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

Revisiting FIFA’s Training Compensation and Solidarity Mechanism - Part. 4: The New FIFA Clearing House – An improvement to FIFA’s training compensation and solidarity mechanisms? - By Rhys Lenarduzzi

Editor’s note: Rhys Lenarduzzi recently completed a Bachelor of Law (LL.B) and a Bachelor of Philosophy (B.Phil.) at the University of Notre Dame, Sydney, Australia. As a former professional athlete, then international sports agent and consultant, Rhys is interested in international sports law, policy and ethics. He is currently undertaking an internship at the T.M.C. Asser Institute with a focus on Transnational Sports Law.

In September 2018, the Football Stakeholders Committee endorsed the idea of a Clearing House that was subsequently approved in October of the same year by the FIFA Council. A tender process commenced in July 2019 for bidders to propose jurisdiction, operation and establishment. Whilst many questions go unanswered, it is clear that the Clearing House will be aimed at closing the significant gap between what is owed and what is actually paid, in respect to training compensation and solidarity payments. The Clearing House will have other functions, perhaps in regard to agents’ fees and other transfer related business, though those other operations are for another blog. It will hence act as an intermediary of sorts, receiving funds from a signing and therefore owing club (“new” club) and then moving that money on to training clubs. Whilst separate to FIFA, to what extent is unclear.

I have landed at the position of it being important to include a section in this blog series on the soon to commence Clearing House, given it appears to be FIFA’s (perhaps main) attempt to improve the training compensation and solidarity mechanisms. As will be expanded upon below, I fear it will create more issues than it will solve. Perhaps one should remain patient and optimistic until it is in operation, and one should be charitable in that there will undoubtedly be teething problems. However, it is of course not just the function of the Clearing House that is of interest, but also what moving forward with the project of the Clearing House represents and leaves unaddressed, namely, the issues I have identified in this blog series. More...

New Event! Zoom In on International Skating Union v. European Commission - 20 January - 16.00-17.30 (CET)

On Wednesday 20 January 2021 from 16.00-17.30 CET, the Asser International Sports Law Centre, in collaboration with Dr Marjolaine Viret, is organising a Zoom In webinar on the recent judgment of the General Court in the case International Skating Union (ISU) v European Commission, delivered on 16 December 2016. The Court ruled on an appeal against the first-ever antitrust prohibition decision on sporting rules adopted by the European Commission. More specifically, the case concerned the ISU’s eligibility rules, which were prohibiting speed skaters from competing in non-recognised events and threatened them with lifelong bans if they did (for more details on the origin of the case see this blog). The ruling of the General Court, which endorsed the majority of the European Commission’s findings, could have transformative implications for the structure of sports governance in the EU (and beyond).

We have the pleasure to welcome three renowned experts in EU competition law and sport to analyse with us the wider consequences of this judgment.


Guest speakers:

Moderators:


Registration HERE


Zoom In webinar series

In December 2020, The Asser International Sports Law Centre in collaboration with Dr Marjolaine Viret launched a new series of zoom webinars on transnational sports law: Zoom In. You can watch the video recording of our first discussion on the arbitral award delivered by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) in the Blake Leeper v. International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) case on the Asser Institute’s Youtube Channel. Click here to learn more about the Zoom In webinar series.

Revisiting FIFA’s Training Compensation and Solidarity Mechanism - Part. 3: The Curious Non-Application of Training Compensation to Women’s Football – By Rhys Lenarduzzi

Editor’s note: Rhys Lenarduzzi is a final semester Bachelor of Law (LL.B) and Bachelor of Philosophy (B.Phil.) student, at the University of Notre Dame, Sydney, Australia. As a former professional athlete, then international sports agent and consultant, Rhys is interested in international sports law, policy and ethics. He is currently undertaking an internship at the T.M.C. Asser Institute with a focus on Transnational Sports Law.

 

As recently as September 2020, questions were raised in the European Parliament on the non-application of training compensation to women’s football. Whilst this blog will predominantly consider potential inconsistencies in reasoning for and against training compensation in men’s and women’s football, the questions before the Commission were largely on the theme of disrespect and discrimination. Somewhat unfortunately, the questions raised were side-stepped, with Ms Gabriel (Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth) simply stating that: “The TFEU does not give the Commission the competence to interfere in the internal organisation of an independent international organisation such as FIFA.” This might be true in theory, though one might feel some degree of uneasiness if privy to the Commission’s role in the 2001 FIFA regulatory overhaul.

It is currently explicit in the regulations and the commentary, that in women’s football, signing clubs are not required to compensate training clubs for developing players, through the training compensation mechanism that exists in men’s football. Though it is a contentious comment and as will be expanded below, this may not have always been the case.

At Article 20 of the FIFA Regulations on the Status and Transfer of Players (RSTP), one will find that the principles of training compensation shall not apply to women’s football. Further, in FIFA’s recently released Women’s Football Administrator Handbook (the handbook), it states that disputes relating to training compensation are limited for the moment to male players only.[1]

Regulations on solidarity contributions on the other hand do apply to women’s football, but given transfer fees are not so common, the use of the mechanism is not either. As an indication of how uncommon the activation of the solidarity contribution mechanism in women’s football might be, FIFA reported in the handbook just four claims with the Players’ Status Department in 2016 (three claims involving the same player), and zero since.[2] That is in comparison to hundreds of claims made per season in men’s football, where signing and owing clubs had not fulfilled their obligation to pay the solidarity contribution.

Given the aforementioned, this blog will largely focus on training compensation and how it came to be the case that this mechanism, often presented as critical in the context of men’s football, does not apply in women’s football. To do so, I will first discuss the reasoning advanced in an unpublished CAS award, which one may reasonably suspect played a fundamental role in shaping the current exemption. I will then turn to FIFA’s timely response to the award and the adoption of its Circular No. 1603. Finally, I will point out the disconnect in FIFA’s decision to adopt two radically different approaches to the issue of training compensation in male and female professional football. More...


New Event! Zoom In on Transnational Sports Law - Blake Leeper v. IAAF - 4 December at 4pm (CET)

The Asser International Sports Law Centre in collaboration with Dr Marjolaine Viret is launching a new series of zoom webinars on transnational sports law: Zoom In. The first discussion (4 December at 16.00) will zoom in on the recent arbitral award delivered by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) in the Blake Leeper v. International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) case.

In this decision, reminiscent of the famous Pistorius award rendered a decade ago, the CAS panel ruled on the validity of an IAAF rule that places the burden on a disabled athlete to prove that a mechanical aid used to compete in IAAF-sanctioned competitions does not give them an overall competitive advantage. While siding with the athlete, Blake Leeper, on the burden of proof, the CAS panel did conclude that Leeper’s prosthesis provided him an undue advantage over other athletes and hence that the IAAF could bar him from competing in its events.

To reflect on the key aspects of the decision and its implications, we have invited scholars with different disciplinary backgrounds to join the zoom discussion. 

Confirmed guests

 Moderators


The webinar is freely available, but registration here is necessary.

Last call to register to the 2021 edition of the Sports Law Arbitration Moot - Deadline 1 December

Dear all,

Our Slovenian friends (and former colleague) Tine Misic and Blaž Bolcar are organising the second edition of the Sports Law Arbitration Moot (SLAM).

The best four teams of the SLAM competition will compete in the finals, which will be held in Ljubljana, Slovenia, on 30th and 31st March, 2021.

This is a great opportunity for students to familiarise themselves with the world of sports arbitration, to meet top lawyers and arbitrators in the field, and to visit beautiful Ljubljana.

Go for it!

You'll find more information and can register at https://sportlex.si/slam/en

Pistorius revisited: A comment on the CAS award in Blake Leeper v. IAAF - By Marjolaine Viret

On 23 October 2020, a panel of the Court of Arbitration for Sport (‘CAS’) rendered an award in the matter opposing Mr Blake Leeper (‘Mr Leeper’ or ‘the Athlete’) to the International Association of Athletics Federation (‘IAAF’).[1] The CAS panel was asked to make a ruling on the validity of the IAAF rule that places on a disabled athlete the burden to prove that a mechanical aid used to compete in IAAF-sanctioned competitions does not give such athlete an overall competitive advantage.

The award is remarkable in that it declared the shift of the burden of proof on the athlete invalid, and reworded the rule so that the burden is shifted back on the IAAF to show the existence of a competitive advantage. Thus, while the IAAF won its case against Blake Leeper as the panel found that the sport governing body had discharged its burden in casu, the outcome can be viewed as a victory for disabled athletes looking to participate in IAAF-sanctioned events. It remains to be seen how this victory will play out in practice. Beyond the immediate issue at stake, the case further presents an illustration of how – all things equal – assigning the burden of proof can be decisive for the real-life impact of a policy involving complex scientific matters, as much as the actual legal prerequisites of the underlying rules.

This article focuses on some key aspects of the award that relate to proof issues in the context of assessing competitive advantage. Specifically, the article seeks to provide some food for thought regarding burden and degree of proof of an overall advantage, the contours of the test of ‘overall advantage’ designed by the CAS panel and its possible bearing in practice, and potential impact of the ruling on other areas of sports regulations such as anti-doping.

The award also analyses broader questions regarding the prohibition of discrimination in the regulation of sports, as well as the interplay with international human rights instruments such as the European Convention on Human Rights (‘ECHR’), which are not explored in depth here. More...

Revisiting FIFA’s Training Compensation and Solidarity Mechanism - Part. 2: The African Reality – By Rhys Lenarduzzi

Editor’s note: Rhys Lenarduzzi is a final semester Bachelor of Law (LL.B) and Bachelor of Philosophy (B.Phil.) student, at the University of Notre Dame, Sydney, Australia. As a former professional athlete, then international sports agent and consultant, Rhys is interested in international sports law, policy and ethics. He is currently undertaking an internship at the T.M.C. Asser Institute with a focus on Transnational Sports Law.


Having considered the history and justifications for the FIFA training compensation and solidarity mechanisms in my previous blog, I will now consider these systems in the African context. This appears to be a worthwhile undertaking given these global mechanisms were largely a result of European influence, so understanding their (extraterritorial) impact beyond the EU seems particularly important. Moreover, much has been written about the “muscle drain” affecting African football and the need for such drain to either be brought to a halt, or, more likely and perhaps more practical, to put in place an adequate system of redistribution to ensure the flourishing of African football that has essentially acted as a nursery for European football for at least a century. In the present blog, I intend to draw on my experiences as a football agent to expand on how FIFA’s redistributive mechanisms function in practice when an African player signs in Europe via one of the many kinds of entities that develop or purport to develop talent in Africa. I will throughout address the question of whether these mechanisms are effective in a general sense and more specifically in relation to their operation in Africa.More...



International and European Sports Law – Monthly Report – October 2020 - By Rhys Lenarduzzi

Editor’s note: Rhys Lenarduzzi is a final semester Bachelor of Law (LL.B) and Bachelor of Philosophy (B.Phil.) student, at the University of Notre Dame, Sydney, Australia. As a former professional athlete, then international sports agent and consultant, Rhys is interested in international sports law, policy and ethics. He is currently undertaking an internship at the T.M.C. Asser Institute with a focus on Transnational Sports Law.


The Headlines

Aguero and Massey-Ellis incident: An Opportunity for Change and Education?

In mid-October a clip went viral of Argentinian star Sergio Aguero putting his hands on sideline referee, Sian Massey-Ellis. A heated debate ensued in many circles, some claiming that Aguero’s conduct was commonplace, others taking aim at the appropriateness of the action, around players touching official and a male touching a female with an unsolicited arm around the back, the squeeze and pull in. Putting the normative arguments aside for a moment, the irony of the debate was that all sides had a point. Football, almost exclusively, has grown a culture of acceptance for touching officials despite the regulations. Male officials who have let such conduct slide, have arguably let their female colleague down in this instance.

Whilst a partial defence of Aguero might be that this kind of conduct takes place regularly, the incident could serve as a learning experience. If Massey-Ellis’ reaction was not enough, the backlash from some of the public might provide Aguero and other players the lesson, that touching a woman in this way is not acceptable.

Returning to football, the respect and protection of officials in sport, the key here appears to be cracking down on touching officials entirely. This is not a foreign concept and football need only look at the rugby codes. Under no circumstances does the regulations or the culture permit that a player from the rugby codes touch a referee. It is likely the case that the obvious extra level of respect for officials in these sports derives from a firm culture of no touching, no crowding officials, communicating with officials through the team captain only, with harsh sanctions if one does not comply.

The Football Association of England has decided no action was necessary, raising questions of how seriously they take the safety of officials, and gender issues. This is ultimately a global football issue though, so the confederations or international bodies may need step in to ensure the protections that appear at best fragile.  


Rugby Trans issue

The World Rugby Transgender guideline has been released and contains a comprehensive unpacking of the science behind much of the regulatory framework. Despite many experts applauding World Rugby on the guidelines and the extensive project to reach them, the England Rugby Football Union is the first to defy the World Rugby ruling and transgender women will still be allowed to play women’s rugby at all non-international levels of the game in England for the foreseeable future. This clash between national bodies and the international body on an important issue is concerning and will undoubtedly be one to keep an eye on.

 

CAS rejects the appeal of Munir El Haddadi and the Fédération Royale Marocaine de Football (FRMF)

The refusal to authorise a footballer to change national federation is in the headlines with the CAS dismissing the appeal of the player and Moroccan federation, confirming the original determination of the FIFA Players’ Status Committee.

This has been given considerable recent attention and seemingly worth following, perhaps best summed up by FIFA Director of Football Regulatory, James Kitching, where in a tweet he notes: “The new eligibility rules adopted by the FIFA Congress on 18 September 2020 have passed their first test. We will be publishing our commentary on the rules in the next fortnight. Watch this space.” More...



Revisiting FIFA’s Training Compensation and Solidarity Mechanism - Part.1: The historical, legal and political foundations - By Rhys Lenarduzzi

Editor’s note: Rhys Lenarduzzi is a final semester Bachelor of Law (LL.B) and Bachelor of Philosophy (B.Phil.) student, at the University of Notre Dame, Sydney, Australia. As a former professional athlete, then international sports agent and consultant, Rhys is interested in international sports law, policy and ethics. He is currently undertaking an internship at the T.M.C. Asser Institute with a focus on Transnational Sports Law.


In 2019, training compensation and solidarity contributions based on FIFA’s Regulations on the Status and Transfer of Players (RSTP) amounted to US$ 75,5 million. This transfer of wealth from the clubs in the core of the football hierarchy to the clubs where the professional players originated is a peculiar arrangement unknown in other global industries. Beyond briefly pointing out or reminding the reader of how these systems work and the history behind them, this blog series aims to revisit the justifications for FIFA-imposed training compensation and the solidarity mechanism, assess their efficacy and effects through a case study of their operation in the African context, and finally analyse the potential impact of upcoming reforms of the FIFA RSTP in this context.

First, it is important to go back to the roots of this, arguably, strange practice. The current transfer system and the legal mechanisms constituting it were largely the result of a complex negotiation between European football’s main stakeholders and the European Commission dating back to 2001. The conclusion of these negotiations led to a new regulatory system enshrined in Article 20 and Annex 4 of the RSTP in the case of training compensation, and at Article 21 and Annex 5 in the case of the solidarity mechanism. Before paying some attention to the historical influences and how we arrived at these changes, as well as the justifications from the relevant bodies for their existence, let us briefly recall what training compensation and the solidarity mechanisms actually are. More...



Invalidity of forced arbitration clauses in organised sport…Germany strikes back! - By Björn Hessert

Editor's note: Björn Hessert is a research assistant at the University of Zurich and a lawyer admitted to the German bar.

 

The discussion revolving around the invalidity of arbitration clauses in organised sport in favour of national and international sports arbitral tribunals has been at the centre of the discussion in German courtrooms.[1] After the decisions of the German Federal Tribunal[2] (“BGH”) and the European Court of Human Rights[3] (“ECtHR”) in the infamous Pechstein case, this discussion seemed to have finally come to an end. Well…not according to the District Court (LG) of Frankfurt.[4] On 7 October 2020, the District Court rendered a press release in which the court confirmed its jurisdiction due to the invalidity of the arbitration clause contained in the contracts between two beach volleyball players and the German Volleyball Federation[5] (“DVV”) – but one step at a time. More...

Asser International Sports Law Blog | Multi-Club Ownership in European Football – Part I: General Introduction and the ENIC Saga – By Tomáš Grell

Asser International Sports Law Blog

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

Multi-Club Ownership in European Football – Part I: General Introduction and the ENIC Saga – By Tomáš Grell

Editor’s note: Tomáš Grell holds an LL.M. in Public International Law from Leiden University. He contributes to the work of the ASSER International Sports Law Centre as a research intern.

 

Introduction

On 13 September 2017, more than 40,000 people witnessed the successful debut of the football club RasenBallsport Leipzig (RB Leipzig) in the UEFA Champions League (UCL) against AS Monaco. In the eyes of many supporters of the German club, the mere fact of being able to participate in the UEFA's flagship club competition was probably more important than the result of the game itself. This is because, on the pitch, RB Leipzig secured their place in the 2017/18 UCL group stage already on 6 May 2017 after an away win against Hertha Berlin. However, it was not until 16 June 2017 that the UEFA Club Financial Control Body (CFCB) officially allowed RB Leipzig to participate in the 2017/18 UCL alongside its sister club, Austrian giants FC Red Bull Salzburg (RB Salzburg).[1] As is well known, both clubs have (had) ownership links to the beverage company Red Bull GmbH (Red Bull), and therefore it came as no surprise that the idea of two commonly owned clubs participating in the same UCL season raised concerns with respect to the competition's integrity.

The phenomenon of multi-club ownership is nothing new in the world of football. As will be seen below, the English company ENIC plc. (ENIC)[2] established itself as a pioneer in this type of business activity, having acquired in the late 1990s, through subsidiaries, controlling interests in several European clubs, including SK Slavia Prague in the Czech Republic (Slavia), AEK Football Club in Greece (AEK) or Vicenza Calcio in Italy (Vicenza). Apart from ENIC and Red Bull, a more recent example of a global corporation investing in multiple football clubs worldwide is the City Football Group owned by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan. In August 2017, the City Football Group acquired 44.3% stake in Girona FC, a Spanish club that had just been promoted to La Liga for the first time in their history, thereby adding a sixth club to its portfolio consisting of Manchester City, New York City, Melbourne City, Yokohama Marinos[3] (Japan) and Club Atlético Torque (Uruguay).[4] Private individuals may also become owners of two or more football clubs, the most prominent examples being Giampaolo Pozzo and his son Gino who are in possession of the Italy's second oldest club Udinese Calcio and the English top-flight club Watford FC respectively,[5] or Roland Duchâtelet, a Belgian millionaire whose dubious management of his five clubs, namely Charlton Athletic (England), Carl Zeiss Jena (Germany), AD Alcorcón (Spain), Sint-Truiden (Belgium) and Újpest FC (Hungary), has been met with considerable opposition. Moreover, clubs themselves have acquired stakes in other clubs, including, for instance, Atlético Madrid's investment in RC Lens (France) and Club Atlético de San Luis (Mexico), or AS Monaco's recent takeover of the Belgian second-division club Cercle Brugge.

Leaving commercial and marketing aspects aside, the investment in multiple football clubs is often driven by the vision of recruiting talented players at low cost, preferably in Latin American or African countries, and subsequently facilitating their development in smaller European clubs to prepare them for the level required at the lead club. Hence, should Manchester City discover in Uruguay a 'new Luis Suárez', it will not take much effort (and money) to convince such a player to join the academy of Club Atlético Torque, especially if he is promised further development at language-barrier-free Girona and sees himself wearing the Citizens' sky blue shirt one day. Along these lines, it could well be argued that the phenomenon of multi-club ownership in fact creates a supply chain for talent.

For reasons suggested above, qualification for a UEFA club competition is normally not the primary objective of clubs like Girona, which find themselves somewhere in the middle of this supply chain. This at least partially explains why, to the best of my knowledge, only twice the prospect of two or more commonly owned clubs participating in the same UEFA club competition became so imminent that it required UEFA's direct intervention. The first intervention dates back to May 1998 when the UEFA Executive Committee adopted a landmark rule entitled 'Integrity of the UEFA Club Competitions: Independence of the Clubs' (Original Rule) in response to Slavia and AEK, both under ENIC's control, having qualified for the 1998/99 UEFA Cup. The Red Bull case, for its part, revolved around the interpretation of 'decisive influence in the decision-making of a club', a concept that could not be found in the Original Rule.

Against this background, this two-part blog will focus on the UEFA rule(s) aimed at ensuring the integrity of its club competitions. The first part will take a closer look at how the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) and the European Commission (Commission) dealt with ENIC's complaints alleging that the Original Rule was incompatible, inter alia, with EU competition law. The second part will then examine the relevant rule as it is currently enshrined in Article 5 of the UCL Regulations 2015-18 Cycle, 2017/18 Season (Current Rule) and describe how the CFCB Adjudicatory Chamber interpreted the aforementioned concept of decisive influence[6] in the Red Bull case. Finally, in light of the conclusions reached by the CFCB Adjudicatory Chamber, the second part of this two-part blog will discuss whether any modification of the Current Rule is desirable.

 

The ENIC saga: How the Original Rule survived EU competition law scrutiny

Background

It has already been noted that the adoption of the Original Rule was prompted, first and foremost, by the fact that ENIC-controlled Slavia and AEK qualified on sporting merit for the 1998/99 UEFA Cup. However, what needs to be added is that the initial impulse came a season before, when Slavia, AEK and Vicenza all reached the quarter-final of the UEFA Cup Winners' Cup. Although UEFA was fortunate that time as the clubs were not drawn to play against each other and only Vicenza advanced to the semi-final, it learnt its lesson and as a result of this situation adopted robust rules aimed at ensuring the integrity of its club competitions.

The Original Rule

The Original Rule made admission to the UEFA club competitions conditional upon fulfilment of three specific criteria. First, a club participating in a UEFA club competition must have refrained from (i) holding or dealing in the securities or shares; (ii) being a member; (iii) being involved in any capacity whatsoever in the management, administration, and/or sporting performance; and (iv) having any power whatsoever in the management, administration and/or sporting performance of any other club participating in the same UEFA club competition. Second, the Original Rule stipulated that no person could be simultaneously involved in any capacity whatsoever in the management, administration and/or sporting performance of more than one club participating in the same UEFA club competition. Third, an individual or legal entity was prohibited from exercising control over more than one club participating in the same UEFA club competition. The Original Rule further clarified that an individual or legal entity was deemed to have control over a club, and thus the third criterion was not satisfied, where he/she/it (i) held a majority of the shareholders' voting rights; (ii) was authorized to appoint or remove a majority of the members of the administrative, management or supervisory body; or (iii) was a shareholder and single-handedly controlled a majority of the shareholders' voting rights. In principle, under this third criterion, it was permissible for an individual or legal entity to hold up to 49% of the shareholders' voting rights in multiple clubs participating in the same UEFA club competition.

Proceedings before the CAS

It was the third criterion that was applicable to ENIC, a company listed on the London Stock Exchange. Given that both Slavia and AEK were owned as to more than 50% by ENIC, the respective criterion was not satisfied. Consequently, the Committee for the UEFA Club Competitions, a body responsible for monitoring fulfilment of the aforementioned criteria, ruled that only Slavia was eligible to take part in the 1998/99 UEFA Cup on account of its higher club coefficient. Not content with this decision, Slavia and AEK filed a request for arbitration with the CAS on 15 June 1998, challenging the validity of the Original Rule, inter alia, under Articles 81 and 82 of the Treaty Establishing the European Community (TEC) (now Articles 101 and 102 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU)). On the same day, the clubs also lodged a request for interim relief which was eventually granted on 16 July 1998.[7] As a result, UEFA was barred from giving effect to the Original Rule for the duration of the arbitration procedure and both Slavia and AEK were given the green light to participate in the 1998/99 UEFA Cup. On 20 August 1999, the CAS rendered its award in which it upheld the validity of the Original Rule and allowed UEFA to apply the rule in question as of the 2000/01 season.

Before embarking on a comprehensive analysis of the compatibility of the Original Rule with EU competition law, the Panel recognized that participation of two or more commonly owned clubs in the same UEFA club competition creates fertile ground for conflicts of interest, and thus ''represents a justified concern for a sports regulator and organizer''.[8] The Panel then confirmed that EU law was applicable to the case before it as the Original Rule could not benefit from any 'sporting exception'.[9] That being clarified, the Panel moved on to examine the relevant market potentially affected by the Original Rule. It defined the relevant product market as the ''market for ownership interests in football clubs capable of taking part in UEFA competitions'' which would include, on the supply side, ''all the owners of European football clubs which can potentially qualify for a UEFA competition'', and, on the demand side, ''any individual or corporation potentially interested in an investment opportunity in a football club which could qualify for a UEFA competition''.[10] The relevant geographic market, for its part, was confined to the territories of national football federations affiliated to UEFA.[11]

Analysis under Article 81 TEC

Article 81 TEC (now Article 101 TFEU) prohibits ''all agreements between undertakings, decisions by associations of undertakings and concerted practices which […] have as their object or effect the prevention, restriction or distortion of competition within the internal market''. While it is evident that UEFA could be classified as an undertaking[12] or an association of undertakings (representing national football federations) within the meaning of Article 81 TEC, it is less clear whether UEFA could also be regarded, through national football federations representing both professional and amateur clubs, as an association of 'club undertakings'. This question is of crucial importance because if UEFA was not to be regarded as an association of 'club undertakings', the Original Rule would not be considered as the product of a horizontal collusion between clubs and, as a result, would fall outside the scope of Article 81 TEC.[13] The role of UEFA in such a case would not go beyond a mere sports regulator.[14] In this context, Advocate General Lenz insisted in the Bosman case that even though national football federations encompass a sheer number of amateur clubs not engaged in economic activities, this does not alter the conclusion that (i) national football federations are to be regarded as associations of undertakings in accordance with Article 81 TEC; and consequently that (ii) UEFA, through these national football federations, is to be regarded as an association of 'club undertakings'.[15] Although not entirely persuaded by the respective argument, the Panel assumed for the purposes of conducting an analysis under Article 81 TEC that the Original Rule represented a decision by an association of 'club undertakings' and, as such, did not fall outside the scope of Article 81 TEC.[16]

The Panel then turned to the question lying at the heart of the dispute, that is, whether the Original Rule had as its object or effect the prevention, restriction or distortion of competition within the internal market. It found that the Original Rule was only designed to ''prevent the conflict of interest inherent in commonly owned clubs taking part in the same competition and to ensure a genuine athletic event with truly uncertain results'', thereby excluding any anti-competitive object of the Original Rule.[17] With respect to the effect of the Original Rule, the Panel asserted that even though the rule in question may have discouraged an owner who had already been in possession of a high-level European club from acquiring controlling interest in another such club, its overall effect was pro-competitive in that it enabled more undertakings to enter the relevant market, and thus stimulated investment in professional football.[18] Moreover, the Panel was concerned that, in the absence of the Original Rule, high-level European clubs would potentially be concentrated in few hands which would, in turn, lead to an increase in prices for ownership interests in those clubs.[19]

Having found that neither the object nor the effect of the Original Rule was anti-competitive, the Panel was further not required to pronounce itself on whether the Original Rule was necessary and proportionate to the legitimate aim pursued. Yet, it held that the Original Rule was ''an essential feature for the organization of a professional football competition and [was] not more extensive than necessary to serve the fundamental goal of preventing conflicts of interest''.[20] In a similar vein, the Panel could not identify any plausible less restrictive alternative to the Original Rule, and therefore it declared that the Original Rule was proportionate to the stated aim of preventing conflicts of interest.[21]

Based on the above considerations, the Panel ultimately concluded that the Original Rule was compatible with Article 81 TEC.       

Analysis under Article 82 TEC 

Article 82 TEC (now Article 102 TFEU) prohibits abusive conduct by companies that have a dominant position on a relevant market. Since UEFA cannot become an owner of a football club, the Panel maintained that it was not present on the relevant market for 'ownership interests in football clubs capable of taking part in UEFA competitions', and for that reason UEFA could not be held to enjoy a dominant position.[22] Accordingly, the Panel concluded that the Original Rule did not violate Article 82 TEC.  

Proceedings before the Commission

In the wake of the CAS award, ENIC's business strategy suffered a blow. However, the English company was not yet ready to give up and lodged a complaint with the Commission on 18 February 2000, again claiming that the Original Rule infringed Articles 81 and 82 TEC.

In its decision, the Commission relied to some extent on the CAS award, adopting the definition of the relevant market or confirming that the Original Rule could not benefit from any 'sporting exception'. As far as the object of the Original Rule was concerned, the Commission articulated that the rule was not intended to distort competition, but rather to ''avoid conflicts of interest that may arise from the fact that more than one club controlled by the same owner […] play in the same competition''.[23] With respect to the Original Rule's effect, the Commission referred to the Wouters case in which the European Court of Justice held that an agreement between undertakings or a decision of an association of undertakings restricting the freedom to act may nevertheless fall outside the scope of Article 81 TEC, provided that its restrictive effects are inherent in the pursuit of a legitimate objective.[24] Applied to the case before it, the Commission ruled that the restrictive effects of the Original Rule were ''inherent in the pursuit of the very existence of credible pan-European football competitions''.[25] Consequently, the Commission found no violation of Article 81 TEC. Turning to Article 82 TEC, the Commission briefly noted that ''if one were to assume that UEFA enjoys a dominant position in whatever market, the fact that UEFA has adopted such a rule does not appear to constitute in itself an abuse of dominant position''.[26]


Conclusion

It is quite intuitive that the aim of preserving the integrity of the UEFA club competitions should outweigh the restriction introduced by the Original Rule which essentially rendered owners of high-level European clubs unable to acquire controlling interests in similar clubs. However, the fact that the Original Rule appeared bullet-proof under EU competition law does not mean that it was entirely without flaws. As will be seen in the second part of this blog, UEFA later decided to make the Original Rule more stringent since it realized that even if an individual or legal entity does not have de jure control over a club, it may still be able to exercise de facto control over such club.


[1]   RB Salzburg were eliminated by HNK Rijeka in the third qualifying round.

[2]   ENIC is currently a majority shareholder of the English top-flight club Tottenham Hotspur.

[3]   Among the clubs listed, Yokohama Marinos is the only club in which the City Football Group holds a minority stake (20%).

[4]   Furthermore, Manchester City have a formal cooperation agreement with Dutch side NAC Breda.

[5]   The Pozzo family also owned Spanish side Granada FC, before selling the club to a Chinese firm in 2016.

[6]   UCL Regulations 2015-18 Cycle, 2017/18 Season, Article 5.01(c)(iv).

[7]   According to the CAS, the fact that UEFA enacted the Original Rule shortly before the start of the 1998/99 season contravened the principles of good faith, procedural fairness and legitimate expectations. See CAS 98/200 AEK Athens and SK Slavia Prague / UEFA, Award of 20 August 1999, p. 5.

[8]   CAS 98/200 AEK Athens and SK Slavia Prague / UEFA, Award of 20 August 1999, para. 48.

[9]   Ibid. para. 83. According to the well-established jurisprudence of the European Court of Justice, ''the practice of sport is subject to [EU] law only in so far as it constitutes an economic activity''. See Case 36/74 Walrave [1974] ECR 1405, Judgment of 12 December 1974, para. 4. See also Case C-415/93 Bosman [1995] ECR I-4921, Judgment of 15 December 1995, para. 73. On the 'sporting exception', see also Richard Parrish and Samuli Miettinen, The Sporting Exception in European Union Law (T.M.C. Asser Press 2008).

[10] AEK Athens and SK Slavia Prague / UEFA (n 8) paras 101-104.

[11] Ibid. para. 108.

[12] According to the European Court of Justice, ''the concept of an undertaking encompasses every entity engaged in an economic activity, regardless of the legal status of the entity and the way in which it is financed''. See Case C-41/90 Höfner [1991] ECR I-1979, Judgment of 23 April 1991, para. 21.

[13] AEK Athens and SK Slavia Prague / UEFA (n 8) para. 88.

[14] Ibid.           

[15] Bosman, Opinion of Advocate General Lenz delivered on 20 September 1995, para. 256.

[16] AEK Athens and SK Slavia Prague / UEFA (n 8) para. 94.

[17] Ibid. para. 113.

[18] Ibid. paras 114-119.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid. para. 136.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid. para. 141. It should be noted, however, that this assertion was later challenged, albeit in the context of FIFA, by the Court of First Instance in the Piau case. The Court held in this case that the fact that FIFA is not itself an economic operator on the market for the services provided by players' agents was ''irrelevant as regards the application of Article 82 TEC, since FIFA is the emanation of the national associations and the clubs, the actual buyers of the services of players' agents''. See Case T-193/02 Piau [2005] ECLI:EU:T:2005:22, Judgment of 26 January 2005, para. 116.

[23] Case COMP/37 806: ENIC / UEFA [2002] Commission, para. 28.

[24] Case C-309/99 Wouters [2002] ECR I-1577, Judgment of 19 February 2002, para. 97.

[25] See Commission decision (n 23) para. 32.

[26] Ibid. para. 45.

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