Yasin Patel discusses government intervention in football, in Law360

Yasin Patel FCIArb
By: Yasin Patel FCIArb April 2, 2024

Yasin Patel discusses recent examples of government intervention in football, sportswashing with respect to Newcastle’s Saudi-backed takeover in 2021, and bribery related to the hosting of FIFA World Cups, in Law360.

Government intervention in sport involves regulatory actions by a government to influence decisions on socio-economic matters within the realm of sports. This interference has led to the suspension of national sports organizations by international governing bodies.

The most recent instances of governmental intervention include the proposed European Super League (“ESL”) and the UK Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak’s pledge to intervene through an independent football regulatory body.

Initially announced in April 2021, the ESL represented a significant paradigm shift in European football.  A pivotal moment came on 21 December 2023, when the European Court of Justice deemed UEFA and FIFA’s actions against the ESL as unlawful, asserting that any prohibition would defy European Union legislation. This ruling revitalized A22 Sports’ efforts to reignite the contentious project, prompting renewed governmental intervention. In December 2023, the Sunak administration pledged to prevent Premier League clubs from participating in the ESL’s revival. [1]

Recommendations for an independent football regulator were unveiled in Tracey Crouch MP’s fan-led review in 2021, prompted by widespread public outcry following the announcement of the ESL. The proposed Independent Regulator for Football (“Iref”) will be empowered to intervene to address issues such as cash flow and other systemic challenges faced by clubs, many of which find themselves in financially precarious positions.  In January 2024, Sunak reiterated his dedication to establishing an independent regulatory framework.

Football is controlled by the sport’s governing body, the Fédération International de Football Association (“FIFA”). FIFA asserts its rights and authority to manage and oversee international football in partnership with continental confederations and national football associations (“FAs”). FIFA’s strong stance against government involvement and is outlined in its statutes which emphasise member associations’ obligation to comply with directives and maintain political neutrality. Notable instances such as the suspension of the Nigerian Football Federation (“NFF”) in 2014 and the Kuwait Football Association (“KFA”) in 2015 highlight FIFA’s commitment to regulatory autonomy.

Despite FIFA’s efforts, critics raise concerns about potential oversight, particularly regarding government ownership in football clubs through national wealth funds, leading to suspicions of sportswashing. The issue extends to government involvement in major tournaments, raising questions about potential influence in the selection and acquisition process.

Fifa Statutes and Articles

The statutes clearly outline the obligations of member associations to comply fully with FIFA’s directives, emphasizing neutrality in politics and independence from external intervention.

Non-compliance by Member Associations with FIFA’s autonomous power invokes sanctions, as clearly outlined in the FIFA 2023 Statutes:

Article 14.1(a)

Member associations have an obligation “to comply fully with the Statutes, regulations, directives and decisions of FIFA bodies at any time…

Article 14.1(h)(i)

Member associations have an obligation “to manage their affairs independently and ensure that their own affairs are not influenced by any third parties …”.[2]

Article 15

Member associations’ statutes must comply with the principles of good governance, and shall in particular contain, at a minimum, provisions relating to the following matters: (a) to be neutral in matters of politics and religion; (c) to be independent and avoid any form of political interference;”.[3]

Article 16.1

The Congress may suspend a member association solely at the request of the Council. Notwithstanding the foregoing, the Council may, without a vote of the Congress, temporarily suspend with immediate effect a member association that seriously violates its obligations”.[4]

Article 19

  1.  Each member association shall manage its affairs independently and without undue influence from third parties.
  1.  A member association’s bodies shall be either elected or appointed in that association. A member association’s statutes shall provide for a democratic procedure that guarantees the complete independence of the election or appointment.
  1.  Any member association’s bodies that have not been elected or appointed in compliance with the provisions of par. 2, even on an interim basis, shall not be recognised by FIFA.
  1. Decisions passed by bodies that have not been elected or appointed in compliance with par. 2 shall not be recognised by FIFA. [5]

Non-Government Intervention

FIFA staunchly upholds a resolute position against governmental interference in the internal affairs of national football associations. The punitive measures associated with suspension have proven to be a formidable deterrent, dissuading football associations from veering off course with respect to FIFA’s statutes and articles. Compliance with this was demonstrated in 2011 when the United Kingdom’s Football Association (“FA”) declared unequivocally that there is “no justification” for government intervention in the governance of the game. The FA, cognizant of potential repercussions, cautioned that FIFA sanctions could be imposed if politicians exceeded their authority in matters related to the sport.[6]

Despite such admonitions, not all member states have been dissuaded from embracing FIFA’s call for comprehensive regulatory autonomy. The struggle to balance national interests with FIFA’s governance standards continues to be a dynamic and complex aspect of international football administration. There are numerous cases in which FIFA has suspended national associations for government interference two of which include the NFF in 2014 and the KFA in 2015.

Nigerian Football Federation

On 3 July 2014, the High Court of the Federal Republic of Nigeria served a court order which prevented the president of the NFF, the NFF Executive Committee members and the NFF Congress from running the affairs of Nigerian football.  Nigerian Minister of Sports, Tammy Danagogo, was compelled to appoint, a senior member of the civil service, Lawrence Longyir Katiken, to run the NFF until the matter was heard in court. On 4 July 2014, FIFA sent a letter to the NFF, expressing its great concern after the NFF was served with court proceedings.[7] On 5 July 2014, Danagogo decided to convene an extraordinary general assembly, in violation of the NFF statutes. On 9 July 2014, FIFA swiftly suspended for allegations of government interference which meant that no Nigerian team could play international games.

The statement from FIFA’s emergency committee read, “The suspension will be lifted once the court actions have been withdrawn and the properly elected NFF Executive Committee, the NFF general assembly and the NFF administration are able to work without any interference in their affairs.”[8] In accordance with this, the NFF reinstated its executive committee and congress and on 18 July 2014, “As statutory order has been reinstated at the NFF and the legitimate bodies reinstalled, FIFA has decided to lift the suspension as of today”.[9]

FIFA’s swift suspension of the NFF demonstrates its stance and adherence to autonomy. The suspension being short-lived demonstrates how the NFF took FIFA’s statement and suspension seriously.

Kuwait Football Association

A pivotal meeting of the FIFA Executive Committee transpired on 24 and 25 September 2015 culminating in a momentous decision. The Committee gave Kuwait a deadline of 15 October 2015 to implement changes to the Gulf country’s sports law.[10] Regrettably, failing to adhere to this request, on 16 October 2015, the KFA found itself suspended by FIFA for its failure to comply with Articles 14 and 19 of the FIFA Statutes. This suspension, lasting two years, meant that Kuwaiti teams and clubs were banned from international competition, and the association and its members were barred from receiving any FIFA development assistance. Subsequently, Kuwait missed out on the qualifiers for the 2018 World Cup and the 2019 Asian Cup, and before that the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. In a statement, FIFA said that “The suspension will be lifted only when the KFA and its members (the clubs) are able to carry out their activities and obligations independently”. [11]

On 6 December 2017 the Bureau of the FIFA Council lifted its suspension, following official confirmation that the Kuwait Parliament had adopted a new sports law. This legislation replaced previous laws and was amended to align with FIFA Statutes and requirements.[12]

Unlike Nigeria, the suspension of the KFA carried profound and far-reaching consequences. The repercussions of the lengthy 782-day suspension were not only deeply felt within the borders of Kuwait but also resonated on the international stage. Talal Al-Fadhel, a defender for Kuwait’s national team, vividly expressed the impact, stating, “Domestically the Kuwaiti players have no real ambition at present. Internationally, our ranking has plummeted, our national team doesn’t play and our clubs don’t take part in international competitions.”[13] The suspension served as a compelling example, illustrating that non-compliance with FIFA statutes by member states leads to a protracted suspension. This punitive measure remains in effect until the concerned member state aligns itself with the stipulated FIFA regulations. The ordeal underscored the importance of adherence to the governing body’s statutes and the tangible consequences faced by those who fall short of these standards.

Nigeria and Kuwait join a roster of nations facing FIFA suspensions, echoing instances involving Iraq and Guatemala. On 26 May 2008, Iraq was suspended due to political interference, with the government dissolving the Iraq Football Association (“IFA”) and appointing an interim committee. FIFA took disciplinary action and imposed sanctions. On 29 July 2008, the suspension was lifted upon the Iraqi government’s reinstatement of the IFA and its executive committee. In October 2016, FIFA suspended the Guatemalan Football Association (“Fedefut”) due to political interference. On 31 May 2018, the ban was lifted after the Guatemalan authorities agreed to amend legislation to prevent interference in football affairs.

FIFA pre-emptively issues warnings regarding potential suspensions for non-compliance. Recently, the UK’s proposal for an independent football regulator caught FIFA’s attention amid concerns that the new body could breach rules on government intervention contrary to Article 15. With the regulator likely to be established in 2025, FIFA will only impose sanctions if it is established that the new independent regulator affects the FA’s autonomy. Despite the benefits of an independent regulator for football governance in the UK, FIFA traditionally opposes government interference in football governance, as evidenced by past experiences.

Government Intervention

Although FIFA explicitly prohibits government involvement in national football affairs, there is a perception that FIFA exercises discretion in determining when such intervention is prohibited and when it is permitted. Critics argue that FIFA’s enforcement of its regulations may appear inconsistent, with decisions influenced by funding and bidding and hosting of major tournaments. This perceived discretion raises questions about the uniform application of FIFA’s principles and the potential for varying standards in addressing government interference across different scenarios.

Funding

Sportswashing refers to the practice of nations, individuals, groups, corporations, or governments using sports to improve reputations tarnished by wrongdoing. A prime illustration unfolded in the Premier League when Newcastle United underwent a Saudi Arabia-backed takeover on 7 October 2021. This deal gave Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, the Public Investment Fund (“PIF”), an 80% stake in the club.

Despite criticisms from human rights non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and Western media, labelling the acquisition as part of “Saudi Arabia’s soft power play” or a “sportswashing agenda,” the controversial takeover proceeded. Amnesty International bluntly called it “sportswashing, plain and simple”.[14]

Complicating matters, the then-Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, played a role in urging the Premier League to greenlight the Newcastle takeover. Lord Gerry Grimstone, the minister for investment in Johnson’s administration, spearheaded these efforts, despite official disavowals of government involvement. Grimstone engaged with key stakeholders, including then Premier League chairman Gary Hoffman and Saudi representatives, reaching as high as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s office. The objective was to secure the takeover, deemed pivotal to the UK’s strategic and economic interests.

The Newcastle United takeover serves as a stark example of sportswashing, marked by undeniable government intervention. Strikingly, FIFA did not impose any sanctions despite these clear instances of interference.

Bidding and Hosting

FIFA has been criticized for seemingly overlooking instances of government interference in the bidding and hosting processes for major world tournaments, with notable cases being the 2018 World Cup in Russia and the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. These events took centre stage during the 2015 FIFA Corruption Scandal, a scandalous chapter where over two dozen FIFA officials and their associates faced accusations of bribery.

A pivotal moment occurred on May 27, 2015, when the U.S. Department of Justice unveiled a 47-count, 164-page criminal indictment. The charges implicated seven FIFA executives in allegedly receiving $150 million in bribes spanning over two decades. The U.S. District Court specifically pointed to bribery influencing clothing sponsorship contracts and the selection process for the 2010 FIFA World Cup. The aftermath of these revelations raised questions about FIFA’s response to such irregularities, especially given the significance of the implicated tournaments in Russia and Qatar.

Conclusion

FIFA’s decisive responses to government intervention underscore its unwavering commitment to safeguarding the autonomy of football associations and upholding the integrity of the sport on a global scale. Nevertheless, the complexities arising from funding controversies and irregularities in the bidding and hosting of major tournaments illuminate the challenges and criticisms FIFA confronts in sustaining a fair and accountable global football governance system.

This article elucidates the influential role that financial considerations play in shaping FIFA’s decisions to enforce its statutes and impose suspensions for instances of government intervention. The intricate interplay between financial factors, regulatory adherence, and global football dynamics highlights the multifaceted nature of FIFA’s responsibilities and the delicate balance it strives to maintain in navigating the intricacies of international football administration.

Yasin’s article was published in Law360, 28 March 2024.

[1] https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/european-super-league-sunak-ban-b2467883.html

[2] Ibid.

[3] https://digitalhub.fifa.com/m/505d504a8580ec63/original/FIFA-Legal-Handbook-2023-EN.pdf

[4] Ibid.

[5] https://digitalhub.fifa.com/m/3815fa68bd9f4ad8/original/FIFA_Statutes_2022-EN.pdf

[6] https://www.theguardian.com/football/2011/feb/03/fa-warns-against-government-intervention

[7] https://www.skysports.com/football/news/12010/9377235/nigeria-have-been-banned-from-international-football-by-fifa-due-to-government-interference

[8] https://www.skysports.com/football/news/12010/9377235/nigeria-have-been-banned-from-international-football-by-fifa-due-to-government-interference

[9] https://www.theguardian.com/football/2014/jul/18/nigeria-reinstated-fifa-ban

[10] https://www.sportsintegrityinitiative.com/suspension-of-the-kuwait-football-association/

[11] https://www.fifa.com/legal/football-regulatory/media-releases/suspension-of-the-kuwait-football-association-lifted-2922929

[12] https://www.fifa.com/legal/football-regulatory/media-releases/suspension-of-the-kuwait-football-association-lifted-2922929

[13] https://www.arabnews.com/node/1206131/amp

[14] https://www.theguardian.com/football/2020/jan/27/newcastle-takeover-sportswashing-saudi-consortium-amnesty



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