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  • Writer's pictureValeriy Suvorov

PLEASE FIX: ‘Sporting just cause’ jurisprudence analysis

Many thanks to Georgi Gradev for a thoughtful discussion on ‘sporting just cause’ matter.

For any footballer, the opportunity to play in competitive matches is as important to their development as an effective training schedule. To serve that purpose, the Regulations on the Status and Transfer of Players (RSTP, Regulations) [1] establish a concept of ‘sporting just cause’ which allows professional footballers to terminate their contracts subject to certain conditions.


One may notice that this measure is somewhat contradictory to the maintenance of contractual stability which is one of the most popular collocations in the RSTP and FIFA’s Commentary [2]. In order to balance these two concepts, the ‘sporting just cause’ exemption is supposed to be applied in a very limited manner, i.e. in accordance with the wording of Article 15 of the Regulations.


The subject matter seems to be of particular importance since there is neither extensive case law, nor exhaustive commentary from officials or practitioners, which means no conclusions are definite at the present moment. This limited legal coverage, however, is unlikely to indicate that the topic lacks relevance, since not all legal disputes end up in arbitration proceedings – a good number are mitigated beforehand.


This article explores the wording of the norm, the jurisprudence and the commentaries in order to find out whether current understanding of ‘sporting just cause’ suggested in precedential cases is in line with the formula and serves a purpose of the rule. If not, then a ‘please fix’ calling could be appropriate.


Context


Below is the wording of Article 15, supplemented by the author of this article with additional comments in underlined brackets:


Article 15. Terminating a contract with sporting just cause


An established professional (first factor, material aspect) who has, in the course of the season, appeared in fewer than ten per cent of the official matches (second factor, material aspect) in which his club has been involved may terminate his contract prematurely on the ground of sporting just cause. Due consideration shall be given to the player’s circumstances (third factor, material aspect) in the appraisal of such cases. The existence of sporting just cause shall be established on a case-by-case basis (useful disclaimer, rather related to first and third factors). In such a case, sporting sanctions shall not be imposed, though compensation may be payable (consequences part – not a focus of this article). A professional may only terminate his contract on this basis in the 15 days following the last official match of the season of the club (fourth factor, procedural aspect) with which he is registered.


The above formula has remained almost the same since 2005 (when the previous version of FIFA’s commentary was introduced) [3] to the present day (the Commentary Edition 2023 has replaced the second version 2021). No case law was made available in preparing the Commentary Edition 2005, so FIFA decided to provide its own interpretation on the factors underlined above.


The formula of the rule is built around the term ‘established player’ (first factor, above), which is not defined in the Regulations. In 2005, FIFA suggested the definition on its own – “as a player who has terminated and completed his training period and whose level of football skills is at least equal to or even superior to those of his teammates who appear regularly”.


As to the second factor, the Commentary Edition 2005 indicated that 10% of the official matches shall be understood as “actively taking part in a game” which shall mean the number of minutes played, not just the number of appearances.


Unfortunately, the third factor – player’s circumstances – was almost ignored in the Commentary Edition 2005 and, as was noted by Mr. Georgi Gradev [4]is not to be considered as an independent criterion, but it should be seen in the context of the prerequisite “established player”, according to FIFA.”

Finally, the fourth factor is a mere formal one – the Regulation sets up only 15 days (from a club’s last official match of the season) timeframe for a player to terminate the contract based on the sporting just cause.


It appears there are four factors to be tested according to the text of the RSTP, three of which are rather vague and suggest adjudicating bodies shall enjoy a great level of discretion. However, in this article we will not turn to the analysis of factor one to four in detail, but will rather focus on factor five, which has not been cited yet.


Please fix – fifth factor introduced?


The ‘Sporting just cause’ topic has evolved during the last 10 years [5], Commentary Edition 2023 and a new piece of jurisprudence now in place. One of the most important cases is FC Lugano SA v. FC Internazionale Milano S.p.A.[6]. The Sole Arbitrator in charge was required to consider all tricky components of the sporting just cause, but decided not to come up with any particular conclusions on the factors one to three, i.e., ‘established player’ and ‘player’s circumstances’[7], having said they can be ‘left open in this matter’. What was the reasoning?


The crucial point, according to the Sole Arbitrator, was a necessity to give a prior notice or a warning which looks somewhat like the fifth factor. Below is a quote from the decision:


“[…] it is incumbent on a player to give a prior warning to his club before terminating the employment contract. Such notice is vital because the termination of an employment contract is an ultima ratio. In principle, only when the employer is in good faith provided with an opportunity to cure the conduct that is considered unsatisfactory by the employee can an employment contract be terminated prematurely.


This is also determined in case law of the SFT and this case law is consistently applied by CAS in respect of the concept of “just cause”(cf. CAS 2006/A/1180, para. 25; CAS 2016/A/4846, para. 175 of the abstract published on the CAS website). The Sole Arbitrator does not see why this should not apply to an early termination based “sporting just cause”. This view is also supported in the jurisprudence of CAS.”


As it appears, the Sole Arbitrator rejected all claims of the player. The only reference is to a lack of prior notice to the club which is consistently applied by CAS for ‘just cause’. To support its conclusion, the Sole Arbitrator referenced CAS jurisprudence (still, related to ‘just cause’ only) and also to Swiss law, prescribing a party to give a prior warning unless the breach is of certain severity which does not permit contractual relationships to be continued. Afterwards, it was a fairly simple logical step to point out ‘sporting just cause’ would unlikely be considered as a severe infringement. And later one more – the final step – to conclude that the warning is required. However, using ‘just cause’ case law with regard to ‘sporting just cause’ does not seem to be obvious and has its low points.


Breakdown of a prior notice requirement


Long before the above award was granted, Mr. Georgi Gradev (who was a legal representative of a player during one of the first precedential cases on the sporting just cause[8]) expressed his opinion within the article [9]:


“[…] it is very important to emphasize that Art. 15 does not provide for a mandatory termination notice to be served to the club.


Indeed, the same could be found in the Commentary Edition 2021 [10] – even FIFA emphasises that no such fifth factor is directly stipulated in the RSTP [11]:


“Since, the player had not warned the club, CAS did not consider the possibility of any sporting just cause any further. No such precondition, however, exists in article 15.”


The prior warning requirement is not set out in Article 15 of the RSTP. We are able to question whether the Sole Arbitrator was right to see that ‘just cause’ case law should apply to an early termination based on ‘sporting just cause’.


A prior warning for just cause allows both parties the opportunity to take corrective measures [12] i.e. remedy the infringement, and likewise to satisfy a counterparty.


However, ‘sporting just cause’ is incomparable, as far as none of the above could work in the context of the rule – there is no particular infringement, so nothing to eliminate and the other party (player) could only be satisfied at the expense of sporting competition principles (insofar as the coach will field the players not based on their performance, but because of the business needs).


CAS established its jurisprudence [13] standing on the position that a coach is entitled to manage the team as they see fit (e.g. select starters and substitutes based on fitness, performance, tactics, strategy, attitude, technical and personal chemistry with other teammates etc.), provided that they do so on proper football related or sporting reasons and do not abuse their rights and arbitrarily infringe on the player’s own rights.


Obviously, it is highly unlikely that the sporting just cause can be considered as a severe infringement (the part on which the Sole Arbitrator was concentrated), given that the rule in fact does not envisage any infringement. Even more, Article 15 suggests that compensation may be payable by a player to a club if the player terminates the contract referring to ‘sporting just cause’. This means that if there is a suffering party, it is definitely not a player, but a club. Otherwise, the case is about ‘just cause’, not ‘sporting just cause’.


On a separate note – what kind of timing for the prior notice could be sufficient in the context of the ‘sporting just cause’? Once again, if ‘just cause’ could be an analogue, then the prior notice period would be 15 days. However, this time period is certainly not sufficient to efficiently cure an issue of less than 10% of active football for a vast majority of cases. Thus, it is a challenging task to define what should be considered as a workable prior notice period for applying ‘corrective measure’.


Conclusion

Jurisprudence on ‘sporting just cause’ brings attention to the important precedent referenced by FIFA, on the basis of which the Sole Arbitrator determined not to conclusively determine whether the Player is an “established player”, but found a deal breaker - a lack to give a prior notice to the club. However, Regulations on Status and Transfer of Players don’t establish such a requirement. Using the ‘just cause’ jurisprudence by analogy is rather questionable as rationale behind ‘sporting just cause’.


The described award doesn’t form an established jurisprudence and, therefore, ‘sporting just cause’ practice could change the direction. The uncertainty about existence of the ‘fifth factor’ can either be managed by adopting it within RSTP or through developing a different approach within jurisprudence. The latter seems to be a more favorable option not only because of FIFA’s ‘however’ in the Commentary Edition 2021, but – most importantly – because of the differences between ‘sporting just cause’ in comparison with just cause, specifically: absence of any infringement, different suffered party, inability to ‘correct’ the other party’s behavior and great difficulty with defining an appropriate term for the prior warning.


References





[5] So, the references to the Commentary Edition 2005 and the article of Georgi Gradev (https://www.gradev.com/pdf/Art.%2015%20FIFA%20RSTP.pdf) are mainly valuable in the retrospective context.


[6] CAS 2018/A/6017 FC Lugano SA v. FC Internazionale Milano S.p.A.


[7] ‘10% of the matches’ was not a part of the dispute between the parties.


[8] DRC No 871322, decision of 10 August 2007




[11] For the sake of truth, this ‘however’ was not kept at the Commentary 2023.


[12] CAS 2007/A/1369 O. v. FC Krylia Sovetov Samara


[13] CAS 2018/A/5607, CAS 2013/A/3091, 3092 & 3093; CAS 2014/A/3642.

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