Commissioner Vassiliou: ‘I’m shocked’ by size of football transfer fees

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The European Commission will look into ways to limit and possibly cap football players' transfer fees after the record amount paid for Spain international Fernando Torres by Chelsea (almost 60 million euros), EU Sports Commissioner Androulla Vassiliou told EURACTIV in an interview. 

Androulla Vassiliou is the EU commissioner in charge of sport. She is also responsible for education, culture, multilingualism and youth. She has been representing Cyprus in the College of EU Commissioners since 2006, when she was appointed health commissioner in place of the departing Markos Kyprianou, who in turn became Cypriot foreign minister.

She was speaking to Francesco Guarascio during the EU Sport Forum in Budapest.

To read a shortened version of this interview, please click here

The European football world is going through major reform of its financial organisation after many crisis and bankruptcies. Do you think that increasing the participation of supporters in the financial control of clubs, as is the case for financially sound Bayern Munich, can be a good model? Would you encourage it?

It is a very good idea. We truly believe in the participation of all stakeholders in the governance of sport associations and clubs. Supporters are one of the main stakeholders. When we speak of the specificity of sport, we also refer to the relationship between supporters and their clubs. It's a very unique relationship. It's not something they can change from one day to another. If you belong to a club, you belong to that club for life.

One of the destabilising factors in the financial management of football clubs is the increasing amounts spent on player transfers. In your recent communication on sport, you state that it is time to review transfer rules. Would it be wise to establish a Europe-wide cap?

It would be rather premature to say whether we should put a cap, but I think it is a very bad idea to increase every time the money which is paid for transfers. I am shocked by the recent transfer of Fernando Torres. 59 million euros is an incredible amount. This will eventually lead from a smaller debt to a big debt, and then a bigger debt, and finally to a mess. That's why I support very much the financial fair play rules of UEFA. This will put into some order the governance of these clubs.

Do you think the European Commission could have a legal basis to impose caps on transfer fees?

What we will propose to do is to conduct a study which will start next year. It will specifically be focused on the transfers of professional players. We will assess the extent of the problem and its implications. Another study published last year on sports agents pointed out to the fraud and corruption issues that may arise through the transfers of players. If it is the case we have to think at what action we should take.

Regarding the financial management of sport clubs, the European Court of Justice last week ruled that the UK and Belgium were justified in reserving for free-to-air channels the broadcasting of top football events. Could this ruling encourage other member states to draw up lists of sport events that must be free to watch?

I think it's a good idea because we believe in the public interest of sport. We welcome the decision of the court.

Would you encourage member states to do as Belgium and the UK did?

It's not up to me but it's a decision for ministers. Moreover, it is an issue which is related to the Audiovisual Media Services Directive. My colleague in charge of the Digital Agenda, Neelie Kroes, is responsible for it. From my side, I consider it a good thing.

It's not just football that is in a financial turmoil. The crisis is hitting all sectors. The Commission will soon start negotiating the budget for the next decade. Your officials speak about launching a new sports programme funded with around 10 million euros a year. Do member states support you?

There is obviously a lot of support from sport ministers. Now they have to convince their prime ministers to see how much money will be allocated to sport. I think there is a very close correlation between sport and the achievement of our goals for Europe 2020. Not many people understand the contribution of sport to the economy. Sport contributes a lot to growth and job creation, in a direct way, but also through public works, such as the construction of stadiums, or by favouring tourism.

Do you consider as realistic the figure of 10 million euros a year for an EU sport programme running from 2014?

The figure of 10 million has been mentioned and I think it is a reasonable figure.

Article 165 of the Lisbon Treaty requires the Commission to develop the European dimension of sport by drawing up a specific EU policy programme but it gives little detail of how this should be done. Meanwhile the Commission's communication makes a whole series of policy proposals that are based on a rather broad interpretation of the article itself. Do you expect that ultimately the scope of EU sports policy will have to be decided by the courts?

It's a soft power that has been given to us. But I'm not afraid because we always base our actions on dialogue. Dialogue with member states and with stakeholders. Before we rush into taking action, we consult. If there is very strong support we proceed to the next stage. By making recommendations, for example. It's true that we cannot legislate. Anyhow, sometimes recommendations, if widely supported, can bring even more results than direct legislation. The Sport Forum is an occasion for dialogue.

Also with smaller organisations, which complain of being sometimes sidelined..

But not by us. We always encourage small sport associations to talk to us, to have bilateral meetings. 

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