Home Grown Player Rules in Football: A Conflict of Laws
The application of EU law to sporting federations, as established by the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in landmark cases such as Bosman and Meca Medina, has created a legal challenge for the home grown player rules implemented by UEFA and the Belgian Football Association (URBSFA) . These rules, which require clubs to field a certain number of players trained in their country or region, have been called into question for potentially infringing upon the freedom of movement of workers within the European Union (EU) as enshrined in Article 45 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU). The ECJ has yet to make a ruling on this matter, but the Advocate General has issued an opinion suggesting that these rules may be incompatible with EU law. This article aims to provide a comprehensive overview of the home grown player rules, the legal challenges they face, the Advocate General's opinion, and the potential implications of the ECJ's ruling on the future of these rules in European football.
The Home Grown Player Rules
The home grown player rules were introduced by UEFA in 2008. These rules define "home-grown players" as individuals who, regardless of nationality, have received at least three years of training from their club or another club within the same national association between the ages of 15 and 21. The rules mandate that clubs participating in UEFA competitions must include a minimum of eight home grown players in their matchday squads. A player qualifies as home grown if they have been registered with the club for at least three years between the ages of 15 and 21.
Similarly, under the URBSFA rules, clubs registered for competitions within the jurisdiction of the URBSFA must include a minimum of eight players who have played for the club or another Belgian club for at least three seasons by the age of 23 (with three out of those eight having played before the age of 21). Additionally, when selecting players for match sheets, clubs must choose from this list and include at least six players who have been affiliated with the club for at least three full seasons before the age of 23, two of which were before the age of 21.
The home grown player rules have been adopted by numerous European football leagues, including the English Premier League and the Spanish La Liga. These rules have been praised for fostering youth development in football, as clubs are incentivized to invest in the training of young players.
The Legal Challenges to the Home Grown Player Rules
Legal challenges to the home grown player rules have been raised on the grounds that they violate the freedom of movement of workers within the EU. The freedom of movement of workers is a fundamental right guaranteed by the TFEU, allowing workers to freely seek employment within the EU. Several clubs, including Royal Antwerp FC in Belgium and FC Sion in Switzerland, have brought these challenges, arguing that the rules discriminate against foreign players, as they are less likely to have received training within the EU.
While the ECJ has yet to deliver a ruling, the Advocate General has issued an opinion suggesting that the home grown player rules may be incompatible with EU law. The Advocate General's opinion is based on the following arguments:
Indirect discrimination: The rules on home grown players indirectly discriminate against nationals of other EU member states. This is due to the fact that younger players are more likely to come from their country of origin.
Alternative measures: The rules are deemed unnecessary to achieve the objective of promoting youth development in football. The Advocate General argues that there are less discriminatory alternatives available, such as providing financial incentives for clubs to train young players.
Impact on competitive balance: Contrary to their intended purpose, the rules may actually hinder competitive balance in football. By making it more challenging for smaller clubs with fewer resources to compete against larger clubs, the rules could have an adverse effect.
The Advocate General's opinion questions the justification for the home grown player rules, but it fails to analyse pertinent data or evidence regarding the balancing of restrictions and the objectives of the rules. While it is not preferable for sport governing bodies to simply replace directly discriminatory restrictions with seemingly less discriminatory indirect measures without first demonstrating the inadequacy of non-discriminatory alternatives, it is essential to consider the objective of promoting youth development in football.
In order to address this issue, UEFA should explore non-discriminatory approaches to achieve youth development, such as offering financial incentives to clubs or implementing rules that require a specific number of young players in matchday squads. The ECJ should take into account the Advocate General's opinion and potentially declare the home grown player rules incompatible with EU law. Furthermore, the ECJ could encourage UEFA to engage in consultations with relevant stakeholders to identify alternative measures that yield significant benefits for European football without discriminatory effects. It is only after the conclusions of these discussions and viability studies are known that the proportionality of the rules can be determined.
Ultimately, the ECJ aims to strike a balance between the freedom of movement of workers and the promotion of youth development in football, while acknowledging the unique nature of sports.
 Case C-680/21 SA Royal Antwerp Football Club v. Union royale belge des sociétés de football association ASBL, Joined parties: Union des Associations Européennes de football (UEFA) (Antwerp), 9 March 2023
 UEFA, “PROTECTING THE GAME - Protection of young players” <https://www.uefa.com/insideuefa/protecting-the-game/protection-young-players/>
 Downward – Pearson, “An Assessment of the Compatibility of UEFA's Home Grown Player Rule with Article 45 TFEU” European Law Review, 2014.