Is it Time for Regional Cross-Border Football Leagues to Enter the Pitch?

The European Football Association, UEFA, is in some murky waters. It seems that UEFA is engaging in anti-competitive behaviour by allowing certain clubs to play together while others are denied the same opportunity.

Regional cross-border leagues are still rare, and football leagues are in most cases arranged according to national borders. But the growing inequality among Europe’s football clubs has sparked new ideas about regional leagues. However, UEFA is standing in the way of these plans.

What on earth is this all about?

Welsh clubs Swansea City FC and Cardiff City FC play in the English series, and there is a joint women’s league in Belgium and the Netherlands. Additionally, there are plans on the table for creating joint men’s leagues in Belgium and the Netherlands, Switzerland and Austria, the former Yugoslavian countries, Russia and Ukraine as well as the Nordic countries.

However, UEFA has arbitrarily shot down most plans concerning regional leagues. No specific rules exist on who is allowed to set up a regional league and under what conditions. UEFA has recently somewhat softened its approach, but irrespective of its fluctuating position, the matter deserves to be looked at from a legal perspective. So let’s take a look at this using a joint Nordic Football League as an example.

Why would we want to play together?

Well, first of all, no one says that you have to. But imagine somebody would be interested in doing so. Football today is a business. In the famous Bosman case, the ECJ decided that restrictions on the number of EU players in a team and rules prohibiting players to move, without the consent of his club, to another club, after the contract had expired, were illegal. And ever since, the gap between the top and the bottom in European football has increased. The top places in the Champions League and the Europa League are nowadays more often than not occupied by clubs from the big 5, and the Nordic countries aren’t among them.

A joint Nordic league could be one way of decreasing the gap. It would lead to a bigger market and better opportunities to boost financial resources. This, in turn, would lead to better possibilities to bring in better players and train better talent. This could increase the chances of Nordic teams competing with the big clubs in Europe. IFK Göteborg actually won the UEFA Cup in 1982 and 1987, remember?

Utopia? Well, the route may seem long and winding, but all journeys start with the first step.

Interesting idea, but UEFA wouldn’t allow it, would it?

UEFA retains all rights to arrange all international football competitions in Europe, so at first glance, it seems that you would need UEFA’s approval for any regional leagues. Though UEFA has softened its position, there is no guarantee that a Nordic league would be given the green light. However, it’s worth remembering that UEFA once strongly resisted what would become the outcome of the Bosman case, but wasn’t able to stop it from happening. Why? Because, you see, there’s also a legal side to all this.

Wait a minute, why can UEFA rule the business of football while other businesses have to obey the law?

A good question. EU competition law prohibits anti-competitive behaviour, i.e. behaviour that restricts competition on the market. Sport is not exempted from the application of EU competition law as such, and arranging a Nordic league would be a market just like, e.g. steel manufacturing is a market. However, sport is a very special case and differs from ordinary competition, among other things, in the sense that it needs a certain number of competitors to exist and a level playing field to be appealing.

The special characteristics of sport have resulted in the view that sport associations are the best ones to decide on their own matters insofar as they relate to the sport itself, such as the rules of the game. This is also how things have always been done. The law still applies to ‘commercial rules’, though. Knowing where the border lies is difficult, since almost all sporting rules have an economic impact.

How about a Nordic league then?

A joint Nordic league could improve the competitiveness of Nordic clubs. As mentioned above, a bigger market creates better possibilities to raise money, facilitating the purchase of better players and the training of talent. This in turn facilitates a more level playing field, so a good case can be made supporting it.

As said, sport is allowed to regulate itself, but at some point, the law intervenes. EU Competition Law requires that self-regulation is proportionate and applied in a non-discriminatory manner. Sharp readers may remember that Cardiff City FC and Swansea City FC play in the English series and not in the Welsh, though Wales has a separate football association. This isn’t, however, explained by the Union Jack, since the Scottish clubs Celtic and Rangers have previously, without success, tried to join the English Premier League. As if this wasn’t enough, Belgian and Dutch women are allowed to play in a joint league.

A Nordic league could be beneficial not only in terms of increasing competitiveness, but also with regards to levelling the playing field. The Nordic countries also have the cultural, economic and football-political connections necessary to make such a joint venture work in practise.

Although various forms of cooperation have been on the agenda on several occasions, a Nordic Football League in its full form, with the needed path to the Champions League and the Europa League, has never been created. This is partly because of the obstacles put up by UEFA, but there are good reasons to look at the matter anew, since these obstacles may constitute anti-competitive behaviour.

Not everyone wants to play football together. But if Leifur, Jørgen, Olaf, Sven and Pekka want to do so, they should be allowed to, especially if it improves their football skills.

Tobias Björkström  

Tobias Björkström’s article on this topic will be published in Swedish in the journal Urheilu ja oikeus (“Sport and Law”) in late 2014.