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US Justice Department warns FIFA on international ban

The US Justice Department has entered into a sports dispute involving the company of a longtime friend of President Donald Trump, warning the FIFA that a prohibition against staging league matches internationally could violate American antitrust laws.

Relevent Sports, controlled by Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross, sued the US Soccer Federation in September 2019 for failing to sanction a proposed Spanish league match between Barcelona and Girona in Miami Gardens, Florida.

US District Judge Valerie Caproni in Manhattan dismissed an antitrust claim by Relevent Sports in July and gave the company until Tuesday to re-file the suit or take its interference claim case to arbitration.

The letter from the Justice Department was included in a filing by Relevent on Tuesday seeking permission to amend its complaint by adding FIFA, soccer’s governing body, as a defendant.

“Market allocation is a per se violation of the US antitrust laws,” Makan Delrahim, the assistant attorney general who heads the Justice Department’s antitrust division, wrote in a letter to FIFA President Gianni Infantino and USSF Cindy Parlow Cone.

“Sports organizations are not categorically immune from liability under the rules. In particular, they apply to FIFA and its affiliates, including the United States Soccer Federation, in the same manner that they apply to any other organisation whose activities substantially affect the United States.

“We specifically are concerned that FIFA could violate US antitrust laws by restricting the territory in which teams can play league games.”

The Justice Department has obtained a series of guilty pleas from soccer officials along with several convictions during the past five years as part of its investigation into corruption in the sport.

The FIFA has maintained it is a victim and was harmed by corrupt individuals and companies.

While US leagues have embraced moving regular-season games internationally, soccer generally has restricted its international club initiatives to exhibitions along with selected cup matches.

Relevent initially sued in New York Supreme Court after the USSF refused to sanction a 2018-19 match between Ecuador’s Barcelona and Guayaquil at Miami Gardens.
The USSF cited an October 26, 2018, announcement by FIFA: “Consistent with the opinion expressed by the football stakeholders committee, the council emphasized the sporting principle that official league matches must be played within the territory of the respective member association.”

MLS Commissioner Don Garber and then USSF President Carlos Cordeiro were on the stakeholders committee, and former USSF President Sunil Gulati is a member of the ruling council.

Relevent alleges the stakeholders committee on February 27 recommended the policy against international league matches be added to FIFA’s statutes.

Relevent withdrew its state court suit and filed this latest action in federal court, citing antitrust law.

Delrahim wrote the department is raising the concerns to protect competition “for the benefit of American consumers and soccer players”.