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Above The Law?

Cultural and Education Section of the British Embassy - British Council
 This article was generously provided to ClubFootball by the British Council, which operates in China as the Cultural and Education Section of the British Embassy.


The footballers of Italy's Serie B are back at work, the magistrates and judges have been stood down. The might of the law has gone back to its daily, headline-free administration of the ups and downs of daily life. But, Keir Radnedge predicts, it will not be long before football and the legal profession mix it again somewhere in Europe.
Football has an ambivalent attitude to the law of the lands and is kicking and screaming in protest at having to come to heel after years of one-sided, illogical self-government. 
Perhaps too many years cushioned by exemption from the law of common assault may be to blame.
For example, one young man can fire his fist into another player's jaw and the worst consequence is a few weeks absence from the football pitch. By contrast the same stunt repeated in the street would mean police, magistrates, courts, lawyers and the probation service.
So football came to believe it was above the law and could run its affairs however it liked. Clubs, still 'only' 40 years ago, enslaved players under the yoke of a wage cap and claimed the mill owner's right to tell that player when he could leave and when he had to stay.
Football's subsequent wind of change brought unprecedented popularity and, through the devilish partnership of sponsorship and television, unprecedented pots of money.
Yet FIFA played it two ways. On the one hand it approved regulations threatening to hang, draw and quarter anyone who went to court over football issues; on the other hand, the world governing body and its member federations signed up an army of lawyers and accountants to legally secure every pound, Swiss franc and dollar sign of their commercial contracts.
The mud finally hit the floodlights in December 1995 when Jean-Marc Bosman went to the European Court to drive a coach and horses through transfer fee and foreign players restrictions.
"We cannot allow the law to interfere with our game," blurted UEFA president Lennart Johansson. "We will fight for the right to run our own game the way we know is right."
But football's bosses had forgotten their own fair play motto. If it was permissible to use the law to nail down the money then the players who earned it had an equal right to protect their share.
UEFA has wasted enormous resources of time, energy and money lobbying for soccer's exemption from the labour laws of the Treaty of Rome.
Now the clubs - the employers - have woken up to their own rights under the law. Hence the recent chaos in Italy.
Catania, relegated amid administrative confusion from Serie B, obtained an order from the regional court ordering the League to keep them up. The League said No and pushed Catania back down. The regional appeal court ordered the League to put them back up again.
So it went on: a legal tennis match with Catania being batted back and forth across the relegation net.
Eventually, Silvio Berlusconi's government brokered a compromise which kept Catania in Serie B but barred sports organizations from taking further regulatory issues to the courts.
It could not happen in England because the High Court recognizes the administrative autonomy of sports organizations on condition that their procedures are run on a legally sound i.e. fair, transparent and legally appropriate, basis.
That has not been the case in Italy and all sorts of strange variations about the position of sport under the law exist throughout the countries of the European Union.
As Bosman's lawyer, Jean-Louis Dupont, says: "UEFA and FIFA must accept that football cannot be above the law."
The game needs to find an accommodation under the Treaty of Rome - not waste time, energy and money trying to step out from under it.



Keir Radnedge, September 2003

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