BRUSSELS (AP)A senior legal adviser said Thursday that UEFA rules on homegrown players are partially incompatible with the European Union’s free movement laws, although quotas might be legitimate in order to develop and recruit youngsters.
Advocate General Maciej Szpunar said UEFA-backed quotas requiring teams to register a minimum number of players to be trained locally are “likely to create indirect discrimination” against players from other EU countries.
Advocate generals routinely provide legal guidance to the European Court of Justice. Their opinions aren’t binding on the Luxembourg-based court, but are followed in most cases.
“It is a fact of life that the younger a player is, the more likely it is that that player resides in his place of origin. It is therefore necessarily players from other member states who will be adversely affected by the contested rules,” the court said in a statement. “Though neutral in wording, the contested provisions place local players at an advantage over players from other member states.”
A judge in Belgium asked the European Union’s court in Luxembourg in 2021 to examine if the rules, designed to protect young local talents, comply with free movement of labor and competition law in the 27-nation bloc.
Rules shaped by UEFA since 2005 – with aims that include limiting wealthy clubs hoarding players from across Europe – and later applied in Belgium were challenged in that country as a restriction on recruitment and team selection options.
Since 2009, a club playing in UEFA competitions must name eight homegrown players of any nationality in a 25-player squad. There are no quotas on matchday team selection. At least four of the homegrown players must have spent three years with the club between the ages of 15 and 21. Up to four could have been trained at another club from the same country.
Because nationality is not a barrier, the UEFA rule was said in 2008 by the European Commission in Brussels to be compatible with free movement of labor.
In Belgium, a club’s squad limit of 25 senior players over the age of 21 must include eight players who were developed in the country. At least six homegrown players must be among the starting lineup or substitutes for a game.
The case was started by Antwerp and its then-player Lior Refaelov, an Israel international. It challenged the Belgian soccer association for setting quotas of homegrown players in a club’s first-team squad and matchday team list.
Lawyers for Antwerp and Refaelov argued their ability to recruit, be signed and make team selections have been limited. Among their arguments is that homegrown quotas favor higher population countries having a larger pool of potential players. Belgium’s population is about 11.5 million.
Szpunar noted that the discrimination created by homegrown player quotas might be justified.
“The contested provisions are, by definition, suitable to attain the objective of training and recruiting young players,” the court said. “The Advocate General recalls that the Court has, since the seminal Bosman case, already held that, in view of the considerable social importance of sporting activities and in particular football in the European Union, the objective of encouraging the recruitment and training of young players must be accepted as legitimate.”
The court delivered the Bosman Ruling in 1995 that had a seismic effect on soccer.
That verdict in favor of Belgian journeyman Jean-Marc Bosman freed out-of-contract players to join another club without a transfer fee and helped drive up salaries. It also ended nationality quotas which limited clubs hiring players from inside the EU.
UEFA said Szpunar’s opinion endorsed its “commitment to encourage youth development and competitive balance across Europe.”
The advocate general, however, expressed doubts about the goal of the current rules since homegrown player are defined by UEFA and the Belgian union as players not only trained by the club itself, but also other clubs in the same national league. He said homegrown players should not include players developed by other clubs.
“These doubts obviously increase if the national league in question is a major one. If a club in a major national league can ‘buy’ up to half of homegrown players, the objective of encouraging that club to train young players would be frustrated,” the court said.
UEFA said it took note of Szpunar’s recommendation to “improve the effectiveness of the existing rules in place.”
AP Sports Writer Graham Dunbar in Geneva contributed to this report. —
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