FIFA moves step closer to allowing domestic club matches to take place abroad


The prospect of domestic football matches taking place abroad has moved another step closer after world governing body FIFA approved a working group to look into potential changes to its rules.

Regular-season league matches in overseas territories are prohibited but last month, FIFA was dropped as a defendant in a case in New York filed by promoter Relevent to change the policy.

On Wednesday at its annual congress in Thailand, FIFA announced that 10 to 15 members representing national associations, confederations, clubs, leagues, players, supporter groups and “private entities” will convene to make recommendations on the matter “in the following months”.

The working group will consider changes to the rules for “authorising interclub football matches or competitions” and the criteria to be applied for signing off such matches or competitions.

The idea will divide fans and football stakeholders alike, but the potential to hold Premier League matches in the United States or La Liga games in South America is getting ever closer.

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Is FIFA’s announcement a significant step?

Far be it for us to suggest anyone should get excited about the creation of another FIFA working group, but the one announced in Bangkok on Wednesday might be the proverbial exception to the rule.

Last month, FIFA withdrew from a lawsuit that is primarily between Relevent, a U.S.-based sports promoter and rights agency, and the U.S. Soccer Federation (USSF). The dispute is about Relevent’s desire to bring competitive European club fixtures to America and it has been rumbling on for six years. FIFA got dragged into that fight when the USSF blocked Relevent’s attempt to stage a Barcelona vs Girona match in Miami in 2018, citing FIFA’s ban on domestic leagues playing matches outside their own territories without the explicit approval of their hosts.

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With North American sports leagues routinely playing real games abroad and European football leagues repeatedly staging super cups in more lucrative climes, that ban was already looking wobbly before the European Court of Justice’s (ECJ) Super League ruling in December fired a shot across the bows of every international sports federation. While the ECJ ruling did not specifically address this issue, it sent a warning to FIFA et al that it will not be able to block ideas from commercial rivals simply because it thinks it can.

So, in classic FIFA fashion, it has invited the “football family”, plus representatives from the big leagues and “private entities engaged in organising international matches or competitions”, to talk it out and come up with a deal.

Matt Slater

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The Supercopa de Espana has been held in Saudi Arabia since 2020 (Giuseppe Cacace/AFP via Getty Images)

So will we see domestic matches played abroad?

To be helpful, FIFA has also provided some “non-exhaustive factors” to consider. Any league wanting to take its show on the road should give fans “fair” warning that they may find it more difficult to watch this game live and provide steps to help them get there, if that is what they want to do.

Consideration should also be given to the possible impact these international fixtures might have on the competition, whether single games are better than whole rounds of fixtures, and what the host country’s league thinks about it.

That last one could mean some actual work for this working group but where there’s a will, there is usually a way in football. And there is definitely a will for this to happen. OK, not from football’s most loyal customers, season ticket holders, but they have not been invited to join the working group so… sorry, you’re just going to have to share your favourite thing with like-minded types from Bangalore to Boston.

Make no mistake: this FIFA working group will amount to something. Premier League, La Liga, Serie A, take your pick, games are coming to a stadium nearer you.

Matt Slater

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What do I need to know about the Relevent case?

Relevent Sports is best known to soccer fans in the U.S. as the creator and promoter of the International Champions Cup, a series of pre-season friendlies between international club teams hosted at venues throughout the United States from 2013 to 2019. Relevent is still in the same business, promoting summer tours by Spain’s La Liga and the English Premier League in 2024.

In August 2018, Relevent attempted to level up from preseason games, announcing it was planning to hold a regular-season La Liga match between Barcelona and Girona in Miami. That October, FIFA announced a policy barring domestic leagues from playing regular-season games outside its home territory, and Barcelona withdrew from its commitment.

Then in March 2019, Relevent applied with the USSF, a FIFA member, to sanction an official league match between two Ecuadorian teams, Barcelona Sporting Club and Guayaquil City FC, from the country’s top tier. Relevent obtained approval from LigaPro Ecuador, governed by the Ecuadorian Football Federation. The USSF denied the sanction, citing the FIFA policy, and Relevent sued on antitrust grounds that September.

A federal court judge dismissed the case in 2021, only for that dismissal to be overturned on appeal in 2023. The USSF’s petition to the U.S. Supreme Court was a challenge against the revival of the suit.

The Supreme Court asked the administration of President Joe Biden for its view on whether or not to hear the petition, resulting in a March 2024 brief recommending that they not do so and allow the decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit to stand. In late April, the Supreme Court announced it would not hear the case.

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Explaining Relevent Sports’ lawsuit against FIFA, U.S. Soccer

Relevent Sports said it would drop FIFA as a defendant in the lawsuit against FIFA and the USSF in early April.

The resolution between Relevent and FIFA does not include the USSF, which remains a defendant in the case that is still pending and could potentially be heard by the Supreme Court.

Melanie Anzidei


What happens next?

If the FIFA working group recommends changes to the rules, the question will be who blinks first.

In England, the debate has been toxic ever since the Premier League withdrew a 2008 proposal for an international round of games, following a backlash from local supporters and media. There was a similar reaction in October 2021, when The Athletic revealed Premier League shareholders had discussed a “roadmap for meaningful matches abroad”.

The reaction is unlikely to be too different now, and the politics is even more sensitive for the Premier League, which currently faces the immediate threat of a government-imposed regulator entering English football. Any regulator is unlikely to sign off on plans that would be perceived by many, fairly or otherwise, to uproot clubs from their local communities.

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It seems unlikely the Premier League would be the first to play a game abroad (Paul Ellis/AFP via Getty Images)

The temptation for clubs is obvious. Combined, the Premier League’s international broadcast deals are more lucrative than its domestic rights deal, which opens questions about whether the global supporter merits greater access to meaningful action.

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The league’s chief executive Richard Masters said last summer: “The Premier League has come away from being a niche interest, as it was a decade ago. Now it feels mainstream and we are there to take advantage of those opportunities and push us forward — but I don’t think we’re really any nearer a game abroad.

“I was here at the Premier League when the ’39th game’ idea (an attempt to add another game to the Premier League calendar to be played overseas) was launched. I’m very much aware of the reaction then and I’m not entirely sure people’s views have changed.

“In the States, there’s a much more liberal view of what sports can do. You can move a franchise between cities, you can do all sorts of things. But football in this country has a cultural reference point and we need to be aware of that and respect it.”

Politically, it is unfathomable that the Premier League would be the first movers but Masters was speaking before this agreement to review the situation and there is no shortage of club executives who will be keen to push the envelope, particularly as budgets tighten around the Premier League’s profitability and sustainability rules (PSR), leaving owners scrambling for cash to stay in line.

Adam Crafton

(Top photo: Manchester United played Arsenal in a friendly at MetLife Stadium last summer; Rich Schultz/Getty Images)



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