An interview with Ornella Desirée Bellia, Head of Legal Affairs at European Professional Football Leagues, in which she discusses the role of EPFL and the challenges it has addressed in recent times, together with her role as head of legal affairs.
What prompted the establishment of the European Professional Football Leagues (EPFL)?
The EPFL was established in 2005 to be the leading voice of the leagues in matter of common interest towards other stakeholders and sports bodies, to foster cooperation between the leagues as well as to promote the further development of football and protect the game’s basic values.
The EPFL comprises 32 member leagues, including the “top-5”, i.e. the English Premier League, the Spanish LaLiga, the German Bundesliga, the Italian Serie A and the French Ligue1.
Over the last five years what are the significant changes that have been made to the regulatory and governance structures within the EPFL?
The EPFL has been among the first sport bodies to sign the European Commission pledge to promote the implementation of the basic principles of transparency, accountability, democracy, integrity, participation and inclusivity in sports organizations.
To further strengthen our compliance to these principles, we are currently working on an overall revision of our Statutes and governance structure. The new version of the Statutes will be presented in October to our General Assembly which will take place in Tel-Aviv.
How has the role of the organisation changed since its conception?
In recent years, the EPFL has come to realise that the most critical challenge for football is the competitive imbalance in football competitions. For this reason, the EPFL has increasingly sharpened its role as guardian of competitive balance and its institutional main goal has been converted in the protection and enhancement of the financial and sporting balance in domestic and European competitions.
When did you start working for the EPFL? What was your background before you worked for the EPFL?
I joined the EPFL in July 2015 and since then I have been responsible for all the legal issues involving the common interests of the leagues at international level.
Before joining the EPFL, I worked in the football industry in several countries, including Spain, Brazil and the UK. My first job in football was in a top-division club in Italy, where I was in charge of legal matters. That experience gave me an invaluable understanding of how the football sector works, its pitfalls and its day-to-day practices.
At a certain point, I decided to quite the job in my beloved football team and I moved to London to gain a more international experience. There, I worked in a City law firm, which at the time was setting up a sports practice. I then moved to Madrid where I obtained my LL.M. in International Sports Law at Instituto Superior de Derecho y Economia.
After completing my LLM, I worked in two of the best known international law firms in the industry: “Pinto Ruiz & Del Valle” in Barcelona, and then “Bichara e Motta” in Rio de Janeiro. All these experiences gave me a broad understanding of football from different perspectives and cultures, which is much-needed in my current position as Head of Legal at the EPFL.
What are the key legal and/or regulatory issues that you spend most of your time on during the season?
Over the last few months, I have mainly been involved in the negotiations with UEFA for a new agreement that regulates the relationship between the two organizations, focusing on a number of strategic topics for the leagues and UEFA. It was a long and tough process, but we are quite satisfied with the result. Among other things, the EPFL will be granted full membership to the UEFA Executive Committee and several other key committees for the development of professional football. This is a great achievement for both parties in terms of implementation of good governance principles, especially after the turmoil that has shaken the football community in recent years.
What do you see as the most important legal and/or regulatory issue in football over the coming years?
As I mentioned before, one of the main challenges for football is the increasing gap between the top clubs and the smaller ones, from both a sporting and financial perspective. Football competitions are becoming increasingly imbalanced and, if we fail to address this, it could reduce the general market appeal of football matches, which could in turn affect its appeal to broadcasters.
It is important to implement measures at both domestic and European level, to create a more balanced playing field. Nowadays, the reality is that top clubs have turned in globalized giants against which is impossible to succeed. Now, the leagues (at domestic level) and UEFA (at European level) have the joint responsibility to implement measures to safeguard the interest of all involved: all the clubs, the players, the supporters and the public in general. We do believe that the football game must become less predictable and every club much keep the dream alive, the dream of being able to compete at the highest levels, both domestically and internationally.
Other very important topics are the European single market, and the fight against piracy. The Leagues rely on intellectual property and especially copyright law to sell rights and create income that can be reinvested in the game. Being able to exploit commercially their competitions on a territorial basis and to protect them against any infringements in their respective territories is key for the long-term sustainability of our leagues and the game we all love.
- Bundesliga English Premier League Europe European Commission European Professional Football Leagues (EPFL) Football France Germany Governance Italy LaLiga Ligue1 Regulation Serie A Spain Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) United Kingdom (UK)