The issue: ‘It’s about the football isn’t it?’

Text: Geert Maarse / Photography: Ronald van den Heerik

The Netherlands is not the only country with its eye on World Cup football and the Olympic Games. But thanks to cut-throat competition, international sporting bodies such as FIFA and the IOC can impose increasing demands on host countries. According to Robert Siekmann, extraordinary professor in sports law since this summer: “What we have now is knee-jerk politics.”

Why has the EUR appointed an extraordinary professor in sports law? “There is currently very limited capacity in the legal field pertaining to sport. I’m occupied with the legal problems you encounter with major sporting events such as World Cup football and the Olympic Games. How did it come about that a group of ladies wearing orange Bavaria dresses were arrested in South Africa? How does a country like the Netherlands – which wants to organise the World Cup in 2018 – cope with the demands imposed by governing bodies such as FIFA? Internationally, too, no systematic research has yet been carried out into this.”

It appears to be more the rule than an exception that governments bend their knee to major sporting bodies like FIFA and the organisers of the Tour de France. Legislative amendments and tax advantages are the most normal thing in the world. “Curious things have happened. Take the Bavaria girls. That South Africa implemented criminal law at the request of FIFA is extremely unusual. The country really wanted to have the World Cup, but the question is whether you can go that far. Does that not pose a risk to the rule of law?”

That’s exactly the question I was going to ask you. “In this instance the host nation made concessions to an international association. We know that FIFA and the International Olympic Committee are extremely powerful. But fortunately the Netherlands doesn’t celebrate this type of demand.”

Other countries have an easier attitude. Won’t that create difficult competition? “You will get competition between countries. Because they are all keen to host major sporting events to draw attention to themselves – right through to America. Although of course it’s actually crazy to let the ‘Giro d’Italia’ start in another part of the world.” (The Italian cycling championship is starting in Washington in 2012 – GM). “But if you run something well, it enhances your reputation in the world and produces a bonding element in society. FIFA and the IOC are the largest sporting bodies worldwide, so they have a monopoly.”

You could say that FIFA has become too powerful. Don’t organisations of this type assume too much? “We are researchers and scientists, so we need to look at the facts. We test these against the law and we draw our conclusions from that. But FIFA president Sepp Blatter doesn’t have the best reputation. The sporting world often lacks legal understanding and self-reflection. But I don’t want to be too hard in my criticism, which should be saved for when it’s really needed. We want to help the sporting world.”

Your chair is funded partially by the Dutch Olympic Committee. To what extent does that influence your independence? “Just to be clear: right now there is no funding by (Olympic and sporting federation) the NOC*NSF. The chair has been established by a foundation, which includes the cities of The Hague and Rotterdam, the Province of South Holland, the Erasmus University, the Asser Institute and the NOC*NSF. Of course it would be difficult to occupy a chair and then totally undermine one of the co-supporters. But that’s also not the objective. We want to carry out good research, among other things into the bids for major events. Then we can save the rivals from making mistakes and indicate the best way to negotiate.”

But whose side are you on? Do you want to preserve the Dutch rule of law, or do you want to help the IOC to locate an event in the Netherlands? “If a particular requirement is clearly indefensible within the rule of law, we will announce that. So we are absolutely on the side of the law. But once again: if you know enough in advance, you can prevent certain issues.”

Is it not strange that countries would like to attract such huge events? Experience has shown that it doesn’t benefit a country economically. “International economists do indeed highlight the losses, certainly financially. For South Africa we know that stadiums were built which will never be used again. In that instance you might ask whether you could organise a World Cup in a simpler way. After all it’s about the football isn’t it? During a competition you don’t see anything of the stands, so why should they all be absolutely new?”

Because FIFA demands it.
“And that’s an important point for national football federations, who together make up the FIFA parliament. They are the ones who could ensure that the demands are changed. But a whole lot of small countries that will never be considered for a World Cup will not help to create a majority. That’s pure politics. Decision-making is extremely top-down.”

Could the organisations not simply be rapped over the knuckles, just because such bizarre demands are imposed? “Yes they could, if the demands are in conflict with European law for instance. But it would be even better if things didn’t get to that stage. Policy by the European Union could ensure this. But then there needs to be official preparation, and science has to play a role. Right now what we have is knee-jerk politics. In the Netherlands the amendments enacted to South African law would be unthinkable, but for the rest there is no clear policy that might gradually convince FIFA that this type of demand makes no sense. It’s very notable that the individual state is currently in a weaker position than an international federation. This balance of power needs to change, for example through the formation of smaller groups.”

How difficult is it that member countries are mutual competitors? “This also applies to the gas facilities of individual nations, for example. But if the EU does not have an umbrella oil policy, the countries are outplayed by Russia. You need to speak out with one voice against such powerful clubs. And right now no thought at all is being given to this.”

And what if FIFA still doesn’t listen? “Then perhaps we will get less large football tournaments here. That’s how it went with Formula One, after tobacco advertising was tightened up in the EU. Voila, the races were switched to Singapore, where trade carried on as usual. So you see, the EU is an important part of the world, but not the entire world.”

Friday, September 3th 2010 (week 35).

The issue is a section in Erasmus Magazine, the opinion and information magazine of Erasmus University Rotterdam, in which an EUR-academic responds to a current-social issue.

Prof. dr. Robert Siekmann (born in The Hague in 1947) was appointed as extraordinary professor of International and European Sports Law at the Faculty of Law on 1 August 2010. He is director of the ASSER International Sports Law Centre, part of the Haagse T.M.C. Asser Instituut voor Internationaal Recht. He studied Slavic languages and Law in Leiden, and is a specialist in sporting boycotts and international football vandalism. The chair’s research programme covers the legal aspects of organising the Olympic Games, European and world championships and international club competitions.