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Losing the UEFA Europa League on the Legal Turf: Parma FC’s bitter defeat by Giandonato Marino

This year the race for UEFA Europa League places in Serie A was thrilling. In the final minutes of the last game of the season, Alessio Cerci, Torino FC striker, had the opportunity to score a penalty that would have qualified his team to the 2014-2015 edition of the UEFA Europa League. However, he missed and Parma FC qualified instead.

One would think all was decided after the referee’s final whistle. However, on 19 May, the Italian Football Federation’s Second Instance Commission for UEFA Licences confirmed the decision of the First Instance and denied Parma FC its UEFA Licence for the 2014-2015 season. Indeed, Parma did not comply with the provisions included in the UEFA Licensing Manual, in particular paragraph 14.7 – F04 of the Italian Version regarding overdue payable to tax authorities for salaries. In this context, the Commission considered that Parma had not paid €300,000 of taxes related to payments made in October/November 2013 to 10 players on loan by the 31 March 2014 deadline imposed for overdue payments to players or tax authorities. 

Parma appealed this decision in front of the Italian High Court of Justice for Sport. Arguing that the payments made to the 10 Players were salary advances requiring a payment of taxes at the end of the season (i.e. 30 June 2014). However, the two Commissions and the Court considered these payments as a salary anticipation that required the payment of taxes within 30 days after the disbursement. This position was also reinforced by the qualification of the payments made by Parma’s tax advisors. 

Nonetheless, the facts of the case are quite murky. In fact, on 31 March, Parma had not received any notification from the Italian tax authorities regarding its non-compliance with tax obligations. The club received a first communication on 30 April, which was after the deadline set to obtain the UEFA Licence. Hence, Parma also claimed that it would have complied with its tax duties within the deadline, if only it had received a notification from the authorities before 31 March. This situation is even more absurd if one takes in account that had Parma raised objections to the tax authorities’ assessment it would have triggered the suspension of the legal delay and, therefore, would have gotten the UEFA Licence. 

In a decision dating from 22 May, the Italian High Court, even though it denied the Licence to Parma FC, sympathized with the club’s fate and acknowledged that in this concrete case the strict implementation of the UEFA Manual led to an unfair outcome. Nevertheless, the High Court considered that the UEFA manual was solely applicable and could not be put aside in this specific instance. Moreover, the High Court stated that as an ad hoc regulation, only UEFA itself had the power of suspending or adapting these rules. Thus Parma was sanctioned on the basis of a strict liability reasoning leaving little room to the judiciary to adapt the sanction to the circumstances of the case.  

On 3 June the CEO of Parma, Mr. Leonardi, declared that the club is considering to appeal the decision in front of CAS. It is however likely that the CAS will dismiss the appeal and declare itself incompetent since there is no arbitral clause in favour of CAS included in the Statute of the Italian Football Federation (FIGC). This is not a similar configuration as in cases CAS 2013/A/3067 Málaga CF SAD v. UEFA and CAS 2013/A/3233 PAE Giannina 1966 v. UEFA in which the UEFA License was denied by the UEFA disciplinary bodies. Moreover, an analogous situation arose in the case CAS 2013/A/3199 Rayo Vallecano de Madrid SAD. v. RFEF leading to the CAS denying any competence to re-consider the refusal by the Spanish Football Federation to confer a UEFA license to Rayo Vallecano.    

Parma could also appeal the decision in front of the Italian Administrative Courts, according to the law 17 October 2003, n.280. Article 3 of the law gives exclusive jurisdiction to the Regional Administrative Tribunal of Lazio, with seat in Rome, for appeals against decisions of the Italian Sports Justice. The jurisdiction of this Court is, however, limited to acts of the Italian Olympic Committee or Sports Federations that do not fall under the exclusive competence of Sports Justice Bodies according to article 2 of this law. Hypothetically, in this case the Administrative Court could quash the decision of the High Court and, also, issue a provisional measure suspending the effect of the decision. However, in my opinion, this is very unlikely to happen for reasons linked to the good administration of justice, rather Parma might be able to obtain a compensation. 

The Parma case highlights the sometimes “Kafkaesque” absurdity of the UEFA Licensing regulations: A club is denied the right to play in one of the most prestigious European competition on the ground of a wrongdoing it is not entirely responsible of! Supporters are deprived of their right to travel Europe to cheer for their team and the club is deprived of the opportunity to increase its revenues and financial sustainability. Again, this reminds us of the necessity to embed a legal mechanism enabling a contextual evaluation and adaptation of the sanctions in UEFA’s licensing regulations.  

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