Paris Saint-Germain football club is set to buy Brazilian star Neymar for an eye-watering €222 million — and incur the wrath of Europe’s competition enforcers in the process.
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That’s if Javier Tebas, the president of Spain’s football league, La Liga, gets his way.
He has long fumed at how foreign owners, in particular from the Gulf states, have poured hundreds of millions of euros into European clubs, luring talent, prestige and the occasional trophy away from the Spanish league.
That anger seems to have come to a head after PSG, which is owned by Qatar, moved to trigger the buyout clause in the contract Neymar has with FC Barcelona, which is fan-owned.
Tebas said he would report PSG to UEFA — European football’s governing body — for breaching its Financial Fair Play rules, which forbid clubs from spending vastly more than they earn over a three-year period — losses of more than €30 million break the rules.
He also threatened to report the entire transfer system to Margrethe Vestager, Europe’s commissioner for competition who in the past year alone has taken on giants such as Google and Apple. According to a person with direct knowledge of the dossier, the Spanish league was discussing the issue long before the Neymar saga erupted, and the legal documents are ready to be filed.
Neymar told Barcelona on Wednesday that he wanted to leave. Paris Saint-German on Thursday moved to complete the transfer, but the payment was refused by Tebas’ La Liga. However, Barcelona said in a statement on Thursday afternoon that “Neymar Jr’s legal representatives visited in person the club’s offices and made the payment of €222 million in the player’s name with regards to the unilateral termination of the contract that united both parties.”
It added that it would “pass on to UEFA the details of the above operation so that they can determine the disciplinary responsibilities that may arise from this case.”
Tebas told Spanish sports publication Diario As earlier this week: “The problem is that Neymar is being taken by a financially-doped team that competes with an advantage. The problem is the state-backed clubs, they need to be stopped.”
He said he was ready to present his objections to UEFA, the courts in Switzerland (where UEFA is based) and the European Commission.
Any complaint to the Commission, which is charged with ensuring companies in Europe compete on a level playing field (pun intended), will likely hone in on UEFA’s power over football on the Continent — especially how it polices its own rules.
La Liga was unhappy with how UEFA settled investigations into spending splurges at Manchester City, which is owned by Sheikh Mansour, a member of the royal family of the United Arab Emirates, and PSG, both in 2014.
Manchester City had to pay £60 million in fines and saw its squad size reduced for European matches, but got £40 million back in 2017 after meeting specific targets such as reining in spending and breaking even. PSG was hit with a €60 million fine and a reduction in the number of players eligible to compete in the prestigious Champions League competition.
The Parisian club had flagrantly violated the rules on losses since 2011 — when a Qatari consortium took over as owner — as it sought to dominate French and European football. Uruguayan forward Edinson Cavani, who arrived in Paris in 2013, cost €63 million alone.
At the same time, UEFA has suspended Turkish football clubs from European competition, including Galatasaray which was suspended for a year in 2016 for breaching spending limits.
Different rules for different clubs
Antoine Duval, a sports law specialist at the Asser Institute in The Hague and a lifelong fan of PSG, said there were questions about whether “there are two rules being applied, one for small clubs and one for big clubs.”
“It’s difficult to say,” he added, citing the lack of transparency over clubs’ finances.
Prompted by questions from MEPs, Vestager said in 2015 she “supported the overall stated objectives of financial fair play” but that its implementation “would have to respect Union law.”
A spokesperson for the Commission on Thursday declined to comment on Tebas’ claims but said Vestager’s statement remained valid.
UEFA’s assessment of PSG’s acquisition of Neymar will prove a crucial test for the governing body.
The Spanish league argues that UEFA, when assessing PSG’s finances, must look at the club’s various sponsorship deals, which it says can be traced back to its super-rich owner.
A spokesperson for UEFA said it “will look into the details of this transfer in due course,” but PSG could sell players to balance its finances over the three-year period covered by the spending rules.
What is certain is that UEFA’s conclusions will not come any time soon.
It is “ludicrous to suggest you could block a transfer with a competition complaint,” said Duval, the lawyer. “Neymar would have been playing for two years before the Commission decides whether to open a case or not.”
The Commission would have to consider its options carefully before opening a case.
It has long accepted that sport cannot be treated like other economic activities. However, EU regulators are not prepared to stand by if they consider the rules are being flouted. After more than a decade of ignoring sports complaints, they launched a case in 2015 against the International Skating Union for allegedly blocking new speed-skating events.
Tebas’ outburst comes as Europe’s football teams and leagues grapple with the future of a game awash with cash.
“Tebas is speaking out in an attempt to protect the commercial competitiveness of his league and Spanish club football with it,” said James Ogilvie, an EU affairs consultant with expertise in global football. “Holding onto the star players in your league, like Neymar for La Liga, is crucial for securing mega broadcast rights deals in international markets … where the greatest revenue growth comes from.”
Tebas, who has relied on competition law in actions against FIFA — world football’s governing body — rules banning investment funds from buying players and against the organization of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar during the European season, is clearly skeptical of arguments that competition regulators should keep out of sport.
“Can you imagine if a state bought [supermarket chain] Carrefour to give out chicken as a gift?” he said to Spanish sports daily Marca — the implication being that other supermarkets would bring unfair competition complaints. “That is what we’re talking about: clubs that gift players to their fans using money received from the states that supply them [with funds].”