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 Specificity of Sport - Comparing the Case-Law of the European Court of Justice and of the Court of Arbitration for Sport - Part 2 - By Stefano Bastianon

Editor’s note: Stefano Bastianon is Associate Professor in EU Law and EU sports law at the University of Bergamo and lawyer admitted to the Busto Arsizio bar.

1. EU law and the CAS case-law

Bearing in mind these questions, it is possible to affirm that under EU law, the specificity of sport

i) refers to the inherent characteristics of sport that set it apart from other economic and social activities and which have to be taken into account in assessing the compatibility of sporting rules with EU law; and

ii) under EU law these inherent characteristics of sport must be  considered on a case by case  basis, per the Wouters test as developed by the ECJ in the Meca Medina ruling.

Both aspects can be found in the CAS case-law too, although the CAS case-law shows some remarkable differences and peculiarities. From a general point of view, the application of the principle of specificity of sport in the CAS case-law represents an aspect of the more general issue related to the application of EU law by the CAS. However, the purpose of this paper is not to fully examine if and to what extent the CAS arbitrators apply EU law rules on free movement and competition; rather, the aim is to analyse the way the CAS deals with the concept of the specificity of sport, highlighting similarities and differences compared to the ECJ.

Taking for granted that ‘a CAS panel is not only allowed, but also obliged to deal with the issues involving the application of [EU] law’,[1] as far as the compatibility of sporting rules with EU law is concerned the CAS case-law shows different degrees of engagement. For instance, in the ENIC award concerning the so-called UEFA integrity rule, the CAS panel went through a complete competition-law analysis in perfect harmony with the Wouters et al. ruling by the ECJ.[2] On the contrary, in the above-quoted Mutu case, the issue of compatibility of the FIFA’s transfer regulations with EU competition law was analysed in a rather simple way, merely stating that the FIFA rules at stake were not anti-competitive under EU competition law without giving any reason to support this conclusion. More recently, in the Galatasaray and Milan A.C. awards, concerning the UEFA’s financial fair-play regulations, the CAS  applied a detailed analysis of EU competition law. However, in both cases, according to the CAS the proportionate character of sanctions listed in the UEFA’s financial fair-play regulations cannot affect the evaluation of the legitimacy of these regulations under Art. 101 TFEU. This conclusion represents a clear breaking point with respect to the ECJ case-law, according to which the evaluation of the restrictive effects of a rule necessarily presupposes the analysis of the proportionate character of the sanction imposed in the event of a violation of that rule as well.[3]   In regard to EU free movement, the CAS case-law tends to be less analytical in terms of the principle of proportionality. For instance, in the RFC Seraing award  which concerned both EU free movement and competition law, the CAS panel mainly focused on the legitimate objectives of the contested rule (FIFA’s ban on Third-Party Ownership – TPO), merely affirming that the restrictive measures under EU free movement were justified and inherent in the pursuit of those objectives.More...

The Specificity of Sport - Comparing the Case-Law of the European Court of Justice and of the Court of Arbitration for Sport - Part 1 - By Stefano Bastianon

Editor’s note: Stefano Bastianon is Associate Professor in EU Law and EU sports law at the University of Bergamo and lawyer admitted to the Busto Arsizio bar.*


1. Introduction.

The so-called specificity of sport represents one of the most debated, if not the most debated, but still undefined issue under European Union (EU) law. A noteworthy peculiarity is that the specificity of sport is frequently mentioned in several legislative and political documents issued by EU institutions, however it is not expressly referred to in any judgment by the European Court of Justice (ECJ).Conversely, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) case-law on Art. 17 of FIFA Regulations on status and transfer of players (RSTP) has repeatedly and expressly referred to the specificity of sport.[1] Apparently, the concept of specificity of sport has different meanings and purposes in the ECJ and CAS jurisprudence. In this blog (divided in two parts), I will try to analyse those two different meanings and to what extent the CAS case-law is consistent with the concept of specificity of sport as elaborated under EU law. More...

SFT rejects Semenya appeal: nothing changes - By Andy Brown

Editor's note: Andy Brown is a freelance journalist who has been writing about the governance of sport for over 15 years. He is the editor of The Sports Integrity Initiative where this blog appeared first.

For the last three days, I have been struggling with what to write regarding the Swiss Federal Tribunal’s (SFT) Decision to dismiss a challenge from Caster Semenya and Athletics South Africa (ASA) against the Court of Arbitration for Sport’s (CAS) Decision to dismiss a challenge to the Eligibility Regulations for the Female Classification (Athletes with Differences of Sex Development), otherwise known as the DSD Regulations. From reading World Athletics’ statement welcoming the ruling, one could be forgiven for thinking that it had won a major trial. Sports journalists, accustomed to covering events now curtailed by Covid-19, focus on the fact that Semenya has ‘lost’ her case against the DSD Regulations. Neither assertion is strictly accurate.

The SFT’s powers to review the CAS’s ruling are severely limited. It can only consider whether the CAS Decision violates ‘widely recognised principles of public order’ on Swiss public policy grounds. The SFT has only reversed a decision based on a a violation of Swiss public policy once in 30 years.

The SFT didn’t reconsider the evidence put forward to the CAS. ‘For there to be incompatibility with public policy, it is not enough that the evidence has been poorly assessed, that a finding of fact is manifestly false or that a rule of law has been clearly violated’, its Decision reads. ‘The only question to be resolved is in fact whether or not the verdict of the CAS renders the referred award incompatible with substantive public policy’. 

There were questions about whether the appeal from Semenya and ASA qualified to be reviewed by the SFT in the first place. World Athletics is a private organisation headquartered in Monaco, and the SFT was troubled as to whether such a complaint brought by a South African athlete against an overseas private organisation is capable of violating Swiss public policy.

‘It is doubtful whether the prohibition of discriminatory measures falls within the scope of the restrictive concept of public order when the discrimination is committed by a private person and occurs in relations between individuals’, the Decision quotes from its pervious 29 July 2019 Decision, which refused the ASA’s request to provisionally suspend the application of the DSD Regulations. ‘In any event, there is no need to examine this question further here since […] the award under appeal does not in any way establish discrimination which would be contrary to public order’

The SFT ruled that the CAS was correct to uphold conditions of participation for 46 XY DSD athletes in order to guarantee fair competition for certain disciplines in female athletics. In doing so, the SFT was ruling on whether the decision taken by the CAS violates public policy, based only on the complaints brought forward by Semenya and ASA. 

Semenya and the ASA had challenged the CAS Decision based around the idea that the DSD Regulations are discriminatory. The CAS held that they are discriminatory, but agreed with the IAAF (as World Athletics was then named) that such discrimination was necessary to protect its female category. The SFT ruled that even if the discriminatory rules of a private organisation such as the IAAF were considered able to pose a threat to public order, Semenya and the ASA had failed to demonstrate that the CAS Decision was so egregious that it posed such a threat.

‘Caster Semenya essentially alleges a violation of the prohibition of discrimination’, reads the Swiss Federal Supreme Court statement. ‘The CAS has issued a binding decision based on the unanimous opinion of the experts who were consulted that testosterone is the main factor for the different performance levels of the sexes in athletics; according to the CAS, women with the “46 XY DSD” gene variant have a testosterone level comparable to men, which gives them an insurmountable competitive advantage and enables them to beat female athletes without the “46 XY DSD” variant. Based on these findings, the CAS decision cannot be challenged. Fairness in sport is a legitimate concern and forms a central principle of sporting competition. It is one of the pillars on which competition is based. The European Court of Human Rights also attaches particular importance to the aspect of fair competition. In addition to this significant public interest, the CAS rightly considered the other relevant interests, namely the private interests of the female athletes running in the “women” category.’

Such strong support for the principle behind its DSD Regulations was rightly welcomed by World Athletics. Its statement asserted that the SFT ‘acknowledged that innate characteristics can distort the fairness of competitions’. I would argue that the SFT ruling didn’t do this, but rather found that a CAS Decision asserting this didn’t violate Swiss public policy. Semantics, perhaps.

Likewise, when World Athletics quotes the SFT Decision as confirming that ‘It is above all up to the sports federations to determine to what extent a particular physical advantage is likely to distort competition and, if necessary, to introduce legally admissible eligibility rules to remedy this state of affairs’, it is paraphrasing two texts quoted in the SFT Decision. The first is ‘La qualification juridique des rules autonomes des organizations sportive’ by Jérôme Jaquier, 2004. ‘Inborn characteristics specific to athletes in a particular group can also distort the fairness of competition’, the SFT Decision quotes from Jaquier. ‘When they enact regulations, the objective of sports federations is to ensure fair and equitable competition’.

The context of the second quote, from ‘Sportrecht – Berücksichtigung der Interessen des Sports in der Rechtsordnung’ by Martin Kaiser, 2011, is even more interesting. It is preceded with a statement from the Swiss Federal Supreme Court, which reads: ‘It is not for the Federal Court to make, abstractly, comparisons between the disciplines to assess whether a particular athlete has an advantage that makes sporting competition meaningless’

‘It is above all for the sporting federations to determine to what extent a particular physical advantage is liable to distort competition’, the SFT Decision quotes from Kaiser. ‘And, if so, to establish legally admissible eligibility rules to remedy this state of affairs’. 

Again, such details might be considered as semantics. But – I would argue – important semantics. Reading the media maelstrom that has resulted from the SFT Decision, one could be forgiven for assuming that Semenya has lost her case, and has no chance of ever defending her 800m title. However, a statement issued by her lawyers reveals that she intends to challenge the ruling in European and domestic courts.

“I am very disappointed by this ruling, but refuse to let World Athletics drug me or stop me from being who I am”, the statement continues. “Excluding female athletes or endangering our health solely because of our natural abilities puts World Athletics on the wrong side of history. I will continue to fight for the human rights of female athletes, both on the track and off the track, until we can all run free the way we were born. I know what is right and will do all I can to protect basic human rights, for young girls everywhere.” More...

The Semenya Decision of the Swiss Federal Tribunal: Human Rights on the Bench - By Faraz Shahlaei

Editor's note: Faraz Shahlaei is a JSD Candidate at Loyola Law School, Los Angeles. His research and teaching interests are public international law, international sports law, international human rights and dispute resolution.


The issue of international human rights was a central contention in Caster Semenya case ever since the start of her legal battle against the regulations of the IAAF. However, the human rights arguments were poorly considered in the two proceedings related to this case. To put it in perspective, it is like having a key player nailed to the bench throughout the whole game; no coach ever tried to give it a chance while it had the potential to be the game changer for all parties.

In 2019, the Human Rights Council, the inter-governmental human rights body of the UN, expressed concern over issues of discrimination in sports in particular regarding IAAF female classification regulations. In June 2020, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights submitted a report to the United Nations Human Rights Council on the “Intersection of Race and Gender Discrimination in Sport”. The report draws a detailed picture of how human rights in the Semenya case have been violated and also elaborates on the inherent problem of addressing human rights issues in alternative dispute resolution mechanisms favored by the sport governing bodies. However, despite an in-depth discussion of Caster Semenya’s case at both the CAS and then the SFT, the question of human rights, a key concern and a fundamental pillar of the case, hasn’t been adequately answered yet! More...

The SFT’s Semenya Decision under European human rights standards: Conflicting considerations and why a recourse could be successful at Strasbourg - By Kevin Gerenni

Editor's note: Kevin Gerenni is Assistant Professor in Public International Law (Facultad de Derecho de la Universidad de Buenos Aires) and LLM Candidate 2021 in Public International Law at the London School of Economics.

Even though the decision rendered by the SFT in the Semenya Case was foreseeable, the Tribunal did put forward some concerning reasoning in terms of public policy (“ordre public”) and human rights. In case Semenya decides to challenge the Swiss state before the ECtHR, one can expect the case to shake some grounds at the ECtHR, which would be faced with the question of the application to sport not of fair trial guarantees (as in Mutu & Pechstein) but of substantial human rights provisions such as the prohibition of discrimination on the basis of sex (Article 14 ECHR) and the right to private life (Article 8 ECHR).

Under Swiss law, the reasons that may lead to the annulment of an arbitral award are enumerated in art. 190 of the Swiss Private International Law Act (PILA). Semenya’s strongest case relied on art. 190(2)(e): the award’s incompatibility with public policy. Naturally, this point concentrated most of the SFT’s attention. In order to analyze the compatibility of the CAS award with Swiss public policy, the SFT focused on three main potential breaches of human rights: prohibition of discrimination, personality rights, and human dignity. In doing so, it put forward certain observations that differ with European human rights standards and the ECtHR’s jurisprudence. The purpose of this short article is to analyze those discrepancies and, consequently, Semenya’s prospects of success before the Strasbourg Tribunal.More...

Selected procedural issues –and questions– arising out the Caster Semenya Judgment of the Swiss Federal Tribunal - By Despina Mavromati

Editor's note: Dr Despina Mavromati is an attorney specializing in international sports law and arbitration (Sportlegis Lausanne) and a UEFA Appeals Body Member. She teaches sports arbitration and sports contracts at the University of Lausanne, Switzerland


As the title indicates, this short note only deals with selected procedural issues and questions arising out of the very lengthy Semenya Judgment. In a nutshell, the SFT dismissed Semenya’s appeal to set aside the CAS Award, which had denied the request of Caster Semenya (Semenya, the Athlete) to declare unlawful the Differences of Sex Development (DSD) Regulations of World Athletics (formerly IAAF).[1]

At the outset, it has to be reminded that the CAS Award dealt with the merits of the Semenya case in a final and binding way by rendering an arbitral award according to Article R59 of the CAS Code (and Article 190 of the Swiss Private International Law Act – PILA). Therefore, the SFT did not act as an appellate court but rather as a cassatory court, entitled to review only whether the exhaustively enumerated grounds for annulment set out in Article 190 (2) PILA were met (and provided that they were properly invoked and substantiated in the motion to set aside said award).More...

Caster Semenya Case Exposes Design Flaws in International Sports Governance - By Roger Pielke Jr.

Editor's note: Roger Pielke Jr. is a professor at the University of Colorado Boulder


The decision this week by the Swiss Federal Tribunal not to revisit the arbitral decision of the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) in the case of Caster Semenya was not unexpected, but it does help to expose a major design flaw in international sports governance. Specifically, the institutions that collectively comprise, create and enforce “sports law” appear incapable of addressing flawed science and violations of basic principles of medical ethics.

While different people will have different, and legitimate, views on how male-female competition classifications might be regulated, the issues highlighted involving science and ethics are not subjective, and are empirically undeniable. In normal systems of jurisprudence, procedures are in place to right such wrongs, but in sports governance processes in place prevent such course corrections. And that is a problem.

The empirical flaws in the science underpinning the IAAF (now World Athletics) Semenya regulations are by now well understood, and have been accepted by WA in print and before CAS (I was an expert witness for Semenya, and was present when IAAF accepted responsibility for the flawed research). You can read all the details here and in the CAS Semenya decision. I won’t rehash the flawed science here, but the errors are fatal to the research and obvious to see.

One key part of the comprehensive institutional failures here is that the journal which originally published the flawed IAAF research (the British Journal of Sports Medicine, BJSM) has, inexplicably, acted to protect that work from scrutiny, correction and retraction. Normally in the scientific community, when errors of this magnitude are found, the research is retracted. In this case, the BJSM refused to retract the paper, to require its authors to share their data or to publish a critique of the IAAF analysis. Instead, upon learning of the major errors, the BJSM published a rushed, non-peer reviewed letter by IAAF seeking to cover-up the errors. All of this is non-standard, and a scandal in its own right.

The violation of basic principles of medical ethics required by the implementation of the WA Semenya regulations is also not contested. Both WA and the IOC have claimed to uphold the World Medical Association’s Helsinki Declaration on medical and research ethics. Yet, the WMA has openly criticized the WA regulations as unethical and asked doctors not to implement them. In response, WA has stated that it will help athletes who wish to follow the regulations to identify doctors willing to ignore medical ethics guidelines.

Flawed science and ethical violations are obviously issues that go far beyond the case of Caster Semenya, and far beyond sport. In any normal system of jurisprudence such issues would prove readily fatal to regulatory action, either in the first instance of proposed implementation or via review and reconsideration.

Sport governance lacks such processes. At CAS, the panel claimed that matters of scientific integrity and medical ethics were outside their remit. The SFT is allowed to reconsider a CAS decision only on narrow procedural grounds, and thus also cannot consider matters of scientific integrity or medical ethics. So far then, the flaws in the WA regulations – sitting in plain sight and obvious to anyone who looks, have not been correctable.

This leaves the world of sport governance in a compromised position. Some may look past the scientific and ethical issues here, perhaps judging that barring Semenya from sport is far more important that correcting such wrongs. 

Regardless of one’s views on sex and gender classification in sport, the WA regulations and the processes that produced and have challenged them reveal that sports governance has not yet entered the 21st century. Science and ethics matter, and they should matter in sport jurisprudence as well.  It is time to correct this basic design flaw in international sport governance.

Caster Semenya at the SFT – in 10 points - By Jack Anderson

Editor's note: Jack Anderson is Professor and Director of Sports Law Studies at the University of Melbourne


1.     Caster Semenya appealed to the Swiss Federal Court (SFT) arguing that World Athletics’ regulations violated human rights principles relating to gender discrimination and human dignity. The Swiss Federal Tribunal (as at CAS) held that World Athletics’ regulations may prima facie breach such human rights principles but were “necessary, reasonable and proportionate” to maintain fairness in women's athletics;

2.     Although in part addressed at the SFT, expect further legal argument on this in the domestic courts of South Africa or at the ECtHR, and in the following ways:

  • Necessity - is the athletic advantage that Caster Semenya has of such a scientifically-measurable extent that it is necessary for World Athletics to intervene in such an invasive manner? In a broader ethical sense, is the incidence of what the World Athletics’ regulations call “difference of sex development” of such prevalence in the general population, and specifically in middle-distance athletics, that, by way of the principle of “sporting beneficence”, intervention is justified. Or, in contrast, is the incidence of DSD not at a level which justifies a departure from the ethical principle of primum non nocere – first, do no harm?
  • Reasonableness - if World Athletics’ regulations are necessary, is the manner of implementation reasonable and in line with the principle of human and bodily integrity? In answering such a question, the focus must be on the fact that in order to continue to compete in her favourite events (such as the 800 metres) Caster Semenya will have to lower her testosterone level through medication;
  • Proportionate - if World Athletics’ regulations are necessary and reasonable is the manner of implementation proportionate? In answering such a question, the focus must be on whether the regulations disproportionately discriminate against a certain, limited group of athletes in a certain, limited number of events and in a certain, limited manner.More...

Chronicle of a Defeat Foretold: Dissecting the Swiss Federal Tribunal’s Semenya Decision - By Marjolaine Viret

Editor's note: Marjolaine is a researcher and attorney admitted to the Geneva bar (Switzerland) who specialises in sports and life sciences.


On 25 August 2020, the Swiss Supreme Court (Swiss Federal Tribunal, SFT) rendered one of its most eagerly awaited decisions of 2020, in the matter of Caster Semenya versus World Athletics (formerly and as referenced in the decision: IAAF) following an award of the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS). In short, the issue at stake before the CAS was the validity of the World Athletics eligibility rules for Athletes with Differences of Sex Development (DSD Regulation). After the CAS upheld their validity in an award of 30 April 2019, Caster Semenya and the South African Athletics Federation (jointly: the appellants) filed an application to set aside the award before the Swiss Supreme Court.[1] The SFT decision, which rejects the application, was made public along with a press release on 8 September 2020.

There is no doubt that we can expect contrasted reactions to the decision. Whatever one’s opinion, however, the official press release in English does not do justice to the 28-page long decision in French and the judges’ reasoning. The goal of this short article is therefore primarily to highlight some key extracts of the SFT decision and some features of the case that will be relevant in its further assessment by scholars and the media.[2]

It is apparent from the decision that the SFT was very aware that its decision was going to be scrutinised by an international audience, part of whom may not be familiar with the mechanics of the legal regime applicable to setting aside an international arbitration award in Switzerland.

Thus, the decision includes long introductory statements regarding the status of the Court of Arbitration for Sport, and the role of the Swiss Federal Tribunal in reviewing award issued by panels in international arbitration proceedings. The SFT also referred extensively throughout its decision to jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), rendered in cases related to international sport and the CAS. More...

New Transnational Sports Law Articles Released on SSRN - Antoine Duval

I have just released on SSRN four of my most recent articles on Lex Sportiva/Transnational Sports Law. The articles are available open access in their final draft forms, the final published version might differ slightly depending on the feedback of the editors. If you wish to cite those articles I (obviously) recommend using the published version.

I hope they will trigger your attention and I look forward to any feedback you may have!


Abstract: This chapter focuses on the emergence of a transnational sports law, also known as lex sportiva, ruling international sports. In the transnational law literature, the lex sportiva is often referred to as a key example or case study, but rarely studied in practice. Yet, it constitutes an important playground for transnational legal research and practice, and this chapter aims to show why. The focus of the chapter will first be on the rules of the lex sportiva. Law, even in its transnational form, is still very much connected to written rules against which a specific behaviour or action is measured as legal or illegal. As will be shown, this is also true of the lex sportiva, which is structured around an ensemble of rules produced through a variety of law-making procedures located within different institutions. The second section of this chapter will aim to look beyond the lex sportiva in books to narrate the lex sportiva in action. It asks, what are the institutional mechanisms used to concretize the lex sportiva in a particular context? The aim will be to go beyond the rules in order to identify the processes and institutions making the lex sportiva in its daily practice. Finally, the enmeshment of the lex sportiva with state-based laws and institutions is highlighted. While the lex sportiva is often presented as an autonomous transnational legal construct detached from territorialized legal and political contexts, it is shown that in practice it operates in intimate connection with them. Hence, its transnational operation is much less characterized by full autonomy than assemblage.

Abstract: This chapter aims to show that the work of the Court of Arbitration for Sport (‘CAS’), which is often identified as the institutional centre of the lex sportiva, can be understood as that of a seamstress weaving a plurality of legal inputs into authoritative awards. In other words, the CAS panels are assembling legal material to produce (almost) final decisions that, alongside the administrative practices of sports governing bodies (‘SGBs’), govern international sports. It is argued that, instead of purity and autonomy, the CAS’ judicial practice is best characterised by assemblage and hybridity. This argument will be supported by an empirical study of the use of different legal materials, in particular pertaining to Swiss law, EU law and the European Convention on Human Rights (‘ECHR’), within the case law of the CAS. The chapter is a first attempt at looking at the hermeneutic practice of the CAS from the perspective of a transnational legal pluralism that goes beyond the identification of a plurality of autonomous orders to turn its sights towards the enmeshment and entanglement characterising contemporary legal practice.

Abstract: Has the time come for the Court of Arbitration for Sport to go public? This article argues that after the Pechstein decision of the European Court of Human Rights, CAS appeal arbitration must be understood as forced arbitration and therefore must fully comply with the due process guarantees enshrined in Article 6(1) ECHR. In particular, this entails a strong duty of transparency with regard to the hearings at the CAS and the publication of its awards. This duty is of particular importance since the rationale for supporting the validity of CAS arbitration, if not grounded in the consent of the parties, must be traced back to the public interest in providing for the equality before the (sports) law of international athletes. Thus, the legitimacy and existence of the CAS is linked to its public function, which ought to be matched with the procedural strings usually attached to judicial institutions. In short, if it is to avoid lengthy and costly challenges to its awards, going public is an urgent necessity for the CAS.

Abstract: In 1998 the FIFA welcomed the Palestinian Football Association as part of its members - allegedly, as an attempt by then FIFA President, the Brazilian João Havelange, to showcase football as an instrument of peace between Israeli and Palestinians. Ironically, almost 20 years after Palestine’s anointment into the FIFA family, instead of peace it is the conflict between Israeli and Palestinians that moved to FIFA. In recent years the Palestinian Football Association (PFA) and the Israeli Football Association (IFA) have been at loggerheads inside FIFA over the fate - I will refer to it as the transnational legality – of five (and then six) football clubs affiliated to the IFA which are physically located in the Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT). This chapter chronicles the legal intricacies of this conflict, which will serve as a backdrop to discuss arguments raised regarding the legality of business activities of corporations connected to the Israeli settlements. Indeed, as will be shown in the first part of this chapter, the discussion on the legality of economic activities in the OPT has recently taken a business and human rights turn involving systematic targeting of corporations by activists. Interestingly, we will see that this business and human rights turn also played a role in the conflict between the IFA and the PFA. This case study is therefore an opportunity to examine how the strategy of naming and shaming private corporations, and in our case not-for-profit associations, for their direct or indirect business involvement in the settlements has fared. It is also an occasion to critically assess the strength of the human rights ‘punch’ added to the lex sportiva, by the UNGPs.

Asser International Sports Law Blog | Unpacking Doyen’s TPO Deals: In defence of the compatibility of FIFA’s TPO ban with EU law

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

Unpacking Doyen’s TPO Deals: In defence of the compatibility of FIFA’s TPO ban with EU law

FIFA’s Third-Party Ownership (TPO) ban entered into force on the 1 May 2015[1]. Since then, an academic and practitioner’s debate is raging over its compatibility with EU law, and in particular the EU Free Movement rights and competition rules. 

The European Commission, national courts (and probably in the end the Court of Justice of the EU) and the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) will soon have to propose their interpretations of the impact of EU law on FIFA’s TPO ban. Advised by the world-famous Bosman lawyer, Jean-Louis Dupont, Doyen has decided to wage through a proxy (the Belgian club FC Seraing) a legal war against the ban. The first skirmishes have already taken place in front of the Brussels Court of first instance, which denied in July Seraing’s request for provisional measures. For its part, FIFA has already sanctioned the club for closing a TPO deal with Doyen, thus opening the way to an ultimate appeal to the CAS. In parallel, the Spanish and Portuguese leagues have lodged a complaint with the European Commission arguing that the FIFA ban is contrary to EU competition law. One academic has already published an assessment of the compatibility of the ban with EU law, and many practitioners have offered their take (see here and here for example). It is undeniable that the FIFA ban is per se restrictive of the economic freedoms of investors and can easily be constructed as a restriction on free competition. Yet, the key and core question under an EU law analysis, is not whether the ban is restrictive (any regulation inherently is), but whether it is proportionate, in other words justified.

I will first present the key arguments of the opponents of the ban, before offering my own assessment. As the reader might know, I am no friends of FIFA and a staunch critic of its bad governance syndrome. Although I am convinced that FIFA’s governance deserves a ground-up rebuilt, I also believe that FIFA’s TPO ban is justified.


I.               Antithesis: FIFA’s TPO ban is contrary to EU law 

The legal waters are very much chartered insofar as the question of the application of EU law to FIFA’s TPO ban is concerned.[2] The key legacy of the CJEU’s jurisprudence on sport, starting with the Bosman ruling, is that FIFA’s regulations do not escape the reach of EU law and that they must be subjected to a proportionality control of the restrictions they impose on economic freedoms. The fundamental question with respect to the TPO ban is then whether it will be deemed justified and proportionate by the national courts, the CAS, the European Commission and ultimately the CJEU.

The opponents of the FIFA ban consider first and foremost that the practice of TPO (they usually prefer to refer to as Third-Party Investments or Third-Party Entitlements) is a legitimate financial investment practice, which is needed to sustain and raise the competitiveness of certain clubs. Basically if banks are reluctant to finance those clubs, then less risk-averse investors have to step in. Thus, they support investment in the training capacity of the clubs (especially in South America) and their capacity to take their chances in the most prestigious competitions (for example FC Porto or Atlético Madrid). Hence, TPO can be seen as a legitimate investment practice and its regulation left to the contractual freedom of the parties. Such a radical libertarian view is not often supported nowadays,[3] as the potential integrity risks of TPO are widely acknowledged.[4]

Instead, if the risks connected to TPO are to be tackled, it is argued that TPO should be properly regulated. In EU law jargon, this is labelled a less restrictive alternative.[5] The existence of a less restrictive alternative would point at the disproportionate nature of the FIFA ban. For example, a bundle of regulatory measures are suggested by the Spanish league (La Liga):

·      Prohibition of certain transactions based on the player's age;

·      Maximum percentage of participation in the "economic rights";

·      Quantitative limitations on the maximum number of players per club;

·      Maximum remuneration for the investor;

·      Prohibition of certain clauses that may limit the independence and autonomy of the clubs; and

·      Prohibition of transactions depending on the investor's particular status or business (or participation in the same) such as shareholders, directors and managers of the clubs.

The proposed regulatory changes would undeniably be an improvement with regard to the current situation. However, I do not believe they are sufficiently credible to undermine the legality of FIFA’s TPO ban.


II.             Thesis: FIFA’s TPO ban is compatible with EU law

A.    The necessity to tackle the integrity risks generated by TPO

First, we need to come back to the function and functioning of TPO deals. There is a reason why banks refuse to offer loans to certain clubs. They are often in difficult financial situations, their revenues do not add up with their expenses. Investment funds fill this gap, they replace banks in financially supporting these clubs. In return, they expect a modern version of the “pound of flesh”, a share of the transfer fee attached to a specific player. For a club, the TPO investments will only be fruitful while it is successful on the pitch and lucky in picking the players it recruits. It is a very risky bet on the future. In good times everybody wins, but in bad times the club is in deep trouble (see FC Twente’s fate). The TPO system works as a devil’s circle, the club is drawn into more and more TPO deals to stay financially viable.

Furthermore, TPO deals are not unlike the complex financial instruments that led to the terrible financial crisis of 2008. They give way to similar conflicts of interest. Where banks were selling derivatives based on subprime mortgages to their clients while betting against them at the same time, TPO funds might push their clients to recruit (thanks to loans they have generously provided for high interests) a mediocre player in which they already have a stake. Another option would be for a TPO fund, which is often (if not always) also acting as an agent, to force the departure of a player by triggering an offer which the club cannot refuse (or it would have to buy back the rights which is impossible due to its financial situation). The many hat(s) of TPO investment funds are extremely worrying in terms of conflicts of interest.[6] The most dangerous, though in my view less likely (but see the Tampere case), risk being that TPO investors would use their broad networks of influence to fix games. FIFA’s objective of curbing those risks is clearly a legitimate one.

The heart of the trade of TPO funds is to leverage the hubris of football clubs, to corner them into making a bad financial deal in return for a credible shot at winning a title. But once the high is over, the low starts and the awakening is rather uncomfortable. The high financial risks saddled to the club are sustainable only so long as it is a winner. As soon as its fate on the pitch turns, the bad news accumulates and not unlike a bank run the club crashes, while the investors have more often than not managed to escape before the fall. In short, unless you truly believe in the superpowers of the invisible hand of the market, this practice, as well as the financial practices that led to the financial crisis, deserves either a thorough regulation or an outright ban.

B.    Is there a realistic regulatory alternative to the ban?

The key question for the assessment of the TPO ban under EU law is whether the many negative externalities triggered by the use of TPO could be tackled by the way of a less restrictive encroachment on the economic freedoms of the investors/clubs than the FIFA ban. Critics of the ban have very much insisted on the existence of less restrictive regulatory alternatives and put forward some proposals. Yet, I am of the opinion that these alternatives are generally unworkable in the present context. The main reason being that FIFA is incapable to properly regulate and control the TPO investment market. This is due to the fact that FIFA does not dispose of the legal competence needed to force investment funds to disclose information. To do so, it must be empowered by governments to be able to cease the information wanted, which is unlikely. Some would object, that this could be done via the FIFA TMS system put in place to supervise international transfers. But it would be extremely difficult for FIFA to verify any complex set of contractual information entered into the TMS. The destiny of former article 18 bis of the FIFA Regulations on the Status and Transfers of Players (see the 2014 version here) is there to prove this point. Under article 4.2 of Annexe 3 of the FIFA RSTP 2014, Clubs were already supposed to provide a “Declaration on third-party payments and influence”. Nonetheless, in previous years, FIFA was unable to charge any club (except for Tampere in a match-fixing context and due to a local police investigation) on the ground that an investor was exercising undue influence, mainly because it lacked the knowledge needed to do so. This is exemplified in the case of the ERPA signed by Doyen and FC Twente, which was only partially disclosed to the Dutch Football Association.

If FIFA is powerless, how is it supposed to enforce the ban? Well here lies the crucial difference between a ban and complex regulation. A ban is simpler to enforce, as it is merely a black-or-white matter. FIFA will be able to rely on investigative journalists unearthing investment contracts linked to transfers. The mere existence of a TPO contract will lead to a dissuasive sanction, without the need to get into the nitty-gritty details of each case. It thus makes it easier for FIFA to control the use of TPO and to force investment funds to come out in the open and take charge of the management of a club if they wish to stay active on the transfer market. The higher probability of being caught linked to the use of TPO will most likely work as a strong deterrent for clubs to engage in such a financing practice. This is undeniably a blunt instrument, and in an ideal world a true regulation of the TPO market would be put in place and enforced, but this ideal world is not compatible with the pluralist and complex transnational legal setting in which the transfer system operates. The complex regulatory schemes proposed as substitute to the ban are very well intended, but they do not take into account the extreme difficulty (and costs) linked to their implementation. The fiasco of the old FIFA Players’ Agents Regulations illustrates the practical constraints that burden any regulation of the football transfer market.

C.    TPO is not compatible with the 2001 agreement between the European Commission and FIFA

There is a final argument in favour of the compatibility of the TPO ban with EU law, which is grounded in the 2001 agreement between FIFA, UEFA and the European Commission. As should be obvious by now, the existence of TPO is dependent on the existence of the FIFA transfer system. Such a transfer system is unknown in other industries (though one could very well imagine a transfer system for academics for example). In turn, the FIFA transfer system restricts the economic freedom of both clubs and players. The European Commission highlighted these restrictions during its investigation of the FIFA transfer system in the early 2000s. However, the Commission signed an agreement with FIFA and UEFA signalizing its support for a new (the current) FIFA transfer system in 2001 and put an end to its investigation. This support was conditioned on the idea that a form of transfer system was needed to maintain the contractual stability necessary to the existence of stable and successful teams.[7] This is the fundamental assumption that underlies the compatibility with EU law of the FIFA transfer system, and therefore the sheer existence of TPO. Yet, TPO as a practice is per se promoting contractual instability. Players have to change clubs for TPO investors to cash in on their investments. It is perfectly logical for TPO contracts to include various clauses strongly incentivizing clubs to sell their players. If not, they will have to bear the costs, for example, of paying a fee (usually the invested amount plus a healthy interest) in case the player leaves the club on a free transfer, or forcing the club to buy back at market rate the investors’ shares in the economic right of a player in case of an offer above a minimum price. For a cash-strapped club, e.g. a club that lost access to the banking system and has to turn to TPO investors, this is usually impossible and means that it will be forced to sell-on the player. In a way, TPO is a radical perversion of the deal stroke by FIFA/UEFA and the Commission. The transfer system was meant to ensure that contractual stability is secured in football, not to enhance contractual instability. This contradiction between TPO and the rationale conditioning the legality under EU law of the FIFA transfer system will necessarily bear on the EU Commission’s analysis of FIFA’s TPO ban.


Conclusion: TPO is a symptom, the transfer system is the problem

20 years of the Bosman case oblige, the case has been back in the news cycle this week (see here, here, and here). It is widely credited, or rather blamed, for having changed football for bad, turning it into some kind of commercial monster. I very much doubt this storytelling is right. It is based on a collective misreading of the case. Bosman took stock of a contemporary development in football at that time: the eagerness of the “football family” to commercialize its activities by primarily selling TV rights in a monopoly position. What Bosman is about, then, it is the regulation of this economic activity. Central questions are: How should the proceeds be distributed and especially who should bear the costs of ensuring competitive balance amongst the teams? Until Bosman the players were the main losers, they could not move freely across Europe and in some countries they could not transfer for free even after the end of their contracts. This situation was deemed an unjustified restriction on the player’s freedom by the Court. Nevertheless, and this is widely forgotten, Bosman is not about dogmatically ensuring that economic freedoms and a deregulated market always prevail. In fact, Advocate General Lenz was advocating as an alternative to the transfer system that the economic revenues derived from TV rights be shared more equally to ensure competitive balance.[8] This is obviously an important restriction on the economic freedom of clubs and leagues, yet the Court endorsed it as viable alternative.[9] Since then, the Court has repeatedly approved various type of sporting regulations restricting the economic freedoms of athletes or clubs.[10] After Bosman, FIFA and UEFA (supported by many clubs) insisted on maintaining a transfer system instead of the alternative suggested by Lenz and the Court. Despite the Commission’s aforementioned challenge of the legality of the FIFA transfer system, FIFA and UEFA were able to marshal the political support of the most influential Member States (France, Germany and the UK) in their bid to save the transfer system.[11] This led to the 2001 agreement and to the survival of the transfer system in its current form.

It is certainly ironical that the transfer system is based on the same legal principles denounced by UEFA and FIFA officials when they talk of slavery regarding TPO. This hypocrisy, rightly pointed out by the critics of the ban,[12] does not entail that the TPO ban is contrary to EU law, as they in turn seem to assume. However, it does imply that TPO as a practice is just the tip of the iceberg. In fact, it is a symptom, as well as the murky world of agents, of a global transfer market gone rogue. This is due mainly to the insistence of FIFA in transforming players into moveable assets included on the balance sheets of clubs. The transfer system is certainly not about contractual stability or the financing of training facilities. Indeed, FIFA is trumpeting the growing number of transfers each year (see this year’s celebratory press release here) and is very much dragging its feet as far as enforcing training compensations and solidarity payments is concerned.[13] Undoubtedly, there is some doublespeak going on. If clubs are forced to turn to TPO investors it is mainly because FIFA and UEFA (and the big clubs) have refused to put in place the necessary redistributive mechanisms to ensure a minimum of competitive balance as was advocated by the CJEU in the Bosman ruling 20 years ago (and by the EU Commission recently). Instead, they have put their faith into a transfer system that is neither correcting competitive imbalances nor guaranteeing contractual stability (a view supported by Stefan Szymanski on behalf of FIFPro). FIFA has lost control over its Frankenstein-like transfer system and it is desperately trying to rein its negative externalities with regulatory patches (e.g. UEFA’s Financial Fair-play Rules or FIFA’s TPO ban). In this regard, the TPO ban is unlikely to contravene EU law, but it is also unlikely to be a solution to the many problems caused by FIFA and UEFA’s handling of the post-Bosman football era.

[1] See FIFA Circular no. 1464 announcing the ban.

[2] This is well done by Johan Lindholm in his article: Can I please have a slice of Ronaldo? The legality of FIFA’s ban on third-party ownership under European union law.

[3] The Spanish Competition Authority comes close to such a view in its advisory opinion criticizing FIFA’s TPO ban. It states at page 6 (in Spanish): “Se ha de partir del hecho de que si el mercado ha facilitado la aparición de estas operaciones es porque una multitud de agentes (tanto clubs como jugadores), actuando de manera descentralizada, han considerado que es lo mejor para sus intereses. Por tanto, la prohibición del TPO resulta en una limitación de la capacidad de obrar y de la libertad de empresa, restringiendo el uso de una conducta que en principio es maximizadora de beneficios (o minimizadora de pérdidas).”

[4] Even though very reluctantly by the Spanish Competition Authority, see p.9-10.

[5] This is also the view of Johan Lindholm, he considers that “regulation is likely a legally more successful response to the perceived ills of TPO”.

[6] This is also true for other types of third party funding, for example in arbitration.

[7] This is in essence the meaning of paragraph 57 of the EU Commission’s rejection decision in the Affaire IV/36 583-SETCA-FGTB/FIFA. The paragraph states : « La protection des contrats pendant une période de durée limitée qui se traduit par des sanctions correspondant notamment à la suspension du joueur pendant une période de 4 mois à 6 mois (dans des cas de récidives) semble indispensable pour garantir la construction d’une équipe. Un club a besoin d’un temps minimum pour construire son équipe. Si un joueur pouvait rompre unilatéralement son contrat dès la première année et être transféré à la fin de la saison vers un autre club, sans aucune sanction autre que la compensation financière, son club d’origine n’aurait pas de possibilité de construire convenablement son équipe. Les sanctions visent donc à démotiver les joueurs de rompre unilatéralement leurs contrats pendant les deux premières années pour permettre l’existence d’équipes stables. En raison des spécificités du secteur en cause la durée de la période protégée et des sanctions semble être proportionnée aux objectifs légitimes quelles visent à atteindre. »

[8] See in particular paragraphs 218-234 of his Opinion.

[9] See para. 110 of the Bosman ruling.

[10] For example: Selection rules in Deliège; Transfer windows in Lehtonen; FIFA’s agent regulation in Piau; Doping sanctions in Meca-Medina; Training compensations in Bernard. The European Commission also recognised the legality of UEFA’s rule limiting the multiple ownership of clubs in ENIC.

[11] On this episode see Borja Garcia’s article, ‘The 2001 informal agreement on the international transfer system’.

[12] In his article Johan Lindholm criticizes this moral posture taken by FIFA and UEFA. He rightly points at its hypocrisy: “[…] a third party owning fifty percent of the economic rights to a player is the very height of moral corruption, but a club owning one hundred percent of the same right is not only perfectly acceptable but also applauded”.

[13] A recent study commissioned by the European Clubs Association (ECA) on the transfer market, shows (at page 88) that the solidarity payments are way below the 5% threshold imposed by the FIFA RSTP (reaching instead only 1,15% of the transfer fees).

Comments are closed