Football’s a law unto itself, or so it seems

Neymar with Paris Saint-Germain president Nasser Al-Khelaifi after his world-record transfer.  Photograph:Aurelien Meunier/Getty Images
Neymar with Paris Saint-Germain president Nasser Al-Khelaifi after his world-record transfer. Photograph:Aurelien Meunier/Getty Images
Share this article
0
Have your say

Edinburgh is to host legal conference which may cast some light on the murky nether regions of the game.

Who owns a corner? This puzzler might test even a would-be footballing philosopher like Joey Barton. It’s just one of the many fascinating areas of debate to be covered later this week at a sold-out sports law conference in Edinburgh.

The worlds of football and law will collide in the well-appointed setting of the city’s Signet Library on the Royal Mile.

Mention of Barton, currently serving a 13-month ban from the English FA for extensive betting on matches, is relevant since the thorny issue of sports data, such a valuable commodity in legal – and illegal – betting circles, features high on the agenda.

Many will have observed lone figures sitting in stands around the country, dutifully prodding match statistics into a phone keypad. Not simply high-profile matches either. In fact, it’s low-level interest leagues such as the Indian lower divisions where illegal betting and match fixing tend to be rife.

As live betting grows ever more popular, Edinburgh-based sports lawyer Paolo Lombardi sums up the potential problem: “You don’t know what the receiver is doing with this data: who are they selling it on to?

“What you want to do is authorise people, give organisations licence to collect data,” he adds. “I am a consultant for a law firm in London and in conjunction with Serie B [the Italian second tier] they have set up a legal system whereby only organised people can collect data and send it. And that can only happen if you set up a system whereby you own your data, like a corner.”

So who exactly owns a corner?

“It’s the league, it’s the organiser of the league,” explains the 43-year-old Lombardi. “They own it. It’s the same with statistics. Panini stickers, they pay a licence to publish stickers with a picture of players and their height and weight and such stats – they pay a fee to the league.”

Regulation is the key. “You don’t want just anyone selling data to China, for example, where there is a big illegal betting culture. You want to regulate that.”

Hence Friday morning’s discussion focusing on integrity in the collection, exploitation and protection of sports data.

Providing extra relevance is UEFA’s intention to investigate Paris St Germain over possible breaches of its Financial Fair Play Regulations. But then integrity in player transfers, third-party investment and match fixing are increasingly timeless issues. They are rapidly becoming concerns threatening to cripple the game.

Over lunch in Edinburgh, Lombardi, pictured left, spells out why he felt compelled to put such a gathering of high-profile football people together.

In what is something of a coup, Kimberly Morris, head of integrity and compliance at FIFA TMS (transfer matching system), will exclusively reveal the total spend in the most recent transfer window.

We know it’s at least £200m – the world record fee that took Neymar from Barcelona to PSG, one of the transfers now being investigated by UEFA.

The conference, which starts on Thursday for two days, is most certainly timely. More so since Lombardi later sends an e-mail confirming another star attendee: Marcos Motta, Neymar’s Brazilian lawyer, and the person entrusted with handing over the cheque that triggered the player’s release from Barcelona.

“Marcos told me that sending it via DHL might have been risky,” smiled Lombardi. “So he had to hand it over in person.”

Lombardi is certainly well connected. Joe Hart’s recent links to Scotland stretch beyond twice being beaten all ends up within a matter of minutes at Hampden in June.

The financial details of the goalkeeper’s loan transfer to Torino from Manchester City were brokered in a townhouse in Edinburgh’s New Town. It’s strange to think the nerve centre for this deal was an office in an area more often associated with Edinburgh’s “small c” conservatism than big money European football moves.

Current Celtic player Olivier Ntcham’s loan from Manchester City to Genoa was also negotiated via Edinburgh last season.

As expected, Lombardi and his colleagues at his Albany Street-based sports law firm were busy on Thursday night, as the minutes ticked down towards the closure of another transfer window. Lombardi was involved in Davide Zappacosta’s transfer from Torino to Chelsea, which went to the wire.

It’s fate Lombardi has ended up conducting such business in the Scottish capital, the lawyer having now settled in the city with his Scottish lawyer wife, Philippa.

While working at FIFA, originally in the players’ status department, he was heavily involved in the dispute between Andy Webster and Hearts in 2006. It’s now regarded as a test case.

The then Tynecastle defender sought to push through a move to Wigan Athletic despite having a year to run of his contract, and with Rangers waiting in the wings, seemingly orchestrating an operation designed to get the player to Ibrox. Webster’s resolve to walk out on Hearts after paying up the rest of his contract threatened to drive a truck through FIFA’s Article 17, drawn up to deal with the consequences of a unilateral termination of a professional footballer’s employment of contract without due cause.

Lombardi was tasked with disciplining Webster. But FIFA’s sanction was undone at an appeal hearing at CAS – the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

He never did meet Webster, who ended up returning to Hearts later in his career, as if nothing had happened.

Little in football surprises Lombardi after nearly two decades in the game, including eight years working in Sepp Blatter’s fiefdom at FIFA.

The Webster case was instructive. “Andy had one year left in his contract but wanted to go somewhere else,” he recalls. “His agent wanted to transfer him down south – it’s been a long time now, so I can probably say there was another club [Rangers] behind it!

“Andy just walked out of his contract!” adds Lombardi. “FIFA really tried to make a point. But it did not stand CAS scrutiny and he was ordered to pay a relatively laughable amount.”

Webster ended up paying Hearts a compensation fee of £150,000 – reduced on appeal from £650,000.

Which brings us to the football transfer of the summer. The flamboyant Motta, who handed over the biggest cheque in football transfer history just a few weeks ago, will be in Edinburgh this week, Neymar’s lawyer’s presence attesting to the high quality of speakers.

Officials from Inter Milan, Everton and Manchester United are confirmed to take part in the inaugural event – billed simply as the Edinburgh Sports Conference.

Hearts and Hibs will also be represented, with the Tynecastle club’s owner Ann Budge expected to attend.

Scottish Football Association lawyer Andrew McKinlay, meanwhile, will participate in a talk on club ownership issues, with Craig Whyte’s time at Rangers likely to warrant a mention a two.