EU Court of Justice says FIFA, UEFA rules are contrary to competition law and freedom to provide services

The Court of Justice of the European Union ruled on Thursday that the FIFA and UEFA rules making any new interclub football project subject to their prior approval and prohibiting clubs and players from playing in those competitions, are unlawful.

Following the objection and threats by FIFA and UEFA to the set-up of the Super League by twelve clubs, the European Superleague Company brought an action against FIFA and UEFA before the Commercial Court, Madrid arguing that their rules on approval of competitions and the exploitation of media rights are contrary to EU law. Having some doubts on the matter in relation to, inter alia, the fact that FIFA and UEFA hold a monopoly on that market, the Spanish court referred questions to the Court of Justice.

The CJEU said that there is no framework for the FIFA and UEFA rules ensuring that they are transparent, objective, non-discriminatory and proportionate. Similarly, the rules giving FIFA and UEFA exclusive control over the commercial exploitation of the rights related to those competitions are such as to restrict competition, given their importance for the media, consumers and television viewers in the European Union.

The Court of Justice of the European Union argued that the organisation of interclub football competitions and the exploitation of the media rights are, quite evidently, economic activities. They must therefore comply with the competition rules and respect the freedoms of movement, even though the economic pursuit of sport has certain specific characteristics, such as the existence of associations having certain regulatory and control powers and the power to impose sanctions.

The Court held that, where an undertaking in a dominant position has the power to determine the conditions in which potentially competing undertakings may access the market, that power must, given the risk of conflict of interest to which it gives rise, be subject to criteria which are suitable for ensuring that they are transparent, objective, non discriminatory and proportionate. However, the powers of FIFA and UEFA are not subject to any such criteria. FIFA and UEFA are, therefore, abusing a dominant position.

Moreover, given their arbitrary nature, their rules on approval, control and sanctions must be held to be unjustified restrictions on the freedom to provide services.

That does not mean that a competition such as the Super League project must necessarily be approved. The Court, having been asked generally about the FIFA and UEFA rules, does not rule on that specific project in its judgment.

In parallel, the Court observed that the FIFA and UEFA rules relating to the exploitation of media rights are such as to be harmful European football clubs, all companies operating in media markets and, ultimately, consumers and television viewers, by preventing them from enjoying new and potentially innovative or interesting competitions.

UEFA reaction

In a statement, UEFA said that it had taken note of the judgment delivered by the ECJ in the European Super League case.

UEFA said that this ruling does not signify an endorsement or validation of the so-called ‘super league’; it rather underscores a pre-existing shortfall within UEFA’s pre-authorisation framework, a technical aspect that has already been acknowledged and addressed in June 2022. UEFA is confident in the robustness of its new rules, and specifically that they comply with all relevant European laws and regulations.

UEFA said it remains resolute in its commitment to uphold the European football pyramid, ensuring that it continues to serve the broader interests of society.

“We will continue to shape the European sports model collectively with national associations, leagues, clubs, fans, players, coaches, EU institutions, governments and partners alike.”

“We trust that the solidarity-based European football pyramid that the fans and all stakeholders have declared as their irreplaceable model will be safeguarded against the threat of breakaways by European and national laws.”

Malta FA reaction

With reference to the decision of the European Court of Justice, issued earlier today, the Malta Football Association, while taking note of the decision, unites with the principal stakeholders in European football in expressing its full support for the European sports model based on open competitions and sporting merit.

The Malta FA, together with its member clubs, remains active within the structures of FIFA and UEFA so that, where there is scope for improvement in the regulatory framework in light of this decision, this is achieved in the best interest of football. This is the only way to safeguard the principle of solidarity which ensures development and investment in football at all levels.

Malta Premier League reaction

Following the ruling by the European Court of Justice, the Malta Premier League joins the fellow members of European Leagues and the Malta Football Association in reiterating its support to a European football model based on open competitions, merit and solidarity.

The latter is crucial for small leagues and clubs competing in them.

>> European football community stands firm against so-called Super League

>> Court of Justice of the European Union press release