Foul play? Clubs, players and commercial interests take aim at sports authorities

18 June 2024

Sports and competition law are ever more closely intertwined with clubs, players and commercial interests taking aim at sports authorities over their rules and decisions. In this article, we examine two recent cases that challenge UEFA and FIFA’s commercial decisions on the basis of competition law and fundamental EU rights. We also explore the broader context of a number of football-related disputes in the UK and Europe, and the implications for sports governance and policy.

Following recent judicial scrutiny of their prior authorisation and home grown player rules (discussed in our article), one can imagine that both UEFA and FIFA will have welcomed public attention returning to showpiece events such as the Champions League Final, UEFA European Championships, and Copa America.

However, further legal challenges mean that both UEFA and FIFA’s off-field activities will likely soon be back in the spotlight. In particular, UEFA faces a fresh abuse of dominance complaint from ticket resale platform Ticombo regarding practices restricting and/or banning the resale of football tickets on secondary marketplaces. Additionally, and perhaps more unusually, French and English professional footballers – represented by the English Professional Footballers Association (PFA) and the French Union Nationale des Footballeurs Professionnels (UNFP), with support from FIFPRO Europe – are challenging the compatibility with EU economic laws of FIFA’s ever-more congested fixture calendar.

In this article we provide an overview of each of these cases and their potential significance as sports and competition law become ever more entangled.

Ticombo challenges ticket resale restrictions

Ticombo is a Berlin-based digital marketplace that brings together buyers and sellers of tickets to sporting and non-sporting events. In June 2024 it announced that it had challenged both UEFA and national rules restricting the resale of tickets. 

Ticombo alleges that UEFA, through its terms and conditions, enjoys a self-imposed monopoly on the resale of tickets to its events; blocking the sale of tickets on resale platforms other than its own, thus excluding third party ticketing platforms from the market and harming consumers’ interests. Further, Ticombo argues that UEFA imposes restrictions on the ability to resell tickets below face value, and that such restrictions amount to price fixing. Ticombo has submitted a complaint to the European Commission alleging that UEFA’s conduct amounts to an abuse of a dominant position. UEFA, for its part, argues that its ticket resale restrictions are necessary to protect consumers from fraud. 

The Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) in Superleague and ISU provided limited scope for sports governing bodies to defend allegations of anticompetitive conduct where restrictions they impose have a commercial as well as sporting element. In particular, it was clear that the CJEU was sceptical as to whether blanket or arbitrary bans on third-party commercial activities could ever be justified, and in particular be the only viable way of achieving a given goal. Therefore, whilst few would argue that there is a legitimate benefit to ensuring that secondary ticketing platforms protect consumers, one might anticipate that this could be achieved without the need to exclude legitimate competitors from the markets – e.g. through a fair and transparent approval process/accreditation scheme.

In parallel, Ticombo has issued proceedings in the Belgian courts challenging the lawfulness of national legislation that bans third-party ticket reselling and therefore creates, in Belgium, a statutory monopoly for event organisers. Ticombo alleges that the legislation breaches the EU principle of the freedom to provide services across EU Member States. It argues that the restrictions, whilst intended to ensure the integrity of cultural and sporting events, are “ineffective, excessive and discriminatory”, because they apply a blanket approach to all operators, rather than taking into account individual operators’ commercial practices. Given the existence of similar restrictions in a number of EU Member States, Ticombo has requested that the dispute be referred to the CJEU for an initial determination. In particular, Ticombo is asking the CJEU to provide guidance on whether "the Belgian rules lead to structural inequality between organisers and other ticketing platforms and if they reinforce the self-proclaimed monopoly on the resale market of the organisers of major sporting events". As in the Superleague and Royal Antwerp cases, this will require an assessment of whether the disputed rules can be justified by reference to a legitimate objective in the public interest, and whether they are proportionate in achieving that objective.

Players claim against FIFA

The PFA and UNFP have brought a claim, once again in the Belgian Court, alleging that FIFA’s decision to implement an expanded 32 team Club World Cup, with the inaugural edition to be held in June/July 2025, amounts to: (i) an infringement of players’ fundamental rights, including the prohibition of forced or compulsory labour, freedom of work, the right to negotiate and conclude collective agreements, the right to healthy working conditions, and the right to an annual period of paid leave; and (ii) a decision of an association of undertakings which is restrictive of competition by object, following the CJEU’s ruling in Superleague.

In particular, the players associations allege that, in organising a further extensive competition during the “summer break”, those players participating at the highest level in club and international football will have even fewer opportunities to take the breaks necessary to ensure long-term player welfare. Further, the player associations allege that: (i) the arrangements for the Club World Cup amount to a unilateral decision of FIFA which is not the result of a clear, transparent and objective framework, and (ii) the “aim of this new competition is to increase the wealth and power of [FIFA], with no proper regard for the impact on the players involved or on other stakeholders within professional football”.

In the first instance, the player associations ask the Belgian Court to refer four questions to the CJEU for an initial determination.

  1. Do the rights guaranteed to workers and their trade unions by the EU Charter of Rights prohibit the scheduling of the Club World Cup, against the formal representations of player and worker unions, at a time that has traditionally represented the main window when players are able to take an annual break?
  2. Does the unilateral imposition of such a decision on players infringe the rights of those players to collectively bargain over their terms and conditions of employment?
  3. Is the right to healthy working conditions violated by FIFA’s decision to impose a significant increase in workload via the Club World Cup?
  4. Do FIFA’s unilateral decisions (as an association of undertakings) in relation to its Internal Match Calendar, including the Club World Cup, amount to an object restriction of competition in breach of Article 101 of the TFEU?

Superleague sets a high bar for governing bodies looking to justify decisions that have a dual sporting and commercial element, even in circumstances where those decisions are (purportedly, at least) motivated by the need to support and promote the future of the sport. Question four is particularly interesting, as the players’ claim fundamentally stems from matters of sporting, rather than commercial, interest, so whilst FIFA might argue that the Club World Cup helps to promote the sport and fund FIFA’s activities (e.g. in support of grass roots football), a balancing of FIFA’s commercial objectives against its responsibilities for safeguarding player welfare may be required.

Broader context

Football has always been headline-grabbing on the pitch, but it is increasingly so in legal circles too. The above cases are but two of a number of ongoing and/or threatened competition law disputes that are worth watching over the coming months.

Of direct relevance to the above cases is Diarra v FIFA, in respect of which the CJEU is due to hand down a ruling regarding ex-player Lassana Diarra’s challenge of certain aspects of FIFA’s transfer rules. Advocate General Szpunar has already issued a (non-binding) Opinion concluding that the rules are likely contrary to both EU competition law (as they inherently restrict competition in the transfer market) and players’ right to seek employment in other Member States.

In the UK, also notable is Manchester City’s ongoing dispute with the Premier League regarding the latter’s Financial Fair Play rules, with it recently having come to light that the club initiated arbitral proceedings alleging that the League’s associated party transaction rules (which seek to prevent the circumvention of the Financial Fair Play rules through the payment of over-inflated sponsorship fees by businesses affiliated with club owners) amount to an infringement of competition law. In a similar vein, Aston Villa’s owner Nassef Sawiris has indicated that the club is considering challenging the Premier League’s Profit and Sustainability Rules, which they say restrict competition by preventing investors from funding the growth of ambitious newcomers, and instead favour larger established clubs.


Whilst competition authorities have historically been cautious in involving themselves in matters of sporting governance, claimants are increasingly pursuing these actions before the UK and European courts, with a significant number of cases in the pipeline. Event organisers and governing bodies need to ensure they have robust, transparent and well-reasoned policies that go no further than is necessary to preserve and promote the interests of their respective sports. Whilst it remains to be seen how the case law will evolve, it is likely we will continue to see increasing private enforcement of competition law in the sporting arena. 

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