FIFA Case Note: Lamperbierg v. Vancouver Whitecaps, and Universal v. Vancouver Whitecaps
In February 2019, FIFA’s Disciplinary Committee (the “FDC”) issued two awards against the Vancouver Whitecaps that highlight the awkward relationship between Major League Soccer and its Canadian teams.
Vancouver is one of three Canadian teams in MLS. At the same time, it is a member of the Canadian Soccer Association (the “CSA”), Canada’s governing body for the sport.
MLS is headquartered in the United States. The league is a member of the US Soccer Federation and only the US Soccer Federation. Conversely, Vancouver is not a member of the USSF. In fact, the USSF does not recognize clubs as members.
The Canadian MLS teams are not the only teams that play in foreign leagues. Monaco (which plays in the French league system), Swansea and Cardiff City (Welsh clubs in England), and FC Vaduz (Switzerland by way of Lichtenstein) are among the examples sprinkled throughout the world.
Both FDC cases involved similar facts. Two Uruguayan clubs — Lamperbierg and Universal — brought separate claims against Vancouver for solidarity. While each claim stemmed from a different transfer, both clubs alleged the same grounds for relief: They had trained a player Vancouver later bought.
In both cases, the DRC ordered Vancouver to pay solidarity to the Uruguayan club — $9127.50 to Lamperbierg and $177 to Universal. Despite the relatively low amounts, Vancouver refused. So the clubs filed claims with the FDC to enforce the DRC’s rulings.
The FDC held that Vancouver’s failure to pay activated Article 64 of the FIFA Disciplinary Code (2018 edition). Article 64 authorizes the FDC to issue penalties against clubs that do not comply with rulings from FIFA judicial bodies (like the DRC). In these situations, the FDC can take the following measures:
(1) Impose a fine on the delinquent club;
(2) Set a deadline for the club to satisfy their outstanding debt; and
(3) Choose a penalty that will apply automatically if the club fails to meet the deadline. This can be either a point deduction or demotion to a lower division. It can also include a transfer ban.
In Vancouver’s case, the first two directives were straightforward. The FDC imposed a CHF1000 for each solidarity debt and set a 30-day deadline for payment.
It was the third directive that distinguished these cases. Here, the FDC ordered the CSA to deduct three points from Vancouver’s season total, if the team missed its payment deadline. The punishment would apply automatically, without the need for a subsequent hearing.
1. The Canadian Soccer Association vs. a US soccer league
The FDC’s decisions raise an obvious dilemma: The CSA would have to deduct points from MLS, an American league it does not sanction or control.
Because there is no evidence to the contrary, we are left to assume Vancouver paid its debts and the matter ended. But if Vancouver had not paid, the resulting decision would have put MLS in a tough spot. On one hand, it would be countercultural for MLS to let the CSA (or the USSF, for that matter) interfere with the league by deducting points from one of its teams. On the other, blocking implementation of a FIFA ruling would be an extreme move that even a square peg like MLS might be reluctant to make.
For now, we can only guess at the result.
2. Vancouver’s position is unlike other clubs in foreign leagues
While some clubs do play in foreign leagues, their situations do not present the same issues as Vancouver’s.
For example, Monaco plays in the French system, but is also sanctioned by the French federation. So to punish Monaco, FIFA could go through France’s governing body.
Similarly, the English FA governs Welsh clubs in the top four divisions of the English system. Thus, FIFA could order the FA to punish a club like Swansea or Cardiff City.
Compared to these examples, Vancouver’s situation is awkward. The CSA sanctions clubs as members. Last year, eleven owned this distinction, including Vancouver and its fellow Canadian MLS teams, Toronto FC and the Montreal Impact.
By contrast, the USSF does not allow clubs to become members. Instead, the leagues are members, one of them being MLS. So unlike Monaco, Vancouver cannot be sanctioned by the association that governs its league. Working an arrangement similar to the one between England and Wales would also prove difficult. There, the Welsh clubs were swapping regulation by their home FA for regulation by the English FA. Vancouver cannot make that exchange because it cannot swap regulation by its home association for regulation by an association that does not recognize independent clubs.
In the end, the Vancouver cases may not have forced MLS or FIFA to make a tough decision. But the issues the cases raised are structural. So they could arise again.
Random Observation Unleashed
The latest edition of the Disciplinary Code (2019) drops the Article 64 that determined the Vancouver cases and replaces it with Article 15. The new Article 15 reshuffles the punishment structure in the old Article 64. Now, the final payment deadline must be 30 days, with no discretion for the FDC to choose a different length. And if the club misses the deadline, the FDC must impose a transfer ban until the amount is paid. Point deductions or demotions are now discretionary and warranted only for “persistent failure, repeated offenses, or serious infringements.” The old Article 64 placed these last two elements in the reverse order, with the transfer ban being discretionary.