As the dust settles in Sarajevo after the inaugural FCE Congress on football law in the Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) region, we reflect on this ground breaking event organised by Sabrina Buljubasic and Dev Kumar Parmar. The conference was hosted just outside of the city at the beautiful Tarcin Resort. With the combination of stunning views, luxurious rooms and grand conference hall you could be forgiven for forgetting that Bosnia and Herzegovina (B&H) was ravaged by war as recently as 1995. The Congress began with the formidable three-pronged attack of his Excellency Mr Matt Field (British Ambassador to Bosnia), Mirela Mandal (Representative of the B&H Ministry of Civil Affairs) and Jaydee Dyer (the ever-upbeat Sky Sports Presenter). It would be difficult to cover the entire event and do each Panel justice, but here are some of our highlights:
CAS – Justice for the ‘Big Five’?
For many in the Western World, the CEE region remains a mystery. We have a tendency to focus on the ‘Big Five’ football leagues which are England, Germany, Spain, France and Italy and we forget about the rest of the world and the challenges that football faces globally. The first Panel addressed sports law in the CEE region, specifically focusing on access to justice. The Panel analysed some of the barriers to justice in the region and noted how it can cost around €35,000 to go to CAS. While admittedly cheaper than commercial arbitration (which is typically around €90,000) costs are still a significant obstacle preventing clubs and players from pursuing justice at the ‘Supreme Court’ of sport. One member of the audience observed that CAS could categorise clubs and charge accordingly, similar to the categorisation of clubs in regards to training compensation. The Panel also looked at the independence of CAS arbitrators and it was interesting to learn that a minority of arbitrators do the majority of the work. Furthermore, many countries are underrepresented, with Poland only having two arbitrators and Turkey just one. Sports law needs to develop in these areas and lawyers should be looking to upskill themselves.
As Republican Politician Alan Simpson remarked, “If you have integrity, nothing else matters. If you don’t have integrity, nothing else matters.” This seems particularly relevant in the CEE region which has been blighted by allegations of a lack of integrity in recent years that have damaged sports’ brand in the region. Ramune Bistrickaite (Head of Integrity at the Lithuanian Football Federation) discussed the problems that she has faced, particularly with regard to securing convictions in match fixing cases. She spoke about the importance of the evidence gathering process firstly in meeting the burden of proof for CAS of ‘comfortable satisfaction’, but also the burden for criminal courts of ‘beyond all reasonable doubt’. She made a causal link between relatively low salaries and the temptation to engage in match fixing arguing – as I’m sure many will agree – that less remunerated athletes are more likely to engage in criminal activity. Interestingly she noted that these criminals often didn’t see the harm in their actions and that education was a key preventative measure to stop the use and abuse of sports for criminal purposes.
The day continued with Hector Navarro from FIFA talking about transfers in CEE and FIFA’s plans for setting up a clearing house for training compensation / solidarity payments. Currently this is left to the clubs themselves to follow up. Next was a Panel on Stakeholders in the region and finally a presentation about digital marketing from Panagiotis Aroniadis (Media Manager at PAOK FC). The way that fans consume sport is changing as highlights and behind the scenes action have become more popular. Panagiotis was responsible for one of the most successful PR campaigns of last year around PAOK’s undefeated run. He created two documentaries of their unbeaten season, which have won them fans across the globe showing just how powerful a tool social media can be.
FK Sarajevo & Gala Dinner
As the conference was hosted by FK Sarajevo (current holders of both the Cup and the League) it included a trip to the Asim Ferhatovic Stadium to watch the team play against rivals Celik. With the score tight at 0-0 at half time, tensions were rising. With the restart fans at either end of the stadium lit their flares and urged their team to victory. In a moment of madness, a Celik player put in a dangerous tackle from behind receiving a red for his efforts. His teammates surrounded the referee, shouting and pushing him. In that moment it was hard to imagine Mike Dean or Howard Webb standing for the abuse. Now with a one-man advantage Sarajevo started to push forward eventually scoring two goals to take them top of the table and put everyone in the mood to celebrate at the Gala Dinner at the National History Museum. Surrounded by brutalist architecture and traditional dancing, the dinner offered a taste of Bosnian culture as well as an opportunity to network in an up close and personal environment.
Day two kicked off with sessions on:
- The New rules on Agents
- Image Rights
- The CEE’s relationship with the Middle East
- Why someone would want to invest in a football club.
Agents are in the crosshairs for FIFA re-regulation after 4 years of uncertainty which critics have labelled ‘The Wild West’. In future, agents will need to be registered and have passed a comprehensive exam to become qualified. Panelists mostly discussed the situations in their home countries and suggested that the federations in the CEE want to keep agents at arm’s length. Their regulations are usually a carbon copy of the FIFA Regulations on Working with Intermediaries, meaning they focus on monitoring the transactions rather than agents. All the panellists agreed that more transparency and education is required and they welcomed the re-regulation FIFA is introducing towards the end of 2020.
Image Rights & Investment
Image rights are always an important topic and Rosalia Ortega (Head of Sports Law at Grupo RLD) spoke about the power of social media and how players can monetise their reputation and (in some cases such as Ronaldo’s) earn more through sponsorship than on the pitch. The football investment Panel spoke about how investing in football can be successful in a football friendly environment with supportive financial, legal and emotional infrastructure. “The best way to create this environment is to have a Prime Minister who loves sports!” joked one panellist. All in all the morning sessions touched on a diverse range of topical sports law issues, which prompted discussions and debate throughout the coffee breaks.
A highlight of the afternoon sessions was a talk by Ebru Koksal. For those not fortunate enough to have come across Ebru she is an American educated Turkish lawyer and a force to be reckoned with. She talked about her journey through sports law as a woman in a way that seemed more like an inspirational Ted Talk than anything else. She started by quoting Nelson Mandela “The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.” From Morgan Stanley to Galatasaray, where she oversaw the construction of their new stadium, her story is one of dedication and perseverance in the face of adversity; often being the only woman in the room. Her keynote offered hope and strength, especially to the female sports lawyers present, that nothing can stop them from being a success in a male dominate profession and if they are bold and courageous they can break down barriers.
Sports have undeniable, positive social effects and all of the panellists were involved in organisations that give back to the community. Ben Miller spoke about the Common Goal project that he is working on where stakeholders in the football industry can sign up and invest 1% of their earnings back into grassroots projects all over the world. Juan Mata was their first signing and recently Jurgen Klopp decided to get involved. At the end of the Panel they announced that Sabrina Buljubasic (CEO of FK Sarajevo and organiser of the FCE conference) was the latest name on the Common Goal list!
“Footballers die twice”
The final session of the conference focused on the challenges that professional players face after they retire. The discussion was spearheaded by former Portuguese striker Nuno Gomes. One member of the Panel remarked that Footballers die twice; once when they retire and once at the end of their life. Which got everyone thinking about what the fall from stardom would be like and the difficulties some players have staying away from drink, drugs and gambling. Football is an addiction and all the panellists wanted to stay involved in some capacity, but found it difficult to form a meaningful second career. It came to question time and the audience asked former goalkeeper Ivan Mance if he had any regrets… “well I did once concede a goal!” he joked. This was followed by the age-old classic “Messi or Ronaldo?” As his former captain Nuno started the Panel off “Ronaldo” this was followed by another “Ronaldo” before two “Messi“s. With the deciding vote Ivan held all the power, “You guys are crazy, Buffon is the best by far!”. Well…at least Ivan has a chance of making it as a comedian in his second career….
The conference was a complete success. The intimate setting allowed attendees to get to know one another in both a personal and professional capacity. It was a fantastic opportunity to understand football in the CEE region better and offered a different framework with which to assess common sports law themes. What a weekend it was and we’re already looking forward to next year!
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ps: Here’s me with the outstanding organiser Sabrina who produced an FK Sarajevo top with ‘Lex Sportiva’ on the back!