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

Policing the (in)dependence of National Federations through the prism of the FIFA Statutes. By Tine Misic

…and everything under the sun is in tune,

but the sun is eclipsed by the moon…[1] 


The issue

Ruffling a few feathers, on 30 May 2015 the FIFA Executive Committee rather unsurprisingly, considering the previous warnings,[2] adopted a decision to suspend with immediate effect the Indonesian Football Federation (PSSI) until such time as PSSI is able to comply with its obligations under Articles 13 and 17 of the FIFA Statutes.[3] Stripping PSSI of its membership rights, the decision results in a prohibition of all Indonesian teams (national or club) from having any international sporting contact. In other words, the decision precludes all Indonesian teams from participating in any competition organised by either FIFA or the Asian Football Confederation (AFC). In addition, the suspension of rights also precludes all PSSI members and officials from benefits of any FIFA or AFC development programme, course or training during the term of suspension. This decision coincides with a very recent award by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) in this ambit, which shall be discussed further below.[4]More...


The Brussels Court judgment on Financial Fair Play: a futile attempt to pull off a Bosman. By Ben Van Rompuy

On 29 May 2015, the Brussels Court of First Instance delivered its highly anticipated judgment on the challenge brought by football players’ agent Daniel Striani (and others) against UEFA’s Club Licensing and Financial Fair Play Regulations (FFP). In media reports,[1] the judgment was generally portrayed as a significant initial victory for the opponents of FFP. The Brussels Court not only made a reference for a preliminary ruling to the European Court of Justice (CJEU) but also imposed an interim order blocking UEFA from implementing the second phase of the FFP that involves reducing the permitted deficit for clubs.

A careful reading of the judgment, however, challenges the widespread expectation that the CJEU will now pronounce itself on the compatibility of the FFP with EU law. More...

A Bridge Too Far? Bridge Transfers at the Court of Arbitration for Sport. By Antoine Duval and Luis Torres.

FIFA’s freshly adopted TPO ban entered into force on 1 May (see our Blog symposium). Though it is difficult to anticipate to what extent FIFA will be able to enforce the ban, it is likely that many of the third-party investors will try to have recourse to alternative solutions to pursue their commercial involvement in the football transfer market. One potential way to circumvent the FIFA ban is to use the proxy of what has been coined “bridge transfers”. A bridge transfer occurs when a club is used as an intermediary bridge in the transfer of a player from one club to another. The fictitious passage through this club is used to circumscribe, for example, the payment of training compensation or to whitewash a third-party ownership by transforming it into a classical employment relationship. This is a legal construction that has gained currency especially in South American football, but not only. On 5 May 2015, in the Racing Club v. FIFA case, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) rendered its first award involving directly a bridge transfer. As this practice could become prevalent in the coming years we think that this case deserves a close look. More...

20 Years After Bosman - The New Frontiers of EU Law and Sport - Special Issue of the Maastricht Journal of European and Comparative Law

Editor's note: This is a short introduction written for the special Issue of the Maastricht Journal of European and Comparative Law celebrating the 20 years of the Bosman ruling and dedicated to the new frontiers of EU law and Sport (the articles are available here). For those willing to gain a deeper insight into the content of the Issue we organize (in collaboration with Maastricht University and the Maastricht Journal) a launching event with many of the authors in Brussels tomorrow (More info here).More...

ASSER Exclusive! Interview with Charles “Chuck” Blazer by Piotr Drabik

Editor’s note: Chuck Blazer declined our official interview request but thanks to some trusted sources (the FIFA indictment and Chuck’s testimony) we have reconstructed his likely answers. This is a fictional interview. Any resemblance with real facts is purely coincidental.



Mr Blazer, thank you for agreeing to this interview, especially considering the circumstances. How are you doing?

I am facing ten charges concerning, among others, conspiracy to corrupt and money laundering. But apart from that, I am doing great (laughs)!

 

It is good to know that you have not lost your spirit. And since you’ve been involved in football, or as you call it soccer, for years could you please first tell us what was your career at FIFA and its affiliates like?

Let me see… Starting from the 1990s I was employed by and associated with FIFA and one of its constituent confederations, namely the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football (CONCACAF). At various times, I also served as a member of several FIFA standing committees, including the marketing and television committee. As CONCACAF’s general secretary, a position I proudly held for 21 years, I was responsible, among many other things, for negotiations concerning media and sponsorship rights. From 1997 to 2013 I also served at FIFA’s executive committee where I participated in the selection process of the host countries for the World Cup tournaments. Those years at the helm of world soccer were truly amazing years of travel and hard work mainly for the good of the beautiful game. I might add that I even managed to document some of my voyages on my blog. I initially called it “Travels with Chuck Blazer” but Vladimir (Putin) convinced me to change the name to “Travels with Chuck Blazer and his Friends”. You should check it out.

 More...



Financial Fair Play: Lessons from the 2014 and 2015 settlement practice of UEFA. By Luis Torres

UEFA announced on 8 May that it had entered into Financial Fair Play settlement agreements with 10 European football clubs. Together with the four other agreements made in February 2015, this brings the total to 14 FFP settlements for 2015 and 23 since UEFA adopted modifications in its Procedural rules and allowed settlements agreements to be made between the Clubs and the Chief Investigator of the UEFA Club Financial Control Body (CFCB).[1] 

In the two years during which UEFA’s FFP regulations have been truly up and running we have witnessed the centrality taken by the settlement procedure in their enforcement. It is extremely rare for a club to be referred to the FFP adjudication chamber. In fact, only the case regarding Dynamo Moscow has been referred to the adjudication chamber. Thus, having a close look at the settlement practice of UEFA is crucial to gaining a good understanding of the functioning of FFP. Hence, this blog offers a detailed analysis of this year’s settlement agreements and compares them with last year’s settlements. More...

Book Review: Reforming FIFA, or Not

Editor’s note: This short book review will be published in a different format in the International Sports Law Journal, due to its timeliness we decided to reproduce it here. 

Reforming FIFA, or Not

 Antoine Duval

Book Review: Mark Pieth (ed.), Reforming FIFA, Dike Verlag, St. Gallen, 2014, 28.00 CHF, p.178

 


This book looks back at the work of the Independence Governance Committee (IGC). This Committee, constituted in 2011, had as primary objective to drive a reform process of FIFA initiated by its President Sepp Blatter. After ordering from the Swiss anti-corruption expert Mark Pieth, a report on the state of FIFA’s governance, FIFA decided to mandate him with the leadership of a consulting body composed of a mix of independent experts and football insiders, which would be accompanying and supervising the internal reform process of FIFA. The IGC was officially dissolved at the end of 2013, after completing its mandate. The book is composed of eight chapters, written by former members of the IGC, including former chairman Mark Pieth. In addition to the chapters, it includes the different reports (available here, here and here) submitted by the IGC to FIFA across the years. In the words of Pieth, this account is “fascinating because it gives a hands-on, realistic perspective of the concrete efforts, the achievements and the remaining challenges in the struggle for the reform of this organization [FIFA], avoiding the usual glorification or vilification.”[1] This review will first summarize the core of the account of the FIFA reform process provided by the book, before critically engaging with the outcome of the process and outlining the deficiencies that culminated on 29 May 2015 with the re-election of Sepp Blatter as FIFA president.More...



The Spanish TV Rights Distribution System after the Royal Decree: An Introduction. By Luis Torres

On the first of May 2015, the Spanish Government finally signed the Royal Decree allowing the joint selling of the media rights of the Spanish top two football leagues. The Minister for Sport stated that the Decree will allow clubs to “pay their debts with the social security and the tax authorities and will enable the Spanish teams to compete with the biggest European Leagues in terms of revenues from the sale of media rights”.[1]Although the signing of the Royal Decree was supposed to close a very long debate and discussion between the relevant stakeholders, its aftermath shows that the Telenovela is not entirely over. 

This blog post will first provide the background story to the selling of media rights in Spain. It will, thereafter, analyse the main points of the Royal Decree and outline how the system will work in practice. Finally, the blog will shortly address the current frictions between the Spanish League (LFP) and the Spanish football federation (RFEF).More...

Sport and EU Competition Law: New developments and unfinished business. By Ben Van Rompuy

Editor's note: Ben Van Rompuy, Head of the ASSER International Sports Law Centre, was recently interviewed by LexisNexis UK for their in-house adviser service. With kind permission from LexisNexis we reproduce the interview on our blog in its entirety. 

How does competition law affect the sports sector?  

The application of EU competition law to the sports sector is a fairly recent and still unfolding development. It was only in the mid-1990s, due to the growing commercialization of professional sport, that there emerged a need to address competition issues in relation to, for instance, ticketing arrangements or the sale of media rights.  More...



Is FIFA fixing the prices of intermediaries? An EU competition law analysis - By Georgi Antonov (ASSER Institute)

Introduction

On 1 April 2015, the new FIFA Regulations on Working with Intermediaries (hereinafter referred as the Regulations) came into force. These Regulations introduced a number of changes as regards the division of competences between FIFA and its members, the national associations. A particularly interesting issue from an EU competition law perspective is the amended Article 7 of the Regulations. Under paragraph 3, which regulates the rules on payments to intermediaries (also previously referred to as ‘agents’), it is recommended that the total amount of remuneration per transaction due to intermediaries either being engaged to act on a player’s or club’s behalf should not exceed 3% of the player’s basic gross income for the entire duration of the relevant employment contract. In the case of transactions due to intermediaries who have been engaged to act on a club’s behalf in order to conclude a transfer agreement, the total amount of remuneration is recommended to not exceed 3% of the eventual transfer fee paid in relation to the relevant transfer of the player.More...

Asser International Sports Law Blog | Bailing out your local football club: The Willem II and MVV State Aid decisions as blueprint for future rescue aid (Part 2)

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

Bailing out your local football club: The Willem II and MVV State Aid decisions as blueprint for future rescue aid (Part 2)

This is part two of the blog on the Willem II and MVV State Aid decisions. Where part one served as an introduction on the two cases, part two will analyze the compatibility assessment made by the Commission in two decisions.


The compatibility of the aid to MVV and Willem II (re-)assessed

Even though it was the Netherlands’ task to invoke possible grounds of compatibility and to demonstrate that the conditions for such compatibility were met, the aid granted to both Willem II and MVV was never notified. The Netherland’s failure to fulfill its notification obligation, therefore, appears to be at odds with the Commission’s final decision to declare the aid compatible with EU law. Yet, a closer look at the Commission’s decision of 6 March 2013 to launch the formal investigation shows that the Commission was giving the Netherlands a ‘second chance’ to invoke grounds that would lead to a justification of the measures. In paragraph 74, the Commission itself reached the conclusions that the clubs in question faced financial difficulties, consequently indicating that the Rescue and Restructuring Guidelines might apply. In fact, the Commission even suggested possible compensatory measures, which are very much related to “the peculiar nature of professional football”[1]. These suggested compensatory measures included:

- limiting the club’s number of registered players for a season or several seasons;

- accepting a cap on the relation between salaries and turnover;

- banning the payment of transfer fees for a certain period;

- offering additional expenditure on “pro bono” activities to the benefit of the community and training of amateurs.[2]

Furthermore, it invited the Dutch authorities “to provide all useful information allowing the Commission to decide whether the aid measures can be considered compatible with the Guidelines”.[3]

The observations and information submitted by the Netherlands between March 2013 and July 2016 proved more than sufficient for the Commission to carry out its compatibility assessment. As was insinuated in the decision to launch a formal investigation, the Rescue and Restructuring Guidelines proved fundamental to this assessment.  


Willem II and MVV as firms in financial difficulties

This first condition of the Guidelines was easily complied with. As regards Willem II, in the accounting year 2008/2009, it made a loss of €3.9 million on a turnover of €11.4 million. Meanwhile, its own equity decreased from €4.1 million to €200.000. The losses increased to €4.4 million on a turnover of €9.9 million for the 2009/2010 season, while its own equity decreased further from €200.000 to minus €2.1 million.[4]

MVV clearly was financially not doing much better. As the Commission itself summarizes in the MVV decision, “in 2008/2009, MVV made a loss of €1.1 million and its own equity was minus €3.8 million. By March 2010 additional losses amounting to €1.3 million had occurred and the own equity had dropped to minus €5.17 million. In April 2010, MVV was no longer able to pay salaries and other current expenditure and was on the brink of bankruptcy.”[5]

Another consequence of being in financial difficulties relates to the licensing system put in place by the Dutch football federation KNVB. As is explained in paragraph 11 of the decision to open a formal investigation, one of the obligations for clubs under the current system is submitting three financial reports a year to the KNVB. On the basis of these reports clubs are scaled in three categories (I: insufficient, II: sufficient, III: good). Clubs in category I may be obliged to present a plan for improvement in order to reach categories II or III. If the club fails to comply with the plan, sanctions may be imposed by the KNVB, including an official warning, a reduction of competition points and – as ultimate sanction – withdrawal of the licence.[6] At the time the State aid was granted, both Willem II and MVV were scaled in the insufficient category I.  


Willem II and MVV as small enterprises or medium-sized enterprises

This particular assessment is important for the two conditions below, i.e. the introduction of restructuring plans and compensatory measures. Depending on the size of the firm (or enterprise), different conditions apply. Willem II employed 53 people in 2012 and had an annual turnover of €11.4 million in 2008/2009.[7] Pursuant to the Annex of the Commission Recommendation concerning the definition of micro, small and medium-sized enterprises, Willem II just managed to be considered a medium-sized enterprise.[8]

MVV, on the other hand, is considered a small enterprise. In the season 2009/2010 it had 38 employees and in the season 2010/2011 it had 35 employees. Its turnover and balance sheet total remained well below €10 million in both years.[9] 


Restructuring plans

Though not initially communicated to the Commission, both rescue measures were subject to certain restructuring conditions. In principle, these consisted of reducing personnel costs, by introducing new managements, selling players, and signing players free of transfer payments. In the case of Willem II, in the two years following the rescue measure personnel costs were reduced by 30%.[10] The effects of MVV’s restructuring plan were even better, since it managed to book profits for the three seasons following the aid and was scaled in the highest category (III) by the KNVB in the beginning of the season 2011/2012.[11] 


Compensatory measures

For the compensatory measures it is important to take into account point 41 of the Rescue and Restructuring Guidelines. Under this provision, small enterprises, such as MVV, are not required to take compensatory measures. However, this exception did not apply to Willem II. The Commission noted more expenditure of Willem II for public benefit by the training of amateurs and a reduction of the number of registered players from 31 to 27. Similarly, no transfer payments were made during the restructuring period.[12] Potentially as a result of this, Willem II was relegated to the second league in 2011 and again in 2013. In the end, the Commission concluded that “the compensatory measures required by the Guidelines were taken, which had the effect of weakening Willem II's competitive position in professional football”.[13] 


Aid limited to a minimum

Since the aid measures rescued both football clubs from bankruptcy without creating equity surplus, the Commission believed the amount of aid granted limited to what was necessary. Furthermore, the Commission highlighted that the restructuring plans were to a large extent financed by external contributors just as the Rescue and Restructuring Guidelines requested. Private entities had agreed to lend €2.25 million to Willem II for the restructuring, which is well over the 40% of €2.4 million (the total amount of State aid granted) required for medium-sized enterprises under the Guidelines.[14] In the case of MVV, several private creditors decided to waive (part of) their debt, which amounted to €2.25 million. This amount is more than 25% of the €5.8 million granted by the Netherlands, the minimum requirement for a small enterprise like MVV.[15] 


One time, last time

The Commission believes this condition to be fulfilled, as the Netherlands specified that Willem II and MVV did not receive rescue or restructuring aid in the ten years before the aid measures, nor will it award any new rescue or restructuring aid to the clubs during a period of ten years.[16] 


Conclusion

At the time of writing, the non-confidential versions of the positive decisions regarding State aid granted in favour of the Dutch professional football clubs FC Den Bosch and NEC Nijmegen are not published. Nonetheless, this does not prevent us from drawing the following lessons from the Willem II and MVV decisions.

First of all, these decisions show that there is no need to draft sector specific guidelines for State aid to professional football clubs in difficulty. The Rescue and Restructuring Guidelines are all the Commission needs in order to carry out the compatibility assessment. This approach is radically different when compared to the Commission’s decisional practice for the State aid to sport infrastructure cases between 2011 and 2013.[17] Only after the Commission dealt with ten different cases, was its approach (to a large extent) codified in Article 55 of the 2014 General Block Exemption Regulation.[18]

In this regard it is important to highlight that the Commission seems to take into account “the peculiar nature of professional football”[19] when assessing the compatibility of State aid measures under the Rescue and Restructuring Guidelines. For example, it showed demonstrated its awareness of the UEFA Club Licensing and Financial Fair Play Regulations[20] as well as national (KNVB) licensing rules when assessing the compensatory measures taken by Willem II. Moreover, it clearly endorsed the decision taken by the club not to make transfer payments during the restructuring period, since this prevents the club from spending money it might not have, while simultaneously limiting the club’s competitiveness on the field.

A further lesson that can be drawn from these decisions is that, in my opinion, the threshold to ‘pass the compatibility test’ under the Rescue and Restructuring Guidelines is quite low. With regard to the condition that the club needs to be in financial difficulties in order to get the State aid, it is clear that granting State aid to professional football clubs in financial difficulties is one of the most (if not the most) common form of State aid in the sector. This was the case for the five Dutch clubs scrutinized by the Commission, as well as the three clubs from Valencia of which the non-confidential version of the decision still needs to be published. Other clubs like FC Twente and Sporting de Gijón have also received State aid over financial difficulties, even though the Commission did not investigate these measures (yet).[21] In other words, a majority of the cases are assessable under these Guidelines.

The condition that the beneficiary football club needs to stick to a restructuring plan in order to receive the State aid is key. As is elucidated in the two decisions, the restructuring plans consisted of selling players, reducing the costs of wages and not paying transfer fees for new players for a period of three years. In my view, these conditions are rather proportionate when considering that the clubs in question were on the verge of bankruptcy prior to the State aid measures. In fact, one could argue that FIFA’s transfer ban imposed on FC Barcelona for international transfers of minors, or excluding FC Dynamo from the next UEFA club competition for which the club would otherwise qualify in four seasons (i.e. the 2015/16, 2016/17, 2017/18 and 2018/19 seasons) for breaching UEFA’s FFP Regulations,[22] are harsher than the restructuring conditions accepted by the Commission.

The same can be said about the need to take compensatory measures. The measures taken by Willem II (reducing the number of employees and players, and reducing the cost of wages to 48% of the turnover) could be considered a direct consequence of the abovementioned restructuring plans. The only additional compensatory measure taken by Willem II was increasing expenditure of the club for the training of amateurs, though the decision does not specify what this implied in practice.

Perhaps the only condition that could be problematic for some football clubs is the “one time, last time” criterion. Under this condition, the public authorities cannot rescue Willem II and MVV again until at least 2020. Although Willem II and MVV are currently in category III and II on the KNVB’s scale respectively, falling back to category I before 2020 could have dramatic consequences.

Be that as it may, now that the Commission’s approach for the assessment of State aid to professional football clubs in financial difficulties is out in the open, public authorities and football clubs alike should use this knowledge to their own advantage. They should remember that the Commission is willing to accept rescue aid and that the restructuring conditions are far from impossible to match. One can even wonder whether a club like FC Twente would have turned to Doyen when it was facing financial difficulties, if it had been aware of the conditions imposed by the European Commission for receiving compatible State aid under the Rescue and Restructuring Guidelines.



[1] Commission Decision on State Aid SA.40168 of 4 July 2016 implemented by the Netherlands in favour of the professional football club Willem II in Tilburg, para. 50.

[2] Commission Decision SA.33584 of 6 March 2013 – The Netherlands Alleged municipal aid to the Professional Dutch football clubs Vitesse, NEC, Willem II, MVV, PSV and FC Den Bosch in 2008-2011, para. 80.

[3] Ibid, para. 77.

[4] SA.40168, para. 45.

[5] Commission Decision on State Aid SA.41612 of 4 July 2016 implemented by the Netherlands in favour of the professional football club MVV in Maastricht, para. 13.

[6] SA.33584, para. 11.

[7] SA.40168, para. 9.

[8] A firm is not considered a small enterprise i fit has more than 50 employees and an annual turnover of more than €10 million. See footnote 27.

[9] SA.41612, para. 9.

[10] SA.40168, para. 48.

[11] SA.41612, para. 52.

[12] SA.40168, para. 51. Indeed, according to www.transfermarkt.de, Willem II only paid a mere €20.000 for the signing of Kevin Brands in July 2012.

[13] Ibid.

[14] SA.40168, para. 52.

[15] SA.41612, para. 54.

[16] SA.40168, para. 55 and SA.41612, para. 61.

[17] Commission Decision of 9 November 2011, SA.31722 – Hungary - Supporting the Hungarian sport sector via tax benefit scheme; Commission Decision of 2 May 2013, SA.33618 Uppsala arena; Commission Decision of 15 May 2013, SA.33728 Multiarena in Copenhagen; Commission Decision of 20 March 2013, SA.35135 Multifunktionsarena der Stadt Erfurt; Commission Decision of 20 March 2013, SA.35440 Multifunktionsarena der Stadt Jena; Commission Decision of 18 December 2013, SA.35501 Financement de la construction et de la renovation des stades pour l’EURO 2016; Commission Decision of 2 October 2013, SA.36105 Fuβballstadion Chemnitz; Commission Decision of 20 November 2013, SA.37109 Football stadiums in Flanders; Commission Decision of 9 April 2014, SA.37342 Regional Stadia Development in Northern Ireland; and Commission Decision of 13 December 2013, SA.37373 Contribution to the renovation of ice arena Thialf in Heerenveen.

[18] For a deeper analysis of whether sport-specific guidelines are necessary, see Oskar van Maren, “EU State Aid Law and Professional Football: A threat or a Blessing?”, European State Aid Law Quarterly, Volume 15 1/2016, pages 31-46. To find out how sector-specific rules for State aid are usually articulated, see Ben Van Rompuy and Oskar van Maren, “EU Control of State Aid to Professional Sport: Why Now?” In: “The Legacy of Bosman. Revisiting the relationship between EU law and sport”, T.M.C. Asser Press, 2016.

[19] SA.40168, para. 50.

[20] In paragraph 51 of SA.40168, the Commission referred to a UEFA rule, which holds that the cost of salaries should not exceed 70%.

[21] For more information of the precarious financial situation of these two clubs, see our previous blogs: “Unpacking Doyen’s TPO Deals: FC Twente's Game of Maltese Roulette”, and “TPO and Spanish football, friends with(out) benefits?”.

[22] For more information on the FC Dynamo case, see our blog “UEFA’s FFP out in the open: The Dynamo Moscow Case”.

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