Can Football Supporters Challenge Decisions of Football Bodies?
This is indeed a very difficult question and its answer requires consideration of several different issues. Such issues give rise to a number of complicated legal considerations that concern the standing of the complainant to sue and the legal basis of the complaint.
As the Juventus Supporters case demonstrates [Case T-273/09 Associazione Giulemanidallajuve Order of 19 March 2012], the association and/or link of fans with a particular football club, would not be enough to secure successful pleadings before the European Commission. Those complaining of the sanctions imposed on a club by a football association, must ensure that the legal basis of the complaint is appropriate and that they have the legal standing to sue.
In the Juventus Supporters matter, an association of Juventus Supporters filed a complaint against the Italian authorities, for the sanctions imposed on Juventus, as a result of the Italian club's involvement in match fixing allegations in Italy. Juventus FC were subsequently found guilty of such allegations and received, under the circumstances, severe penalties.
Juventus Supporters filed the complaint before the European Commission and the legal basis of the complaint focused on competition law. The association of supporters alleged that the Italian sporting authorities breached Articles 101 and 102, by imposing sanctions that included a fine, relegation from the Italian premier division and a European ban from competitions.
The European Commission rejected the complaint on the grounds that the association of supporters did not have a standing to sue and that the matter 'lacked a Community interest.' The Commission explained that with regards to the legal standing of the association of supporters, such standing did not exist, as the association of supporters did not act on behalf of Juventus FC, nor was there any confirmed and official representation. In relation to the 'Community interest' argument, the Commission argued that the imposition of sanctions by the Italian sporting authortities did not affect trade between member states, which would have been the pre-requisite for a successful argument on behalf of the association of supporters.
The outcome of this complaint demonstrates the difficulty in succesfully pleading a case before the European Commission and/or the European Court of Justice, particularly if the legal basis of the complaint lacks merits. We are not convinced that a similar case in the future cannot be succesful, at least, if it could be pleaded under different headings and legal arguments. We are of the view that if football supporters can demonstrate prejudice of economic and other interests against them, or if the shareholders of the club [particularly minority shareholders] are able to establish such prejudice, the outcome of a similar complaint may be different.
We conclude, therefore, that those advising football supporters, must ensure that the legal basis of the case has merits and that the rights that have been violated, deserve protection under European Law. The European Court of Justice has repeatedly stated, in the past, that rules of sporting governing bodies that affect European competition law, could be outlawed if such competition laws have been violated.
It remains to be seen, whether a similar case could be submitted before the European Court of Justice and, this time, whether it could be argued with the appropriate and correct legal basis.
Dr. Gregory Ioannidis
30 November 2012
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