Jean Francois Tanda: European court decision is for the Good of the Game

Football belongs to everyone. That's basically the outcome of the recent decision by the European Court of Justice that ruled against the two football governing bodies, FIFA and UEFA. Formalistically, the case was about Belgium and the UK. Both countries had decided to declare football World Cups and European championships as 'events of major importance' and as such have to be broadcast on free TV channels. FIFA and UEFA both tried to avoid this decision, saying such laws would endanger their income from TV rights. But they lost.

The decision of the European Court of Justice is a good decision for football fans. But it is much more than just a ruling about TV broadcasting rights for World Cups - the ruling confirms that football is more than a game. It is probably the first time that a court has confirmed the importance of football for humanity. The court clearly considers football as a kind of human cultural asset of such huge importance to society that member states of the European Union now are allowed to "affect FIFA's property rights", as is stated in the judgment.

This should be a new chapter in FIFA's understanding of what it is. So far, FIFA considered football as being a property of its own organisation. Every football player around the world - male, female, child - is subject to FIFA's justice that has no real democratic legitimacy. When accepting their licence, all footballers globally are agreeing (some would say forced) to recognise the authority of FIFA and agree to refrain from going to ordinary courts over football-related disputes. FIFA sanctions anyone who does not adhere to these rules.

What the European Court of Justice is saying is that FIFA has monopolised a human cultural asset - and on an international level exploits it for its own commercial purposes.

But a human cultural asset belongs to everybody - to the people worldwide. Therefore, FIFA should start justify itself towards the public. For example, there is no reason to keep the President's salary secret or the benefits that other members of FIFA's Executive Committee get. There is no reason not to be absolutely transparent towards the whole world just as States have to be towards their citizens and taxpayers. The FIFA President should consider himself as a servant to humanity rather than as a Pope-like figure presiding over the billion people playing football. The ExCo members are not more than managers of a very old good that does neither belong to them nor to their organisation.

In a first reaction, FIFA and UEFA both regretted the decision of the European Court of Justice, saying it would "falsify the market" and that "such market distortion could also impact on FIFA's ability to generate funds from the FIFA World Cup."

Only time will tell if this is actually the case. In Europe, the last World Cups have been sold to the European Broadcast Union and its member organisations, i.e. to public TV channels all over Europe. In Europe's biggest TV market, Germany, World Cups and European Championships have been aired by ARD and ZDF, the two public TV channels. The Euro 2016 and the World Cup 2018 will be shown on ARD and ZDF. The qualifying games for the two tournaments will be aired by RTL, a private, but free, TV channel. There is no evidence to believe that in future FIFA will get less revenue from selling TV rights. The product "World Cup" will remain attractive.

The material impact of the court ruling probably will be small. It is more the symbolic character of the ruling that should frighten FIFA and UEFA. They no longer can exploit football in just any way they want. It is for the good of the game.

Jean Francois Tanda is a leading investigative journalist specialising in international sports. He writes for weekly Swiss business newspaper Handelszeitung.
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