New Scottish Football Association chief executive Gordon Smith will get behind his Hampden Park desk for the first time on Monday (July 2). But he won’t have much time to get acquainted with his new charges in Mount Florida before part of his blueprint to raise the standard of the Scottish game is dealt a blow by the European Commission.
One of the key planks of Smith’s plans for the future of the game in Scotland is to introduce a pyramid system to allow promotion and relegation from the Scottish Football League. The current system means teams no longer need to worry about dropping out of the league.
Allowing entry to ambitious teams would bring about a more competitive league and would only serve to raise the standard of Scottish football in the long term.
The Commission will on Wednesday (July 4) publish a White Paper which sets out a new framework for sport in its 27 member states. It will address several issues including whether sport should be given an exemption from the European Union rules that govern free markets.
Its recommendations will centre on whether sport, and more specifically football as the most popular sport in Europe, performs five important social functions – education, public health, social cultural and recreational – and therefore needs to be treated as a distinctive area that receives special protection.
The argument that football should get this exemption is based on acknowledging that sport is not just a business, but also a social activity and should be treated as such.
It is likely, however, that this argument and these reforms are going to be resisted by the Commission which is keen to uphold the principles of European Law. A draft of the document has been leaked to European football’s governing body UEFA, which described it as “disappointing”, adding “that it maintains each and every sports rule can only be judged on a case-by-case basis by EU judges”.
European Law has already weakened the pyramid structure in many countries, with the Bosman ruling in 1996 and Article 17 of the FIFA regulations for the Status and Transfer of Players, which was created to prevent transfer rules falling foul of European free movement laws.
The latter regulation, which was employed by Andy Webster to move from Hearts to Wigan last summer, has resulted in smaller clubs becoming even more reluctant to invest time and money in young players for fear they will legally break their contracts in search of a more profitable deal with a larger club.
By refusing to exempt football from European Law, which is broadly what the White Paper is expected to say on Wednesday, the Commission will weaken Smith's attempts to cement the pyramid structure.
In England, there have been many beneficiaries of such a system. By working their way up the through the divisions − from non-league to the professional leagues − Wimbledon, Colchester United and Yeovil Town have all shown that minnows can swim with the big fish. But these success stories are likely to become few and far between now.
Europe was the ultimate goal for Smith as a player. As an administrator, Europe could be viewed as his biggest nightmare as the Commission is likely to seek to continue to exercise control over his plans for the future.
Calum MacLeod is a solicitor specialising in Competition law at UK law firm Shepherd and Wedderburn.
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