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Marie Mandíková | April 9, 2024

Breakthrough in football: discrimination and restriction of competition in compiling match lineup?

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The rules of the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) require professional football clubs participating in any of the international club football competitions to enter at least 8 so-called homegrown players when compiling their lineup. The maximum number of players on the lineup is 25. The classification of a player as “homegrown" is conditional on the player having been trained for at least 3 years between the ages of 15 and 21 either by his club or by another club in the same national league. In addition, of the 8 home players, at least 4 players must be trained by the club that signed them up.

The URBSFA (Belgian Football Association) has implemented a similar rule in its regulations, but only regarding the requirement of 8 homegrown players, i.e. in this case players trained by any Belgian club. The condition that 4 of them be additionally prepared by their club is not included in the URBSFA regulations.

However, one of the football players, who is professionally active in Belgium, has turned to the Belgian Court of Arbitration for Sport (and later to the Francophone Court of First Instance in Brussels) and  sought to have those UEFA and URBSFA rules declared absolutely null and void. According to him, they infringe Articles 45 TFEU (free movement of workers) and 101 TFEU (competition law). The case was eventually taken up by the CJEU, which asked four main questions, namely:


  1. Does EU law apply to sport and the activities of sports associations?

In its response to the first legal question, the CJEU recalled the conclusions of its previous case law, which show that to the extent that sport constitutes an economic activity, it is covered by European law relevant to that activity. EU law does not apply only to sport-specific rules adopted “solely for non-economic reasons”. However, given the social and educational importance of sporting activities for EU citizens, the specific features of these activities must also be taken into account when applying Articles 45 and 101 TFEU. In other words, if a rule adopted by a sports association is to be assessed as an obstacle to the free movement of workers or an anti-competitive cartel agreement, the specific circumstances must always be considered in the context of the nature, organisation and functioning of the sport in question.


  1. Are football associations “undertakings” within the meaning of the TFEU?

In the Court’s view, sports associations, which offer goods or services and therefore have an economic activity, constitute an undertaking within the meaning of the TFEU. The prohibition of conduct (potentially) distorting, restricting or excluding competition contained in Article 101 TFEU applies to any entity engaged in an economic activity, including sports associations.


  1. Do football associations have the power to restrict football clubs in forming teams?

The CJEU found that the sports associations responsible for a particular sporting category, such as UEFA or URBSFA, are legitimately entitled to set the rules for competitions in that discipline. Such rules may include requirements regarding the composition of teams for participation in professional club competitions.

However, the rules in question effectively restrict football clubs from recruiting players, thereby effectively controlling one of the most important factors of economic competition. The CJEU therefore ordered the national court to address the question of whether these rules are sufficiently harmful to be considered anti-competitive in terms of their purpose. The economic and legal context will have to be taken into account, as well as the share of cross-border players concerned.

The CJEU recalled that there are also exceptions, to which the prohibition in Article 101 TFEU does not apply due to the specific nature of the circumstances. For example, the anti-doping regulation adopted by the International Olympic Committee, while in effect restricting competition between athletes, is intended to ensure equality of opportunity, health protection and ethics, which are legitimate objectives of general interest.


  1. Can the given rule be discriminatory?

Article 45 TFEU provides for the prohibition of measures, which have the potential to disadvantage EU nationals, who wish to pursue an economic activity in the territory of a Member State other than their country of origin. These URBSFA rules may lead to indirect discrimination against players, who do not have a “national” link to Belgian football clubs. However, such a measure may be justified, if it pursues a legitimate aim, such as promoting the recruitment and training of young football players.


What does this mean for the future of professional football?

If it turns out that the rules of the football associations are capable of affecting trade between Member States and that they have the purpose (or effect) of restricting competition, this would constitute an infringement of EU law. Only the justification of the rule by the pursuit of a legitimate aim and its necessity would be a liberating reason. Alternatively, an exception to the rule may be considered (as, for example, in the case of anti-doping regulation), provided that it satisfies all the conditions necessary for the exception to apply[1].

At the same time, these rules may constitute prohibited indirect discrimination against cross-border players, unless the appropriateness of these rules to achieve the promotion of the recruitment of local young footballers and their necessity to achieve this purpose is demonstrated.

However, the resolution of specific cases will be a matter of application of the above principles and interpretation of the CJEU by national courts. We will need to wait for the final result and the answer to the question of whether or not the rule on the minimum number of domestic players on football match rosters is contrary to EU law.

[1] see Article 101(3) TFEU