As many of you may remember my previous coverage on how teams were entirely unfairly relegated when the Belgian League was finished prematurely based on a PPG system. It was a hot mess and a scandal of epic proportions in Belgium As greed and selfishness condemned Belgian football. Then there was an update from me a week later (on the 26th of May), regarding legal action galore, multiple options to fight for justice in the Belgian league debacle.
Now, I have some good news for you. The Belgian Competition Authority’s ‘auditore’ (auditor) declared that the decision to relegate Waasland-Beveren constitutes an infringement of competition law. This is excellent news for fairness everywhere all across the world. With this finding, the Auditorate will provide an analysis of the complaint and the requested interim measures and will also give its advice to the Competition Court.
The auditor is clearly of the opinion that the decision to relegate Waasland Beveren ‘is a decision that has the effect of excluding a competitor and is, therefore, a decision to restrict competition’.
The auditor further specifies that ‘this decision, instead of organising a competition with seventeen or eighteen teams, does not pursue a legitimate objective but only seeks to protect the financial and economic interests of certain (read sixteen) clubs’. Because of this advice, it is only logical that the Competition College will judge in the same sense.
However, the spin is that this complaint to the Competition Authority (same as the Competitions and Marketing authority in the UK) was made by the major shareholder of Waasland Beveren and not the club directly. The best guess is that it is done so to avoid retaliation from the authorities against the club directly. Remember my last article where I said a second route is being followed where it’s not the club itself that is filing a complaint, but one of the major shareholders. So this is how the ruling was obtained.
In 2 weeks the court session at the Belgian Competition Regulator will take place where they’ll decide about possible measures that have to be taken. This advice is a good starting point, and hopefully, the recommendations that are laid out are followed. Also, this is precisely how Hearts can play this now that Ann Budge’s hopes of reconstruction are almost dead in the water. However, I reject the conclusion that this is the end of the road for Hearts. They can follow the exact roadmap laid down by Waasland-Beveren and hopefully stay in the Premiership.
Also, the auditore’s decision that Belgian football ending the season with places declared on PPG ‘is a decision that has the effect of excluding a competitor and is, therefore, a decision to restrict competition’. In Scotland, that is exactly what happened with SPFL going through the mechanism to declare Celtic champions and Hearts relegated. According to this precedent (and usually precedents from across Europe are followed by all European courts), we can all see where this can potentially go all wrong for SPFL. Maybe that is why Doncaster tried so hard to ensure that reconstruction did go through in the end.
So what happens now?
Difficult to say at this point, but this advice is a massive step in a direction without relegation. And in the Dutch league, the federation said to the ones who complained that hard decisions have to be made in a time of crisis. The thing that’s “good” in Belgium then is the fact that teams voted other teams out and that’s an infringement on competition law because nothing seemed to prevent a league with more teams to happen, so there was no actual need to relegate.
Over the past years, there have been multiple court cases at the CAS etc. And there isn’t really a correlation on how they look at things, and this is the first time the Competition and Markets Authority is involved. So we have to wait and see how the judges there rule on things concerning football.
The fact that their investigation unit made the conclusions above is quite a shock. Because people are used to the CAS just following everything the federation does/taking the easy way out by not making big decisions. So suddenly there’s a lot of hope that finally, a court will take a good look at this from the outside. The advice is there; now, the judges just have to follow.
Now think of SPFL. How exactly was relegation, promotion and Championships decided? By the federation deciding on its own or votes from member clubs? Well, you know the answer to that. So, the precedent has been set. Now Hearts (or more likely a major shareholder of Hearts) need to go ahead and bite the bullet.