Breach of football competition rules: Fielding an ineligible player explained

Published 23 April 2014 | Authored by: Adam Lovatt

In this blog, Adam Lovatt highlights the ongoing issue affecting football clubs of ineligible players appearing in breach of club competition rules.

Back in September 2011, Celtic benefitted from Swiss club, FC Sion, being thrown out of the Europa League for fielding ineligible players in a play-off match between the sides. Sion won the qualifying tie 3-1 on aggregate, but UEFA, following an appeal from Celtic, awarded Celtic a 3-0 victory for each of the home and away legs of the tie with Celtic therefore proceeding to the group stages of the competition. UEFA advised at the time that any club that refused to accept the rules of the football family ‘should not participate in it.' Sion took UEFA to the Court of Arbitration for Sport ("CAS") in an attempt to have the decision overturned; CAS found that there were no grounds to reinstate FC Sion in the Europa League and that the UEFA decision should stand.

Two recent cases in British football have brought the issue of the eligibility of players, and the potential willingness of clubs to go to Courts in such football disputes, back into the public forum.

Brora Rangers were expelled from the Breedon Aggregates League Cup (a cup competition for Highland League sides) for fielding an ineligible player in the final few minutes of their preliminary round victory over Clach on 1 March. The club won the tie 3-0 (and were indeed leading the match 3-0 at the time that the ineligible player was substituted onto the pitch). It is the first time since the cup was inaugurated in 1946 that a team has been thrown out of the competition, with Brora’s complaint being that they had no right of appeal to either the Highland Football League or the Scottish Football Association over the decision which had been made. The Highland League Management Committee, who made the decision, gave no supporting reasons as to why Brora were expelled for what was, Brora argued, a simple administrative error that did not materially affect the result of the tie. The rules of the Scottish Highland Football League at Clause 70, do prevent a player playing for a club unless he was registered before the start of that competition, which in this case, the Brora player was not. The rules do not however, provide for an appeal process in the event of a breach of the rules.

Clach, who progressed to the next round of the cup in place of Brora, won their tie against Deveronvale in the following round. Brora threatened to go to the Court of Session in Edinburgh to have an interim interdict put in place, which would have seen that tie postponed and a full hearing subsequently held into the events surrounding Brora’s expulsion. 

Having initially announced their intention to pursue an appeal through the Courts, Brora dropped their legal action as a result of the Highland Football League threatening that the cup competition would be cancelled if the legal action were to have proceeded. The club remain frustrated at the sequence of events and it appears that the rules governing the competition are now being reviewed. 

It is disappointing that we will not be able to see how the Courts would have determined any appeal made by Brora, however credit must be given to the club for taking a view of the bigger picture regarding the sponsor and other teams affected. 

In English football, the issue of the ineligibility of players has been brought back  into the public domain recently after the Football Association fined Sunderland for playing Ji-Dong Won in four English Premier League matches earlier this season. There will be no points deduction for the club, who also played the South Korean international in the Capital One Cup, a tournament Sunderland played in the final of in early March.

The Football Association have not publicly statedthe reasons behind the decision, but are believed to have decided against a points deduction, as the player was registered as a Sunderland player, but international clearance had not been received for him to play in England following the end of his loan spell with German club Augsburg last season. Sunderland claimed to be unaware of the requirement to obtain clearance for a player to return to his parent club in such a situation despite Clause 6.1.1 on Page 557 of the Football Association rules being clear on this point.

The Football Association rules provide, at Clause 6.9 on Page 563, that a club who plays an ineligible player may have any points gained from that match deducted from its record and have levied upon it a fine. A decision in relation to a points deduction can be varied if the ineligibility is down to the failure to obtain the relevant transfer certificate or is related to the status of the player. Were a points deduction to have been imposed against Sunderland, the draw earned by the Black Cats at Southampton in August, would have been counted as a victory for the home side. How crucial that single point will prove to be in the battle against relegation, will become clear over the next few weeks.

The case of Brora does show that clubs may be willing to challenge the football authorities in the Courts despite UEFA stating in the Sion case that clubs not willing to accept the rules of football, should not be able to participate in it. If a team suffers relegation from the Premier League and the single point earned by Sunderland at Southampton turns out to be pivotal, it will be interesting to see if clubs seek to challenge the decision of the Football Association in a legal forum.

Football governing bodies are often in a no win situation as the Brora and Sunderland cases show. There is the argument that they should exercise common sense, rather than punish clubs for what can be simple administrative errors which do not impact upon the sporting result as in the case of Brora. Yet in the Sunderland case, there may have been an advantage gained by playing an ineligible player for the full second-half of a game Sunderland drew. The wording of the Football Association rules, suggests that Sunderland may have been fortunate to escape further punishment in that case.

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About the Author

Adam Lovatt

Adam Lovatt

Adam is a lawyer specialising in sports law with IMG. Adam has a wide range of commercial and litigation experience from his four years as a qualified solicitor. Adam has a passion for sports law and is currently undertaking a IP Law Masters programme with the University of London. He is passionate about most sports particularly football, golf and tennis.

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