State Bar of Texas Blog

Soccer Law: Examining the legal issues of the world's current sport of interest

Soccer, though beloved by almost every nation on earth, is far from being the most popular sport in the United States. In fact, two-thirds of U.S. respondents to a recent poll said they would not be watching the 2014 World Cup currently underway in Brazil. But, if ever so slowly, soccer is gaining traction. More U.S. spectators than fans from any other country are in Brazil to attend matches of the World Cup, and an increasing number of Americans are watching this year’s tournament on TV compared with viewership ratings of previous World Cups (partly due to sharing similar time zones with South America). Perhaps more telling is a recent poll showing that soccer is now liked as much as baseball among children aged 12 to 17.

So as soccer creeps hesitantly into American life, perhaps Texas lawyers working in entertainment and sports law should start brushing up on soccer and the law. And for those in other areas of the law, the sport’s complexities and scandals are reason enough to tune in.

FIFA—the Fédération Internationale de Football Association—counts more than 200 national men’s teams registered with the organization, from Swaziland to Nepal to Wales. This heavily international scope of soccer means that its legal issues can be more complicated than those surrounding predominantly American sports, such as football and basketball.

“These players have different legal issues depending on their home country or adopted home country,” said Todd Krumholz, an attorney with JTK Talent in Dallas and a member of the Texas Entertainment and Sports Law Section of the State Bar of Texas. “Beyond that, the soccer leagues/teams and FIFA all have their own rules and governing bodies.”

If you know anything about soccer or are just a general consumer of mainstream media, you likely understand that the sport is no stranger to certain areas of criminal law. Soccer’s global scale means that there is an increased volume of betting surrounding important matches. “Whenever big money is involved, there will always be corruption,” said Krumholz. “Many of these issues are embedded in gambling rings, which engage in blackmail, harassment, and threats to many of the referees or players.”

Take the match-fixing scandal that plagued the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, in which there is considerable evidence that a Singapore-based business—acting as a front for a match-fixing organization—connived its way into obtaining contracts from the South African soccer federation to appoint referees and then bribed these officials to make questionable calls resulting in penalty kicks. Additionally, a May 2014 New York Times report suggested evidence of an alleged failure by FIFA to adequately investigate the situation and issue punishments.

“A variety of charges could arise out of the match-fixing process, and FIFA and the leagues are responsible for maintaining the integrity of the matches,” said Krumholz. “FIFA does have control over their own matches and outcomes, and they can make determinations about games that may or may not have been altered due to outside influences.”

Local governments sometimes attempt to police corruption of matches, such as a 2013 charge by Europol that reportedly found 680 suspicious matches around the world from 2008 to 2011, including some World Cup and other high-status European games. On June 20, 2014, three men, including one athlete, received prison sentences for participating in such crimes after being investigated by the U.K.’s National Crime Agency. Still, such convictions are somewhat rare, especially considering that in some Asian countries, betting and gambling is largely unregulated.

“Often the responsible parties are so far removed, it’s a hard trail of facts to follow,” said Krumholz. “The South African World Cup has many on-going investigations into the problems that occurred there, but ultimately we may never know the real depth or root of the problems. The South African government did launch an anti-corruption unit to preform an investigation, but it was suspended and the South African soccer federation decided to leave the matter to FIFA. There has been no resolution.”

Other legal issues surrounding soccer—in addition to those dealing with corruption, illegal betting and gambling, and match fixing—include contract and sponsorship matters, doping, broadcasting rights and intellectual property, taxes, and even constitutional law. Before allowing Brazil to host this year’s World Cup, FIFA required that the country amend its constitution to legalize the sale of alcohol in soccer stadiums, among other changes, some of which have been criticized as unconstitutional.

Krumholz noted the frequency of contract disputes, which involve “incredibly complicated deals” and massive transfer fees for players switching teams and leagues and relocating, as well as international endorsement deals in which it is prevalent to have multiple parties claiming to represent an athlete. “A big challenge for someone in my business is to make sure that you are actually talking to the right person that represents the player and not a scam artist or unauthorized agent. Also, there are many stories of players only receiving a small portion of endorsement money while the agent pockets the majority of the sum.”

Lastly, as most Americans who are new to soccer typically wonder—what is up with all those faked injuries? Is this rampant practice even legal? “There are varying rules in different leagues,” Krumholz said, “but in general a referee can take normal action to penalize a player for a blatant ‘dive’ or faking an injury in order to gain an advantage.”

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For more information on soccer and law, go to the Harvard Law School Library’s online guide, “The Beautiful Game: The Law of Soccer/Football,” available at http://guides.library.harvard.edu/content.php?pid=602696&sid=4977503.

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