The Legality of Transfer Windows in European Football : A study in the light of Article 39 and 81 EC
The transfer system was created in order to control player movement between football clubs and has existed since the late nineteenth century. During the negotiation of today’s transfer rules FIFA, UEFA and the Commission found that a breach of contract during the season could upset the balance of competition and therefore should be restricted. It was considered necessary to strengthen the contractual stability and to apply a special rule to preserve the regularity and proper functioning of competition. This was done by the means of a provision stipulating that a football player only can be registered to play with a national association during one of the two registration periods per year, generally known as the transfer windows.
Sport has never been included in the formal structures of the European Union and the regulation of sport has instead materialized through verdicts from the European Court of Justice. One of the most influential statements emerging from the Court is that sport is subject to Community law in so far it constitutes an economic activity. Consequently, if the activity is economic there is a risk that it infringes EU law. The purpose of this master thesis is to examine the FIFA transfer window system and to determine whether it violates Article 39 and/or Article 81 EC.
The transfer windows, a regulation strengthened by the ECJ in the case of Lehtonen, restrict the ability of players to seek alternative employment and could therefore be regarded as a violation of the free movement of workers. In order to trigger the Treaty provisions guarding the right of freedom of movement the person in question must be a national of a Member State of the European Union and the activity must have a territorial dimension beyond the borders of a single Member State of the European Union. The person in question must also be engaged in some kind of economic activity. It is, however, clear that football players who are members of the European Union and are applying for a job in another Member State, and are performing at a certain level, fulfil these requirements. Footballers should therefore be considered as workers within the meaning of Article 39 EC and the prohibition of discrimination contained in that article which catches non-discriminatory private collective measures, such as the transfer system, invented by regulatory bodies like FIFA and UEFA.
When considering the FIFA “windows system” it is clear that it is liable of restricting the ability of players to seek alternative employment in another Member State and should therefore be regarded as a violation of Article 39 EC. Nevertheless, restricted transfer periods have been found by the ECJ to be objectively justified as having sporting benefits in the Belgian Basketball league. It is, however, likely that the “window system”, as it operates in European football, goes beyond what is necessary to achieve team and player contract stability since it is too restrictive and somewhat redundant. Consequently, the FIFA transfer windows do not comply with the requirements of the principle of proportionality and should therefore, if challenged, be regarded as a violation of Article 39 EC.
The use of transfer windows in European football can also be considered to be an issue for competition law and in particular Article 81 EC. The article prohibits all agreements between undertakings that restrict competition and affect trade between Member States and has the objective to protect consumers, enhance their welfare and to facilitate the creation of a single European market. The ECJ has, however, acknowledged a certain type of sporting rule that, even though it restricts competition, will be granted immunity from Article 81 EC. The FIFA “windows system” should not be regarded as such a rule since it does not fulfil the required conditions.
The transfer windows do little for the competitive balance within the European football. It may be argued that it preserves the appeal and the unpredictability of the finishing stages of a championship. However, they also prevent clubs from developing their economic activity and restrict the free play of the market forces of supply and demand. Furthermore, the “windows system” hinders certain clubs from raising the quality of their sporting performance since clubs in minor leagues with a closed window are losing their best players to clubs in a better league with an open window, without being able to replace them. All of this affects the small and economically weak clubs and strengthens the position of the financially strong clubs. As a result a few strong clubs will, contrary to the best interest of consumers, continue to dominate European football. The FIFA regulation of transfer windows is therefore likely to fall under Article 81(1) EC.
It is unlikely that the pro-competitive benefits of the FIFA transfer windows outweigh its restrictive effects since it is improbable that they would be considered the least restrictive means of creating these benefits. Subsequently, the FIFA “windows system” would not qualify for an exemption under Article 81(3) EC and should, if challenged, be void under Article 81(2) EC.
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