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Soccer union launches legal action against FIFA over fixture congestion

By Sammy Mncwabe and Sam Joseph, CNN

(CNN) — FIFA is facing a legal challenge over the world governing body’s “unilateral” decision to set the international match calendar – notably an expanded 32-team FIFA Club World Cup – unions representing soccer players said in a statement on Thursday.

The claim filed by the English Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA) and the Union Nationale des Footballeurs Professionnels – the French player union – and supported by FIFPRO Europe, accuses FIFA of violating player’s rights and potentially EU competition law by creating a calendar that is “overloaded and unworkable.”

According to FIFPRO Europe, FIFA has “failed to meaningfully engage or negotiate and have unilaterally continued a programme of competition expansion despite the opposition of player unions.”

“Since all attempts at dialogue have failed, it is now up to us to ensure that the fundamental rights of players are fully respected by taking the matter to the European courts and thus to the European Court of Justice (ECJ),” said FIFPRO President David Terrier.

“It’s not a question of stigmatising a particular competition, but of denouncing both the underlying problem and the straw that broke the camel’s back,” Terrier added.

CNN has reached out to FIFA for comment on the legal action.

Next year’s Club World Cup is scheduled to take place in the United States from mid-June to mid-July, and the unions say it infringes on the players’ right to an annual break, breaching the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights (CFREU) “without any serious justification.”

The player unions are asking the Brussels Court of Commerce to refer the case to the ECJ for a preliminary ruling over concerns about forced labour, rights to healthy working conditions, rights to collective bargaining and restriction of competition.

“There are too many emerging instances across football where the rights of players, and the legal implications of decisions by governing bodies and competition organizers, are seen as something that can just be ignored,” PFA President Maheta Molango said in a statement on Thursday.

“Too many within football act like it is exempt from the normal requirements of employers and employees.

“Players are not being listened to and they want to see action. As their union, we have a duty to intervene and to enforce their legal rights as employees. Ultimately, that time has now come,” Molango added.

In May, FIFPRO and the World League Associations (WLA) sent a letter to FIFA threatening legal action over the global football calendar which they said is “now beyond saturation, to the point that national leagues are unable to properly organise their competitions” while “players are being pushed beyond their limits, with significant injury risks and impacts on their welfare”.

At the time, FIFA denied claims that it had failed to engage stakeholders about the football calendar and said this was discussed with both FIFPRO and WLA on several occasions as a fundamental part of the wider topic of the Future of Football in 2021 and 2022.

FIFA President Gianni Infantino used his opening address to the 74th FIFA Congress in Bangkok on May 17, to defend the football calendar.

“FIFA is financing football all over the world,” Infantino said.

“The revenues that we generate are not just going to a few clubs in one country, the revenues that we generate are going to 211 countries all over the world. There is no other organization that does that,” he added.

In addition to the larger Club World Cup, all three European club competitions will be expanded to 36 teams for the 2024/2025 season.

The group stage has been consolidated into a single 36-team league, with clubs in the Champions League and Europa League playing eight games in this phase instead of the current six. Clubs in the Conference League will still play six matches.

In all three of those European competitions, teams placed 1st-8th under the new format qualify automatically for the knockout round. Clubs that finish 9th-24th will then play a further two matches in a playoff stage to determine who advances to the round of 16.

According to recent research conducted by FIFPRO and Football Benchmark, 23 year-old Real Madrid and Brazil superstar Vinícius Júnior has already played more than double the amount of matches that his compatriot and former Ballon d’Or winner Ronaldinho played before turning 24.

Ahead of the Champions League final on June 1, Vinícius Jr.’s Madrid teammate Jude Bellingham had played 18,486 minutes in his young career, spread across club and international competition.

In comparison, England and Manchester United legend Wayne Rooney – who, like Bellingham, became a first team regular at the age of 16 – played 15,481 minutes before turning 21. David Beckham played almost five times less the number of minutes that Bellingham has by the same age.

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