agreements, Voluntary Agreements are an ex ante mechanism for clubs to derogate from the normal FFP standards, with the ultimate aim of complying with the break-even requirement. Voluntary Agreements are defined as being “a structured set of obligations which are individually tailored to the situation of the club, break-even targets defined as annual and aggregate break-even results for each reporting period covered by the agreement, and any other obligations as agreed with the UEFA Club Financial Control Body investigatory chamber” (Edition 2015, Annex XII A.5). They can last for up to four reporting periods (Annex XII A.3).

In order to enter into a Voluntary Agreement, a club must adhere to certain procedural requirements. These include submitting a long-term business plan “based on reasonable and conservative assumptions” (Annex XII B.2(a)).

On the face of it, the concept of the Voluntary Agreements–allowing clubs with new owners to incur debts on the promise of future FFP compliance–sounds like a recipe for sort of financial peril FFP was created to avoid.  However, in order to be allowed to enter into a Voluntary Agreement, there must be put in place “an irrevocable commitment(s) by an equity participant(s) and/or related party(ies) to make contributions for an amount at least equal to the aggregate future break-even deficits for all the reporting periods covered by the voluntary agreement” (Annex XII B.2(c)).

Break Even Limit Increase

Another significant change implemented by the Club Licensing and Financial Fair Play Regulations Edition 2015 was a variation to the quantum of the break even limits in certain circumstances. The limits were increased from €5m to €45m for assessment periods 2013/14 and 2014/15, and €30m for assessment periods 2015/16, 2016/17 and 2017/18  “if it is entirely covered by a direct contribution/payment from the club owner(s) or a related party” (Article 61.2).

This balance between short-term losses, guaranteed in the event of financial failure (per the Voluntary Agreement process) or offset by owner input, against long term sustainability are superficially congruent with the objectives identified by UEFA for its licensing regime, which include “to introduce more discipline and rationality in club football finances; to encourage clubs to operate on the basis of their own revenues; to encourage responsible spending for the long-term benefit of football; and to protect the long-term viability and sustainability of European club football” (Article 2 (c)-(f)).  But this takes a somewhat narrow view of the impact of spending in football. A club’s spending affects not just a buying and selling club in a market transaction for a player’s registration, but affects the overall market in football players.

Inflation in the market for player registrations far outstrips inflation across the broader economy (by one estimate, inflation in football transfer fees runs ten times higher than inflation in the “normal” economy – and those figure were calculated before Paris Saint Germain doubled the record transfer fee with the purchase of Neymar in the summer of 2017. Player wage growth runs at over 10% per annum. Voluntary Agreements and increased owner investment may contribute to this vertiginous inflation. This runs in contrast to some of UEFA’s messaging around FFP. For example, it has previously been stated that FFP was intended to “decrease pressure on salaries and transfer fees and limit inflationary effect”.

Of course, it should be borne in mind that there is nothing inherently wrong with inflation where it is sustainable; but when considered in an environment where capital is accruing to the wealthy elite (top 15 European clubs) at a quicker rate than the rest of the market (see UEFA’s Financial Fair Play Regulations and the Rise of Football’s 1% by van Maren for further analysis), there is a risk of bifurcation of the financial capabilities of football clubs, with inflation marginalising the non-elite.  European clubs have seen revenue growth at over 9% per annum on UEFA’s figures, although since 2009, the average English Premier League club has added “five times more revenue than the average Italian Serie A or French Ligue Un club”. Inflation, if not intrinsically problematic, certainly has the potential to cause problems; and UEFA, in administering and approving Voluntary Agreements, and in weakening its stance on owners offsetting losses, should consider the impact on inflation and stability. Voluntary Agreements and financial input by owners are potentially gateways to the elite level; however, this should not be at the expense of those who do not have wealthy owners or pre-existing wealth.

Perhaps more significantly, there is a normative dimension to the introduction of Voluntary Agreements and the relaxation of financial input from benefactors. The message behind FFP was one of “revolutionising European football”, with then President of UEFA Michel Platini saying that UEFA would “never [be] going back on this.” Quite conversely, the changes brought about by the 2015 Edition of FFP were welcomed with a message of FFP being “eased”. This is disappointing because, on UEFA’s own figures, FFP has had a considerable positive impact on the European football financial landscape. On one view, allowing equity input from owners is a pro-competitive encouragement of exogenous investment; on another, it is rowing back from a positive and successful policy initiative at the expense of those not fortunate enough to have a benefactor owner.


The impact of FFP

In defence of its loosening of the restriction on loss-making, UEFA would doubtless point to the positive impact the FFP has had to date,[1] which, perhaps, creates financial latitude that once did not exist.

As a part of FFP, the clubs under UEFA’s direct jurisdiction report standardised, audited, financial information. UEFA publishes annual benchmarking reports, which draw upon the information clubs submit. Since the introduction of FFP, there has been a general positive trend in European clubs’ finances.

For example, UEFA’s 7th Benchmarking Report, covering the financial year 2014, showed wage growth to have slowed to its “lowest rate in recent history” at 3%. Overdue payables (essentially debts that clubs owe but have not paid on time) had reduced by 91%. The most recent report published by UEFA, its eight Club Licensing Benchmarking Report, covering the financial year 2015, indicates that clubs “have generated underlying operating profits of €1.5bn in the last two years, compared with losses of €700m in the two years before the introduction of [FFP]”; whereas “Combined bottom-line losses have decreased by 81% since the introduction of [FFP]”.

Of course, there are methodological problems in ascribing the improvement in European clubs’ finances exclusively to FFP when in reality there are a combination of factors at play. However, what we can comfortably say is that there is an evident correlation between FFP and the stabilisation of the football financial landscape.

There is also a second-order effect of FFP at play. UEFA, in its position as the game’s regulator, in introducing FFP, has had a hegemonic influence on the governance of the game at national level.  For example, in England, domestic iterations of FFP have been instituted in the Football League, and the Premier League has introduced its own Short Term Cost Control Measures.

Thus, by setting the tone of sustainability expectations, UEFA has influenced the financial stability of clubs outside of its jurisdiction. This is highlighted neatly in the following passage from UEFA’s eight Benchmarking Report:

The centrepiece of financial fair play, the break-even rule, may not directly address small and medium-sized clubs with costs and incomes below €5m, but financial fair play has other direct and indirect impacts on these clubs. Direct in that UEFA and the Club Financial Control Body pass their eyes over detailed financial data from all clubs competing in UEFA competitions and in particular take careful, regular note of all overdue payables. And indirect in that financial fair play has resulted in a significantly higher level of scrutiny of club finances and the actions of club owners and directors. In addition, some countries, such as Cyprus, have introduced their own versions of financial fair play, tailored to their clubs and the scale of their financial activities.” 

So, whilst UEFA can legitimately point to the more secure position across the financial landscape as a good reason that Voluntary Agreements or wider economic input from owners will do no harm, it should continue to reflect on the message this loosening of FFP may send to the wider football market.


FFP Exemptions

One area of change for which UEFA should be applauded is in its use of certain exemptions from the FFP ‘break even’ calculation. These include areas such as infrastructure and youth football, both essential to the game’s long-term sustainability. By exempting these areas from the break even calculation, clubs’ owners are incentivised to invest (by equity rather than debt) in the game’s future, without an impact on short-term competitiveness.

More recently (from 2015), UEFA has moved to exclude expenditure on women’s football from the break-even calculation (Annex X C(i). Again, UEFA should be praised for taking positive steps to encourage growth across less wealthy areas of the game.


The Future of FFP after Neymar

Over the summer of 2017, public interest in FFP has reignited. The rules are now becoming synonymous with Neymar and his new club, Paris Saint Germain, after the Brazilian player’s reported €222m release clause was activated, doubling the world record fee for a player transfer.   This move, followed by French player Kylian Mbappe joining Paris Saint Germain from Monaco for similarly large fee, has upset some in the game.

These events pose a significant problem for UEFA. It is not yet known whether PSG are in breach of FFP (and, of course, it is conceivable that they have sufficient financial capabilities to fund the purchases without any breach of the rules); however, the transactions have raised questions, including La Liga President Javier Tebas stating that he believed PSG were guilty of “infringing on UEFA regulations, financial fair play and EU laws”, and Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger saying that “it looks like we have created rules that cannot be respected…there are too many legal ways to get around it.” 

The public grievances around FFP precipitated by PSG’s spending do, to an extent, seem to conflate simply spending large sums of money with breaching FFP. The rules do not prohibit spending large sums on transfers or otherwise; rather, they limit how much debt can be incurred by a club, assessed over a three year rolling period, with only limited equity input from an owner. The rules were not designed to prevent a €222m transfer per se (with the fee amortised across the length of the contract period, as is standard practice in the football industry); rather, they were designed to ensure that any such spending was sustainable, and did not put clubs at risk.

However, FFP is a reactive, not a proactive tool. Clubs report spending after the event; they are not required to seek permission from UEFA to make a capital investment. This ex post approach does perhaps reveal a flaw in managing any egregious short-term infractions that should arise, the impact of which will be felt by other clubs before UEFA, through the CFCB, can have its say.

The broader problem associated with PSG’s spending is one of opacity. PSG is owned by Oryx Qatar Sports Investments, which is an investment vehicle for the state of Qatar. There were contemporary (unconfirmed) reports that the deal would be structured to take place off of PSG’s accounting books, with Neymar being paid the value of his release clause directly for agreeing to become an ambassador to the Qatar World Cup, so that he could in turn pay his own release clause.  If true, this would notionally take the release clause fee off of PSG’s books, but would almost certainly qualify as a related party transaction with the meaning of FFP’s Annex X F and thus remain examinable by the CFCB. Similarly, it was reported that PSG’s loan-come-purchase of Kylian Mbappe was “complex”. While complicated transfer arrangements are to be expected in a game that is going through increasing commercial sophistication, there are evidently some suspicions that PSG are attempting to circumvent FFP (or, more colourfully, ‘peeing in the pool’).

However, UEFA anticipated clubs employing ‘creative’ tactics to superficially comply with FFP, and gave the CFCB jurisdiction to consider “at all times…the overall objectives of these regulations, in particular to defeat any attempt to circumvent these objectives” (Article 72.1). (At this stage, one can only speculate as to what, if any, FFP objectives PSG may have breached, but the CFCB will surely consider Article 2.2 (a) and (c) - (f)).

UEFA has publicly stated that it is investigating PSG’s FFP compliance, saying “The investigation will focus on the compliance of the club with the break-even requirement, particularly in light of its recent transfer activity”. Of course, this should not be particularly surprising given the CFCB annually examines the finances of each club that enters into UEFA competitions under the standard FFP procedure, but it will be interesting to observe how CFCB’s investigation progresses, and, if PSG is found to have breached FFP in letter or in spirit, what punishment is meted out to PSG. 

Whether PSG’s aggressive spending was emboldened by UEFA’s weakening of the more restrictive elements of FFP will remain unknown.  Similarly, one can only speculate as to whether the dilution of FFP, through changes such as the implementation of Settlement Agreements and Voluntary Agreements, came about as a result of legal challenges already brought and defended by UEFA; or whether UEFA is insulating itself from further legal challenges; or whether UEFA is simply altering the rules for the good of the game. As detailed in Part One of this series, the legality of FFP will rest on its proportionality. These changes have moved FFP towards a more flexible, and arguably more proportionate, proposition; but, given the public exposure that PSG’s spending has precipitated,UEFA will surely wish to ensure that FFP is not seen as a paper tiger.

The matter is on UEFA’s agenda. Even before the events involving PSG in the summer of 2017, incoming UEFA president, Aleksander Čeferin, spoke about the possibility of a fixed wage cap and closing the gap between the game’s haves and have nots. Such changes would certainly make FFP more congruent with its name. FFP is not about being ‘fair’ in the sense of being egalitarian or introducing a level playing field. It is a gentle brake applied to the rate of growth in the game, aimed predominantly at reducing long-term loss making and insolvency. Perhaps the rules might have been less controversial from the outset, and might not have been a mechanism for the frustration ventilated by sum following PSG’s purchase of Neymar and Mbappe, if instead of being called FFP, the rules were called ‘financial management rules’, and absolved themselves from the pretence of ‘fairness’.

Alternatively, UEFA could revisit FFP, implementing a genuinely egalitarian set of rules – a hard salary cap, a luxury tax, the abolition of the transfer market, or some combination of those things and others. This would, however, undoubtedly engender its own set of legal challenges, as we have seen with FFP. 

Whilst the challenges to various aspects of FFP have been largely ineffective in defeating FFP (see for example CAS 2016/A/4692 Kardemir Karabükspor v. UEFA; CAS 2016/A/4492 Galatasary v. UEFA; CAS 2014/A/3870 Bursaspor Kulübü Derneği v. UEFA; CAS 2014/A/3533 Football Club Metallurg v. UEFA; CAS 2013/A/3067 Málaga CF SAD v. UEFA; CAS 2012/A/2824 Beşiktaş JK v UEFA; CAS 2012/A/2821 Bursaspor Kulübü Dernegi v. UEFA; CAS 2012/A/2702 Györi ETO v. UEFA ), the rules have, against the backdrop of repeated disputes about their legality, iteratively changed, including a move towards greater liberalisation in respect of equity input into clubs by owners. 

And so UEFA finds itself at a crossroads. FFP, bombarded with legal challenges (which it has to date ridden) has gradually developed and liberalised as financial stability in European football has improved. Now, with the transfer market having escalated, the efficacy of the rules has come into question. UEFA must decide on the path it wishes to take; whether to liberate the market altogether,  whether to institute a truly ‘fair’ system, or whether to continue on FFP’s current centrist ground. Aleksander Čeferin, a lawyer by extraction, is certain to face a legal and political struggle in whichever direction he turns.


[1] For further discussion on the efficacy of FFP, see Neil Dunbar (2015) "The union of European football association’s club licensing and financial fair play regulations - are they working?" ISSN 1836-1129 http://epublications.bond.edu.au/slej/27

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Asser International Sports Law Blog | The New FIFA Intermediaries Regulations under EU Law Fire in Germany. By Tine Misic

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

The New FIFA Intermediaries Regulations under EU Law Fire in Germany. By Tine Misic

I'm sure that in 1985, plutonium is available in every corner drugstore, but in 1955, it's a little hard to come by.” (Dr. Emmett L. Brown)[1]


Back to the future?

Availing oneself of EU law in the ambit of sports in 1995 must have felt a bit like digging for plutonium, but following the landmark ruling of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in the Bosman case[2], 20 years later, with all the buzz surrounding several cases where EU law is being used as an efficient ammunition for shelling various sports governing or organising bodies, one may wonder if in 2015 EU law is to be “found in every drug store” and the recent cases (see inter alia Heinz Müller v 1. FSV Mainz 05, Daniel Striani ao v UEFA, Doyen Sports ao v URBSFA, FIFA, UEFA) [3] cannot but invitingly evoke the spirit of 1995.

One of the aforementioned cases that also stands out pertains to the injunction decision[4] issued on 29 April 2015 by the Regional Court (Landesgericht) in Frankfurt am Main (hereinafter: the Court) in the dispute between the intermediary company Firma Rogon Sportmanagement (hereinafter: the claimant) and the German Football Federation (Deutschen Fußball-Bund, DFB), where the claimant challenged the provisions of the newly adopted DFB Regulations on Intermediaries (hereinafter: DFB Regulations)[5] for being incompatible with Articles 101 and 102 TFEU.[6] The Court, by acknowledging the urgency of the matter stemming from the upcoming transfer window and the potential loss of clients, deemed a couple of shells directed at the DFB Regulations to be well-aimed, and granted an injunction due to breach of Article 101 TFEU.


(Un)harnessing the brokerage in football

The recently adopted FIFA Regulations on Working with Intermediaries (hereinafter: FIFA Regulations)[7] arguably represent the biggest turning point in the regulation of player and club representation in the history of professional football.[8] While some will argue that by implementing these Regulations, FIFA has thrown in the towel on regulating the ambit of representation in football altogether, it could be said that by steering away from controlling the access to the activity and switching the onus on regulating it, FIFA has not deregulated the activity, but rather shifted the scope of the regulation itself.[9] It has been anticipated that the implementation process would expose several contentious issues (e.g. recommended commission cap, duty of disclosure, representation of minors, suitability of intermediaries, etc.),[10] and the DFB’s adoption of the new Regulation has been no exception in that regard.[11]

The DFB, pursuant to Article 1(2) of FIFA Regulations,[12] and following a rather lengthy exchange of information with the German Football League (Deutsche Fußballliga GmbH, DFL) and the German Association of Players’ Agents (Deutschen Fußballspieler-Vertmittlervereinigung, DFVV),[13] adopted the new DFB Regulations on 13 March 2015. By availing itself of the discretion embedded in Article 1(3) of FIFA Regulations,[14] the DFB tailor-made its regulations, which entered into force on 1 April 2015, to a certain extent, which shall be elaborated upon further below. 

Since the new DFB Regulations by virtue of paragraphs 2 and 3 of Article 3[15] indirectly bound the intermediary agencies through binding players and clubs when entering employment or transfer contracts,[16] which had not been the case with the pre-existent norms, the claimant first unsuccessfully sought the annulment of the Regulations directly from DFB. Subsequently, the claimant sought relief in the form of a temporary injunction from the Court, based upon the pending imminent danger stemming from the abuse of the DFB’s dominant position. Such behaviour, according to the claimant, limited the free choice of profession. Furthermore, according to the claimant, the obligatory disclosure of the remuneration amounts and the prohibition of representation remuneration when the player concerned is a minor went way beyond the borders of necessity and were thus unjustified.[17] The DFB, on the other hand, by rejecting the existence of a pending danger since the claimant had allegedly known of the FIFA Regulations for almost a year, deemed the claim inadmissible due to wrongful recourse to the urgent procedure (Eilverfahren), and additionally claimed the Articles 101 and 102 TFEU to be inapplicable, since the addressed provisions did not restrict competition, but au contraire prevented its distortion (i.e. by prohibiting the abuse of  the intermediary activity, providing for the independence of clubs and players, and guaranteeing transparency and contractual stability, hence bringing their scope within the borders of proportionality).[18]


Intermediaries v DFB: 1-0

The DFB’s guerrilla tactics of throwing the sink back at the claimant screaming for inadmissibility proved rather futile. The Court deemed the claim to be admissible and also found a large portion of the claimant’s arguments in the form of EU law-shaped shells to be well-founded. Subsequently, it granted an injunction as sought from the claimant. It addressed the issue through the prism of the Article 101 TFEU, and specific steps in the reasoning shall be dealt with separately below.

Admissibility as a non-issue

The DFB argued that such a claim could not be made in the urgent procedure, since the issue would pertain to the main cause. However, the Court pointed out that such a claim would be possible under Article 33 of the Act against Restraints of Competition (Gesetz gegen Wettbewerbsbeschränkungen, GWB).[19] Refusal of such a claim would deprive the claimant of its rights and legal remedies, particularly in the light of the pending danger of losing potential customers (clubs and players), bound directly by the DFB Regulations.[20] The Court also rejected the claim that the issue pertained to an internal decision-making process of the DFB, and said that the adoption of the Regulations had an externally oriented scope and effect.[21]


DFB Regulations are an inter-state trade restricting decision of an association of undertakings

The DFB asserted that it could not be seen as an association of undertakings in the sense of Article 101(1) TFEU considering that it also includes members with an amateur status. By referring to Piau,[22] the Court removed any ambiguity pertaining to the status of the DFB saying that: “...the mere fact that a sports association or federation unilaterally classifies sportsmen or clubs as 'amateur' does not in itself mean that they do not engage in economic activities within the meaning of Article 2 EC.”[23] Furthermore, strengthening its reasoning by first quoting Frubo,[24] stating that: ”Article 101 TFEU applies to associations in so far as their own activities of those of the undertakings belonging to them are calculated to produce the results to which it refers”,[25] and then BNIC,[26] it seemingly left no doubt as to the passive standing of DFB.

Having established the DFB’s status as per Article 101(1) TFEU, the Court moved to the DFB Regulations, and by drawing from Bosman,[27] Lehtonen,[28] and most importantly Piau,[29] qualified them as a decision of an association of undertakings, since they entail the regulation of the economic activity of intermediaries, whereby it is clear “...that the purpose of the occupation of players' agent, under the very wording of the amended regulations, is 'for a fee, on a regular basis [to introduce] a player to a club with a view to employment or [to introduce] two clubs to one another with a view to concluding a transfer contract'...”,[30] and therefore this economic activity cannot be qualified as one of a purely sporting nature.[31]

Albeit steering clear of an explicit reference to CJEU’s vast jurisprudence, the Court deemed the relevant market to be the one of intermediary services where the clubs and the players represented the customers and the intermediaries the providers,[32] hence following to a large extent the pre-established path in Piau.[33] It also pointed out that pursuant the provisions of Article 101(1) TFEU the core of the restriction of competition lied within an agreement (or a decision) which hampered the independence of economic decision making of the companies involved in a particular activity. The present case would prove as no exception since the intermediaries’ ability to provide services would take toll by the eventual non-submission of the signed declaration when entering an agreement with a player or a club upon whom loomed the eventual DFB sanctions. In other words, refusal to declare, which at the same time brought the intermediaries within the scope of DFB norms, limited the intermediaries’ economic freedom to be engaged by players or clubs.[34]

Moreover, the Court had little doubts about the Regulations affecting the inter-State trade. With Bundesliga alone representing the third largest national club football competition in Europe, the size of the market itself leads to the conclusion that the decision in question could have a negative impact on an actual or potential, direct or indirect inter-State provision of intermediary services, all the more so, since it lead to partitioning of markets on a territorial basis. In fact, by invoking Wouters,[35] the Court stressed that: “...it is sufficient to observe that an agreement, decision or concerted practice extending over the whole of the territory of a Member State has, by its very nature, the effect of reinforcing the partitioning of markets on a national basis, thereby holding up the economic interpretation which the Treaty is designed to bring about...[36]


Possible justifications

Having brought the Regulations within the scope of Article 101(1) TFEU, the Court promptly looked at the available justifications, either within the ambit of Article 101(1) TFEU pursuant to the relevant ECJ jurisprudence, or as one of the explicit Treaty exceptions embedded within Article 101(3) TFEU. In light of the former provision it is worth pointing out that the notion of inherence to legitimate (sporting) purposes is crucial in this ambit, since certain potentially restrictive behaviours (e.g. adoption of transfer rules), may be, although caught by Articles 101 and 102 TFEU respectively, exempted from their scope due to their necessity in pursuance of such objectives. Such an inherent necessity must, however, be assessed on a case-to-case basis. Following such reasoning, and by referring to the landmark Meca-Medina case,[37] the Court invoked an almost blasphemous notion in the ambit of EU competition law by stating that such assessment of legitimate goals under Article 101(1) TFEU was to be addressed through the “rule of reason” doctrine.[38]

As an alternative route stemming explicitly from the Treaty, by referring back to Piau, the Court identified the provisions of Article 101(3) TFEU, which envisage that the Regulations “might enjoy an exemption on the basis of this provision if it were established that they contribute to promoting economic progress, allow consumers a fair share of the resulting benefit, do not impose restrictions which are not indispensable to the attainment of these objectives, and do not eliminate competition.” [39]

Summing up, the Court rather curiously, and perhaps simplistically, pointed out that the common denominator of both approaches entailed three key components; namely the Regulations would have to pursue a legitimate goal, and they would have to be necessary and proportionate. As one such legitimate goal, the Court recognised the issue of necessity to level the playing field in football competitions through a transfer system and thereof stemming regulation of the activity of intermediaries in order to prevent eventual abuses in the form of coerced transfers, and, even more importantly, to protect the minors involved in the process.[40] Both parties recognised the existence of past abusive practices that needed to be eradicated. Regardless of the legitimacy of the majority of the aims pursued, the Court established that certain provisions lacked the needed necessity and were disproportionate, as shall be addressed below.[41]


Individual (un)successful claims

Firstly, the Court deemed the registration obligation for clubs and players, which would bring the intermediaries within the scope of DFB and FIFA rules, to be disproportionate. While the registration and declaration obligations as such could be justified, the same could not be said for the pertaining subsumption of the intermediary service under the overarching umbrella of the DFB rules. The disproportionate full submission to DFB rules, which would strip the intermediaries of their possibility of recourse to ordinary justice, could be just as effectively replaced by a proper enforcement by the DFB of the registration rules themselves. Moreover, the Court found it unclear why the DFB would not be able to safeguard the goals pursued by the DFB Regulations before ordinary courts. [42]

Unlike the registration obligation, the duty to submit a criminal record along with the duty to pay a registration fee were seen as justified and thus proportionate in the eyes of the Court. Due to a potentially large impact of the intermediary activity on competition stemming from the potential influence on players and clubs, no less restrictive measure other than a registration duty could be put in place in order to safeguard the transparency of the football leagues. Moreover, considering the utmost necessity to protect the minors, the duty to submit a criminal record is clearly justified. Since the intermediaries financially benefit from their activity, the pertaining registration fee could also be deemed as a proportionate measure.[43]

The third addressed measure, i.e. the remuneration disclosure requirement, was also seen as justified by the Court. The legitimate aims set out in the previous paragraph were also to be pursued through the disclosure of agreements entered into and remuneration paid to the intermediaries. Such measures represented suitable means for controlling the intermediaries’ behaviour and were thus necessary and proportionate.[44]

The same can be said of the prohibition of acceptance of intermediary transfer fees for future transfers. In this context, the premature termination of contracts between clubs and players represented a major incentive for the intermediaries and at the same time a major source of revenue for clubs. The possibility of claiming a share of the transfer fees would therefore draw the intermediaries into seeking actively an early contract termination, as the new Regulations’ provisions were aimed at preventing such external influence, they are considered justified and proportionate.[45]

Fifthly, the imposition of flat-rate transfer fees was deemed unjustified by the Court, since it prohibited the agreed fee to be expressed in percentage pertaining to the cumulative transfer sum. This reinforced doubts that had previously been expressed about the proportionality of the parent FIFA Regulations provision, namely Article 7. Contrary to DFB’s arguments that such a scheme only required an a priori determination of the fee, the Court was not of the opinion that such a restrictive interpretation was appropriate, and that it could also lead to interpreting the provision in the way to detach the flat-rate fee entirely from the transfer sum. In other words, clubs would only be allowed to pay a prefixed amount that could not be expressed in percentage of the entire transfer sum. The Court also had doubts as to how such a restriction would serve the previously mentioned purposes.[46]

Last but not least, the Court also found the prohibition of remuneration of intermediaries of minors having the status of licensed players to be unjustified and disproportionate. By refusing the DFB’s argument to draw parallels with legal representation, the Court rather focused on the potential vulnerability of minors and their susceptibility to influence from the intermediaries, making this the crucial argument for (non)justification of the prohibition.[47] Stressing the legitimacy of a special protection of minors, who would due to their age and consequent inexperience rely heavily on the advice of the intermediaries, it also drew the line between the players plying their trade in the first and second league (licensed players) and others who participated in lower leagues. In the latter case a particular attention ought to have been given to minors brought to Germany from abroad.[48] It was only obvious, according to the Court, that minors playing in the lower leagues should benefit from a higher level of protection due to their stronger economic dependency to the intermediaries and hence susceptibility to their instructions. Minor licensed players, however, due to their market position alone warrant no such protection. Moreover, the significant disproportion of the amount of money spent on transfer fees for licensed minors makes such a prohibition in this ambit even more restrictive.[49]

Summed up, the Court deemed three out of six of the claimant’s legal missiles to have hit their target. First, the intermediaries may still be registered with the DFB without subjecting to its authority. Second, the prohibition of flat-rate transfer fees was unjustified, and third, the prohibition of remuneration of intermediaries of licensed minor players also exceeded the borders of necessity.[50] Since an injunction decision required an imminent and pending danger to be substantiated, as anticipated above, the Court circumvented the DFB’s argument that the claimant had almost a year, hence enough time, to get acquainted with the Regulations, by saying that Article 1(2) of the FIFA Regulations merely provided a minimum compulsory basis to be implemented, and that the DFB adopted substantially different Regulations pursuant Article 1(3) of the FIFA Regulations, leaving significantly less time for the claimant to comply.[51] The reference to previous FIFA Regulations met the same end, since the former pertained only to natural and not to legal persons.[52] 


Side-stepping Article 102 TFEU?

While the Court went to significant depths when analysing the case through the prism of Article 101 TFEU, it quite surprisingly almost completely refused to be drawn into the assessment of the matter through Article 102 TFEU, despite admitting, hence quite possibly just elegantly restating Piau,[53] to a possible existence of a collective dominant position by the DFB and its related associations on the market of intermediary service provision.[54] It merely concluded that there was no abuse in the sense of Article 102 TFEU.[55] One may find this curious at the very least, since the Court itself stated that DFB imposed its rules on non-members, intermediaries in this case, through economic pressure stemming from its monopolistic position on the market in question, which could to a certain extent at least be deemed as abusive.[56]


The epilogue or merely the end of Round One?

With the battle dust temporarily subsided, the DFB has seemingly complied with the Court’s injunction decision by issuing a note in which it restated the judgment’s tenor and informed the interested parties (intermediaries) of an ongoing possibility of a non-binding registration with DFB. The truce may only be a temporary one though, since the DFB has through its president already announced to pursue the matter in the main proceedings and a battle won does not necessarily mean that the war has been won.[57] Regardless of the outcome in Germany though, the issue carries a larger relevance. Since some of the DFB Regulations provisions, addressed in the hitherto analyzed injunction decision, resemble to a large extent if not entirely those embedded in the FIFA Regulations (e.g. the suspended Article 7(7) of DFB Regulations and Article 7(8) of FIFA Regulations),[58] one may wonder if, considering the already pending complaint of the of the Association of Football Agents (AFA) to the Commission,[59] legal challenges of the intermediaries regulations in other countries may only be a matter of time. Especially, since apparently these days EU law conveniently happens to be “available in every drug store”.




[1] R. Zemeckis, B. Gale, Back to the Future (Universal Pictures, 1985).

[2] Case C-415/93, Union royale belge des sociétés de football association ASBL v Jean-Marc Bosman ao, [1995] ECR I-04921.

[3] See inter alia Case AZ: 3 Ca 1197/14, Heinz Müller v 1. FSV Mainz 05, Arbeitsgericht Mainz, 19 March 2015 ; Case 2013/11524/A, Daniel Striani ao v UEFA, Tribunal de première instance francophone de Bruxelles, Section Civile, 29 May 2015.

[4] Case Az. 2-06 O 142/15*, Firma Rogon Sportmanagement v Deutschen Fußball-Bund (DFB), Landgericht Frankfurt am Main, 29 April 2015.

[5] DFB-Reglement für Spielvermittlung, adopted on 13 March 2015.

[6] Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU), Consolidated Version, O.J. 2012, C326, 26 October 2012 and as amended by the Croatian Accession Treaty, O.J. 2012, L112/1.

[7] FIFA Regulations on Working with Intermediaries, adopted in Zürich on 21 March 2014.

[8] D. Lowen, A guide to the FA’s Regulations on Working with Intermediaries (www.lawinsport.com, 17 February 2015), <http://www.lawinsport.com/articles/item/a-guide-to-the-fa-s-regulations-on-working-with-intermediaries>.

[9] D. Lowen, FIFA’s Regulation on Working with Intermediaries (T.M.C. Asser Instituut – Summer Programme, 30 June 2015), pp. 2.

[10] N. De Marco, The new FA Intermediaries Regulations & disputes likely to arise (www.lawinsport.com, 31 March 2015), <http://www.lawinsport.com/articles/item/the-new-fa-intermediaries-regulations-disputes-likely-to-arise>.

[11] Focus, Streit mit DFB: Gericht gibt Spielervermittler in Teilen Recht (www.focus.de, 30 April 2015), <http://www.focus.de/regional/frankfurt-am-main/fussball-streit-mit-dfb-gericht-gibt-spielervermittler-in-teilen-recht_id_4650008.html>.

[12] Article 1(2) FIFA Regulations, cited supra note 7: ”Associations are required to implement and enforce at least these minimum standards/requirements in accordance with the duties assigned in these regulations, subject to the mandatory laws and any other mandatory national legislative norms applicable to the associations. Associations shall draw up regulations that shall incorporate the principles established in these provisions.

[13] Rogon v DFB, cited supra note 4, paras. 15-16.

[14] Article 1(3) FIFA Regulations, cited supra note 7: “The right of associations to go beyond these minimum standards/requirements is preserved.

[15] Arts. 3(2), 3(3) DFB-Reglement für Spielvermittlung, cited supra note 5.

[16] Rogon v DFB, cited supra note 4, paras. 16-17: “Mit dieser Erklärung erkennt der Vermittler das Reglement auch für sich als verbindlich an und unterwirft sich damit der Verbandshoheit des Antragsgegners einschliesslich der Sportgerichtsbarkeit.”

[17] Ibid., para. 19.

[18] Ibid., paras. 32-39.

[19] Gesetz gegen Wettbewerbsbeschränkungen (GWB), (BGBl. I S. 1554), 26.07.2011.

[20] Rogon v DFB, cited supra note 4, paras. 43-45.

[21] Ibid., para. 46.

[22] Case T-193/02, Laurent Piau v Commission, [2005] ECR II-00209, para. 70.

[23] Rogon v DFB, cited supra note 4, para. 50.

[24] Case 71/74, Nederlandse Vereniging voor de fruit- en groentenimporthandel, Nederlandse Bond van grossiers in zuidvruchten en ander geimporteerd fruit "Frubo" v Commission, [1975] ECR 00563, para. 17.

[25] Rogon v DFB, cited supra note 4, para. 51.

[26] Case 123/83, Bureau national interprofessionnel du cognac (BNIC) v Guy Clair, [1985] ECR 00391, para. 17.

[27] Bosman, cited supra note 2, para. 127.

[28] Case C-176/96, Jyri Lehtonen and Castors Canada Dry Namur-Braine ASBL v Fédération royale belge des sociétés de basket-ball ASBL (FRBSB), [2000] ECR I-02681, paras. 53-60.

[29] Piau, cited supra note 22, para. 73: “As regards, second, the concept of a decision by an association of undertakings...This is therefore an economic activity involving the provision of services, which does not fall within the scope of the specific nature of sport, as defined by the case-law.”

[30] Ibid.

[31] Rogon v DFB, cited supra note 4, paras. 52-53.

[32] Ibid., para. 55.

[33] Piau, cited supra note 22, paras. 112-115.

[34] Rogon v DFB, cited supra note 4, paras. 57-58.

[35] Case C-309/99, J.C.J. Wouters ao v Algemene Raad van de Nederlandse Orde van Advocaten, [2002] I-01577, para. 95.

[36] Rogon v DFB, cited supra note 4, paras. 59-61.

[37] Case C-519/04 P, David Meca-Medina and Igor Majcen v Commission, [2006] ECR I-06991.

[38] Rogon v DFB, cited supra note 4, paras. 63-64.

[39] Piau, cited supra note 22, paras. 100-104.

[40] Rogon v DFB, cited supra note 4, paras. 66-68.

[41] Ibid., paras. 69-70.

[42] Ibid., paras. 72-73.

[43] Ibid., paras. 75-78.

[44] Ibid., para. 80.

[45] Ibid., paras. 83-84.

[46] Ibid., paras. 86-87.

[47] Ibid., paras. 89-91.

[48] Ibid., para. 93.

[49] Ibid., para. 94: “Für die Vermittlung von Lizenzspielern ist eine derartige Beschränkung allerdings unverhältnismäÿig. Lizenzspieler der ersten und zweiten Bundesliga sind nicht in dem Masse schutzbedürftig wie Vertragsspieler der unteren Ligen.

[50] Handelsblatt, Gericht gibt Spielervermittler teils recht (www.handelsblatt.com, 30 April 2015),<http://www.handelsblatt.com/sport/fussball/streit-mit-dfb-gericht-gibt spielervermittler-teils recht/11716170.html>.

[51] Rogon v DFB, cited supra note 4, para. 104.

[52] Ibid., para. 105.

[53] Piau, cited supra note 22, paras. 117-118

[54] Rogon v DFB, cited supra note 4, paras. 98-99.

[55] Rogon v DFB, cited supra note 4, para. 100.

[56] Ibid., para. 96: “Hier geht es jedoch darum, dass die Antragsgegnerin aufgrund ihrer Monopolstellung Dritte faktisch in die Verbandsherrschaft zwingt, indem sie Verbandsangehörige mit Sanktionen bedroht, sollten diese nicht auf die Antragstellerin im Sinne einer Zustimmung zur Vermittlererklärung einwirken. Insofern fehlt es an der freiwilligen Unterwerfung; es handelt sich vielmehr um eine durch wirtschaftlichen Druck erzwungene Unterwerfung eines nicht verbandsangehörigen Dritten.”

[57] Hamburger Abendblatt, Landgericht bestätigt teilweise neue Spielerberater-Regeln (www.abendblatt.de, 30 April 2015), <http://www.abendblatt.de/sport/article205286615/Landgericht-bestaetigt-teilweise-neue-Spielerberater-Regeln.html>.

[58] Article 7(8) FIFA Regulations, cited supra note 7: “Players and/or clubs that engage the services of an intermediary when negotiating an employment contract and/or a transfer agreement are prohibited from making any payments to such intermediary if the player concerned is a minor ...

[59] D. Lowen, cited supra, note 8.

 

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