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The misapplication of sports law and regulation in Spanish football

The fall out from Luis Rubiales kissing Jenni Hermoso on the lips at the FIFA Women’s World Cup medal ceremony continues to rock Spanish football.

Whilst various investigations into the incident remain on-going, the Spanish Government and RFEF, the National Association of Spanish Football, have now clashed over the treatment of players called up to participate in training camps and matches for the National Team. The dispute highlights the dangers in the strict application of well-intentioned laws/regulatory powers in exceptional circumstances and the need for appropriate dispensations to be granted where it is just to do so.

Relationships between the leading Spanish female players and RFEF have been strained for some time. In fact, many of the best Spanish players boycotted the World Cup in Australia/New Zealand. In light of the medal ceremony incident, the immediate RFEF response and, notwithstanding Rubiales subsequent resignation and the appointment of a new coach, a growing number of players have expressed the wish not to participate in national team activities and matches until major reforms have been introduced and a cultural reset initiated.

With tensions running high, the stand-off between the players and RFEF called for a conciliatory approach, designed to re-establish the trust and confidence of the players and open up a pathway for resolution. What happened, however, was the new Spanish team coach formally called up many of the protesting players for a national team camp ahead of the Nations Cup game with Sweden on Friday. This was a significant step to take since the official call up brought into play various provisions of the Spanish Sports Act, pursuant to which players who refuse a call up for the national team can be subject to fines of up to 30,000 Euros and banned from playing for their clubs.

Provisions of this nature play an important role in protecting national team competitions and feature in the regulations of most national associations in football and other team sports. It is an important dimension of the European model of sport and is designed to prevent clubs placing pressure on players to not participate in international matches for their countries. Whilst such mechanisms remain integral to the regulation of team sports, in the current Spanish scenario, the perceived threats of legal consequences and economic sanctions for failing to turn up were always likely to be seen by the players as intimidating and part of a broader strategy to undermine their position.

In a situation crying out for diplomacy and conciliation, potentially including the provision of written assurances that players would not be fined and banned for leaving the camp, the dispute has intensified further with the Spanish Government now reportedly claiming that RFEF has made ‘a fool’ of the country.

Further talks between the players, government and RFEF will hopefully identify a solution, but in any event, the case highlights the need for sports regulators and governments to be aligned on major sports issues and prepared to enter into dialogue with participants. It is also essential that they have regard to the specific circumstances/context before them as well as the likely consequences of the strict application of such measures. There must be a preparedness to provide dispensations for players where it is appropriate and a recognition that the misplaced application of otherwise lawful measures to protect international football may make them more vulnerable to successful legal challenge by aggrieved participants.

Spain government says football federation is making ‘a fool’ of country

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