European football chiefs Uefa insist they will press on with financial fair play (FFP), despite a Belgian court taking a significant step towards having the controversial rules deemed illegal.
The Court of First Instance in Brussels delivered a major blow to Uefa on Tuesday with a two-pronged ruling that threatens to paralyse FFP in the short-term and, potentially, extinguish it in the long-term.
First, it decreed that Uefa must not implement plans to tighten FFP rules to the effect that clubs would only be allowed to lose a maximum of €30m over three years, rather than €45m.
Perhaps more significantly, it also asked the European Court of Justice to examine whether FFP violates European Union law, raising the prospect that the rules, which severely hit Manchester City last year, could be scrapped.
But Uefa is adamant it will not be held back, questioning the validity of the Brussels court’s decision and vowing to lodge an appeal that would suspend the ruling and allow it to tighten FFP as planned.
“Uefa considers it strange that a national court having no competence to hear a dispute on the merits would, at the same time, refer a question to the European Court of Justice or make a provisional order,” it said.
“In any event, Uefa remains fully confident that FFP is entirely in line with EU law, and that the European Court will in due course simply confirm this to be the case.
“In the meantime, Uefa will appeal this decision of the Brussels Court to the Court of Appeal. Since an appeal automatically suspends the ruling of the lower court, it means that Uefa can proceed with the next phase of implementation of FFP, as already planned and as supported by the vast majority of stakeholders in European football as well as the European Commission, European Parliament and Council of Europe.
“Uefa is, in addition, considering further adjustments to the FFP rules in light of the substantially improved position in European football club finance which has been brought about directly as a result of the implementation of FFP. This matter will be considered by the Uefa executive committee when it meets in Prague next week.”
Uefa, led by president Michel Platini, is set to relax some aspects of FFP, allowing clubs outside the Champions League to make larger short-term losses than currently permitted. But the governing body remains keen to hold top teams to tighter regulations.
Manchester City suffered a financial penalty of up to £49m, spending restrictions and a reduced squad size after being found in breach of FFP last year. Paris Saint-Germain received a similar sanction. In extreme cases, clubs can be banned from the Champions League or Europa League.
Jean-Louis Dupont, the lawyer bringing the case against Uefa and FFP in Brussels, confirmed that his clients, which include football agent Daniel Striani as well as City and PSG supporters, could settle their action if Uefa relaxes FFP sufficiently.
“The European Court of Justice has to and will decide on the legality of the original Uefa rule by answering the question put by the Belgian judge,” he said. “If and when Uefa modifies its rule we will then see if it justifies an amendment or modification of our claim in the civil court.”
Dupont was one of the lawyers who helped secure the Bosman Ruling, and believes that this challenge to football’s powerbrokers will follow a similarly fruitful path to the landmark 1995 decision to allow out-of-contract players to be transferred without a fee.
Lawyer Daniel Geey said the Brussels court’s decision was a victory for Striani and opponents of FFP, which has been accused of cementing the dominance of a handful of elite clubs.
“In a best-case scenario Uefa would have liked the Belgian court to strike out the claim,” said Geey, a senior associate at Fieldfisher in London.
“As the matter has now been referred to the Court of Justice, the European Court will have to answer significant questions on substantive EU free movement and competition law issues.”
Geey added that the European Court of Justice could take a year or more to rule, citing the case of Portsmouth landlady Karen Murphy’s six-year battle over her right to use a foreign satellite decoder to show Premier League matches.