Sunday, July 21, 2024

Explained: Why players’ unions are taking FIFA to court over the Club World Cup

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The one-year countdown to the start of FIFA’s shiny new Club World Cup begins tomorrow — June 15. Thirty-two teams from around the globe will head to the United States for what Gianni Infantino, FIFA’s president, has confidently predicted will be the “pinnacle” of men’s club football.

A grand prediction to match grand plans, but squeezing a 29-day tournament into an already saturated calendar has now brought legal action to FIFA’s door.

Yesterday (Thursday), two of the biggest players’ unions in Europe — home to 12 of the sides competing in the tournament (37.5 per cent) — launched a case against world football’s governing body, arguing the rights of its members are being violated under European Union (EU) laws.

The English Professional Footballers Association (PFA) and its French counterparts, the Union Nationale des Footballeurs Professionnels, believe the lack of “meaningful” consultation over the Club World Cup has left them with little choice but to make a stand against those responsible for shaping football’s calendar.

FIFPro Europe, the umbrella union supporting the action tabled at the Brussels Court of Commerce in Belgium, says FIFA’s new competition is the “straw that broke the camel’s back”.

All roads will likely lead to the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg, but deep battle lines have already been drawn.

So how have we ended up here and why is the new Club World Cup so controversial?


Why are the unions unhappy?

Football, in case you missed it, got popular. Very popular. And everyone wanted that little bit more. Existing competitions, such as the World Cup and Champions League, were expanded to include more teams and provide more matches; new ones were introduced; international tours came along, too — all in the name of growing audiences and driving stakeholder revenues.

More dates where football would be played were added to the calendar without any being taken away, ensuring the physical demands placed upon its elite performers climb year after year. Cry me a river, the cynics say, in an era when lots of young men are being made into millionaires. Yet the 2024-25 season is the point when enough became enough.

A reformed Champions League and similarly tweaked Europa League will see their participating clubs play an additional two group games in January. Then, after the club season concludes for many nations, FIFA’s first expanded Club World Cup will run from June 15 to July 13.

FIFA insists there is room, as it is merely filling up the summer slot that is used for the World Cup (usually) or European Championship every other year. The player unions, though, believe the schedule is unworkable.

They point to the Premier League season ending on May 25 next year and the Champions League final being played on May 31, before players will then roll seamlessly into a 10-day international window that will include UEFA’s Nations League final on June 8. That last match is just a week before the scheduled start of the Club World Cup.

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It is possible that Manchester City, who have qualified along with Chelsea from the Premier League for the FIFA event, could play as many as 75 games next season, with the bulk of their squad also featuring for their respective countries in more matches across five international breaks.

The unions do not reserve their anger solely for the Club World Cup, but its timing is causing the greatest irritation.

FIFA’s refusal to cede the end-of-season international break in early June, a window that some smaller nations enjoy, ensures the Club World Cup cannot begin any earlier than June 15 and so extends to the middle of July. That means some players, theoretically, will go almost 12 months without a break once they start their 2024-25 pre-season and then be afforded just three weeks off before starting all over again for 2025-26, which will be capped with a biggest-ever 48-team World Cup.


Raphael Varane is one of the players who has complained about fixture congestion (Oli Scarff /AFP/Getty Images)

Players unions, headed up by the global body FIFPro, have repeatedly made their concerns clear to FIFA, along with the European Leagues, a body representing 39 professional leagues across the continent. Their issues include protecting domestic products such as the Premier League, Serie A in Italy and Spain’s La Liga. Richard Masters, chief executive of the Premier League, has been openly critical of FIFA’s consultation process.

That is not to say nobody wants the new-look Club World Cup. The influential European Club Association, chaired by Paris Saint-Germain president Nasser Al-Khelaifi, has called the competition “fantastic news” for its members, who see it as a chance to increase revenues. Real Madrid head coach Carlo Ancelotti might have briefly cast doubt over his Spanish and European champions’ involvement next summer, but they and others see commercial value in the project.

Other continents, too, are invested. Each of FIFA’s six confederations will be represented in the tournament to some degree, and ambitious revenue targets of £2billion ($2.5bn) will be divided up between participating clubs and development programmes.

“The revenues that we generate are not just going to a few clubs in one country, the revenues that we generate are going to 211 countries all over the world,” Infantino said last month. “There is no other organisation that does that.”

The Club World Cup has one further impact. The Africa Cup of Nations had been provisionally scheduled for next summer to appease clubs fed up with players for a tournament that is normally played halfway through the European season in January and February. It is now expected to have a mid-December 2025 start date.

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How did this suddenly become a legal dispute?

That train has been rolling down the track for some time. “Players are not being listened to and they want to see action,” said Maheta Molango, the PFA’s chief executive, who is also an employment lawyer. “As their union, we have a duty to intervene and to enforce their legal rights as employees. Ultimately, that time has now come.”

The English and French players’ unions took action on Thursday morning at the Brussels Court of Commerce, where they asked to have their case referred to the European Court of Justice (ECJ). There, they will look to challenge the legality of FIFA’s decisions to “unilaterally” set football’s international match calendar.

Sound familiar at all? It is broadly the same legal route taken in recent years by organisers of the mooted European Super League, who argued UEFA had broken EU competition law in blocking the formation of a new competition.

“It’s the first legal action that comes after the December 21 decision in the European Court of Justice,” says Antoine Duval of the Asser International Sports Law Centre, an international and EU law research institute.

“It’s clearly building on that. The landscape has shifted since December 21. The Court of Justice has shown it is expecting much more from the quality of governance of sport’s governing bodies. And in this case, they feel through such a complaint they could push further their political power inside FIFA. That might well be true.”

The ECJ’s Super League ruling just before Christmas, which said UEFA rules blocking the formation of a new competition were contrary to EU law, was cited in a FIFPro Europe statement on Thursday. That verdict effectively left the door ajar for further challenges to football’s governing bodies. The legal industry does not play down its significance.

Maheta Molango


PFA chief executive Maheta Molango, right, in 2020 (Quality Sport Images/Getty Images)

It will be argued in this latest case that FIFA’s “unilateral and discretionary decisions” to increase player workloads for the benefit of the governing body are in breach of EU competition law.

“FIFA finds it normal to unilaterally and abusively occupy an area which — in modern and open governance — naturally falls within the remit of the social partners and therefore of the negotiation of collective agreements between player unions and employer organisations,” said FIFPro Europe’s statement.

At the nub of this case will the ambiguous term of consultation. FIFA insists it did enough and points to its international match calendar being approved by the FIFA Council, which is made up of 37 elected members from across every confederation. The consultation process with stakeholders, it maintains, is always “wide-ranging”.

Others do not share that view. FIFPro and the World Leagues Association, the bodies representing professional players and leagues, made their feelings clear in a letter threatening legal action sent to FIFA last month, while the European Leagues have also spoken of their disappointment at the “lack of transparency and formal consultation” from the governing body.

“The nature and level of consultation will probably play a role in the assessment of the proportionality of the restrictions under competition law,” adds Duval. “Here, there is a real question about what is meant by consultation. Do you mean simply reaching out to FIFPro and telling it those are the plans, please provide your feedback and ignore it. Or do you mean a bargaining process through which the unions have a real say?

“One of the problems right now in football governance is that players don’t have a real say in executive committees of UEFA or FIFA. They have no real voting power or real political power in those organisations.

“One could say that consulting is really an empty gesture, to some extent. And I think that’s what they will try to argue. Underlying these complaints is a fundamental challenge to the way football is governed politically. It is almost exclusively in the hands of FIFA and UEFA officials, who are then accountable to national associations but not accountable to those who are most affected by the decisions; the players.”

What are the points that will be argued?

As outlined in FIFPro’s announcement, the claim lodged in Brussels will ask the local court to refer four questions to the ECJ for a preliminary ruling.

As well as one questioning issues of competition law, the other three broadly focus on the EU’s charter of fundamental rights, which guarantees workers and their trade unions are protected against the demands of their employers. Among those are the right to an annual period of paid leave, healthy working conditions and the right to negotiate collective agreements. The argument will be that a Club World Cup played during what is a traditional break from football for players inhibits that.

“When the unions say they’ve reached a tipping point, they’re saying there shouldn’t actually be anything in that period, that it should be a blank space in the calendar,” says Stephen Taylor-Heath, head of sports law at JMW Solicitors.

“From a legal point of view, it’s not going to be a decision on whether it’s reasonable to have a Club World Cup in the calendar, in the same way the ECJ didn’t make any judgment on whether or not the European Super League was the right competition for clubs to play in.

“It was about, when you make decisions about these matters, you’re making these decisions purely in the interests of the organisation without due consideration of the stakeholders.

“It’s more a case that the unions’ nose is out of joint because they haven’t been listened to in the process. They’re going to the ECJ to get a declaration to say you can’t ignore the representations of the union.”


Gianni Infantino handing the Club World Cup trophy to Manchester City’s Kyle Walker last year, when it was a seven-team event (Giuseppe Cacace/AFP/Getty Images)

One point worth noting, something purposely highlighted in the statements from FIFPro Europe and the PFA, is the law firm appointed for this claim.

Dupont-Hissel is considered to be among the best in class in matters of EU law and sport, with senior partner Jean-Louis Dupont part of the team which won the transformative Bosman ruling in 1995.

That ECJ case, named after Jean-Marc Bosman, the Belgian player it involved, changed the modern transfer market by allowing out-of-contract players a legal right to free movement. The unions have chosen their representative carefully. Dupont has history.

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Where does this all end?

Now there’s a question. “If I am working for the unions, then I am looking at FIFA, because that’s where the most important decisions are being taken for my members,” Duval says. “I want to have a seat at the table in terms of the governance.

“That’s the primary goal. In this case, they have a policy goal, which is to try to make sure the calendar is not too full and the players do not have too much on their plate.

“But beyond that narrow policy goal is the wider goal, which is to get the court to say that to secure changes under competition law, there needs to be consultation. And not only consultation, but a voice for the players in taking decisions.”

FIFA is yet to comment on the legal action launched this week, but it will not have come as a surprise. The promise of litigation has been repeated and there is every chance more actions will follow.

This first claim comes only from two unions, but FIFA will likely face further challenges.

An informal coalition has been created between unions and the European Leagues, which is expected to lead to a fresh case being brought before the European Commission, while there is also the possibility of other domestic unions following the lead of the English and French ones. FIFA will remain the target so long as it is the one tasked with shaping the calendar.

“The question is how far this takes you,” says Taylor-Heath. “If you do go through that consultation process and at the end of it you’ve got the union saying they don’t want the competition to be held and FIFA saying they do, FIFA will have gone through the due consultation process but still come to the same decision.

“Then you’re left with the end game, which is whether the union can ultimately tell the players not to play in the competition.

“Where does that then leave the players in terms of their employment contract, if the clubs want to play? That really drills down to issues of employment law between the players and the clubs. There’s always been an uneasy alignment between employment law and football.”

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(Top photo: Manan Vatsyayana/AFP via Getty Images)

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