GROUP CLUB HANDBALL EEIG (GCH), a grouping of 16 European top Handballclubs from 8 countries, lodged a complaint with the European Commission, DG Competition, against International Handball Federation (IHF) and European Handball Federation (EHF).
The complaint is based on the fact that previous negotiations with both organisations have not provided satisfactory results. All structural changes, implemented in European Handball during the past 2 years, are not a result of negotiations between the concerned parties (Clubs and Federations) but unilateral decisions of the EHF-Congress.
In the complaint, GCH denounces various major violations of article 81/82 EC committed by IHF and/or EHF:
1. the imposition on the clubs of excessive and unfair conditions regarding the release of their players in favour of the federations and of IHF/EHF themselves (national team competitions);
2. the prohibition for the clubs to organize themselves, at international level, the club competitions and, as a corollary, the exclusive control exercised by IHF/EHF on all the aspects of such international club competitions, in particular the commercial and financial aspects, using when needed their sporting competences (monopoly on the services of the referees, etc.) in order to maintain this economic monopoly;
3. the unilateral determination of the calendar, i.e. the sharing of the playing dates between national team handball and club handball;
4. more generally, the total exclusion of the clubs from the governance of international handball;
5. the prohibition for the clubs (and for the players) to seek redress in the ordinary courts and, as a corollary, the obligation to settle any disputes exclusively within the “arbitration” bodies set up or recognised by IHF/EHF.
For the first time, the European Commission is officially asked to examine the compatibility of player release rules as well as rules related to the production of sport club events (champions league) with EU competition law. Morever, it should be noted that this request comes from an European Economic Interest Grouping (EEIG), whose members are the leading handball clubs in Europe”.
The IHF/EHF, on the one hand, and the top professional clubs (in particular GCH’s members), on the other hand, are fierce competitors on the same market.
They compete for the availability of players (and playing dates, i.e. calendar), arenas, TV rights and advertising/sponsoring resources, agencies and of course spectators.
However, the result of this competition relationship is not regulated by the “market” but by the unilateral “authority” of IHF/EHF, which use their governing position in order to maintain (or increase) the market position they find adequate.
In short, IHF and EHF impose, on pain of sanctions, to all clubs in the world, in particular to GCH’s members clubs, the release of their employed players:
· without any financial compensation;
· with the obligation to ensure them against injuries and illness for the duration of such release;
· as many times and for as long as unilaterally decided by IHF/EHF;
· in order to produce a competing product, i.e. national team events, to the club’s product, i.e. club events.
As a result, in 2008, the German national team gathered for a total of 125 days and the Croatian national team for a total of 170 days.
Last but not least, IHF and EHF schedule their national team events in particular in January, which is the best period of the year for handball (due to weather conditions and to the winter break in football) and which is right in the middle of the clubs’ season, whose continuity is abruptly interrupted (to the detriment of clubs, sponsors, fans, etc.). When the clubs resume their activities, they will have to do so with exhausted (if not injured) players.
GCH’s members clubs consider that, subject to proper insurance and financial compensation to be borne by the federations, a release of their players for a maximum duration of 45 days per year, outside of the clubs’ season, would be adequate in order to guarantee the existence of sound national team events.
EHF controls and decides unilaterally (thus, excluding the clubs from the decision – making process) the format and the marketing model of the European club competitions, in particular the EHF Champions League.
In GCH’s view, the clubs in general and the GCH’s members clubs in particular (as main co-owners of the rights of the European Club handball events, in particular the EHF Champions League) should enjoy the unfettered freedom to organise, to market and to manage their international competitions, EHF’s role being strictly limited to acting as guardian of the sporting ethics, having responsibility for all matters connected with refereeing of matches and with the discipline guaranteeing the respect of the different rules of the game and the sporting ethic on and off the pitch.
The complainant asks from the European Commission to hold:
– that the IHF/EHF rules on release of players constitute unjustified restrictions of competition, hence violating article 81 of the EC Treaty, in particular since these rules, generate to the detriment of the clubs restrictions that are nor inherent nor proportionate to the legitimate objective of maintaining an adequate level of national team competitions;
– that the system of prior authorisation regarding the organisation of club handball matches, as well as the unilateral organisation/management of the European club competitions by EHF, implemented by the various denounced provisions, as such constitute unjustified restrictions of competition, in particular since IHF/EHF are direct and major competitors of the clubs
– that the existing IHF/EHF rules and/or practices regarding the sporting calendar constitute unjustified restrictions of competition, hence violating article 81 of the EC Treaty
– that, more generally (the rules on player release and on the calendar being just examples of it), the total exclusion of the clubs from the governance of international handball (for all questions affecting directly or indirectly the clubs), as currently organized by the IHF/EHF rules, constitutes an unjustified restriction of competition, hence violating article 81 of the EC Treaty,
– that the existing IHF/EHF rules that prohibit in particular the clubs to seek redress in the ordinary courts, in particular since these rules, as currently structured, enable IHF/EHF to maintain the above mentioned restrictions and thus generate to the detriment of the clubs restrictions that are nor inherent nor proportionate to the legitimate objective of promoting an harmonious development of both international club handball and national team handball;
Dr. Gerd BUTZECK, General Manager of GCH, states the following:
“In Basketball first and later on in football, thanks to the “Charleroi case”, the clubs and the international federations have come to terms and have found a better balance between club and national team events. GCH is convinced that, on the basis of the decision to be rendered by the European Commission, a similar evolution will take place in handball”.
GCH is represented by the famous expert on European Sport law, Mr. Jean-Louis DUPONT.
(Lawyer DUPONT is in particular known for having led the following cases: BOSMAN (1995), HAGI (1996), BALOG (1998), which provoked a global evolution of the FIFA regulations on transfer, MECA-MEDINA, the case that let the ECJ, on 18 July 2006, (against the opinion of the European Commission) to judge that all rules adopted by the international federations fall within the scope of EU law (no “sporting exemption” in favour of the federations) as soon as they have economic consequences and The CHARLEROI CASE, as counsel for G-14, which generated the out-of-court settlement (15 January 2008) whereby the top football clubs, on the one hand, and FIFA/UEFA, on the other hand, agreed on a new better balanced relationship between club football and national team football).
“It is not justified, nor morally nor legally, that some Swiss based entities, like IHF, restrict exaggeratedly the freedom of hundreds of EU companies, i.e. the clubs, to develop a truly European sport model, for the benefit of all EU consumers.
In particular, those restrictions are unacceptable since they are enforced not in the general interest of handball but by real competitors, i.e. the federations, and in order to unduly favour national team handball, to the excessive detriment of the clubs.
A better balance has to be found between all interested parties, on the basis of the legal clarification that GCH has requested from the European Commission”.