In a decision with some parallels to the landmark Bosman ruling, the Swedish Football Association has granted The Local's partner football club Långholmen FC a temporary dispensation from regulations requiring a quota of Sweden-bred players in match day squads.
After the celebrations surrounding last season's dramatic promotion to division 3, the Stockholm club sobered up with a start when it was discovered that the move from the local leagues into the national system meant a new set of regulations to follow, including one stipulating that half of the team must qualify as homegrown players.
The chance discovery of the Swedish FA regulations by one of Långholmen's members sent shockwaves through Sweden's perhaps most international club, which has a playing staff representing 21 nationalities.
”We panicked as our championship winning team from last year had only five players who qualified as homegrown players,” Mats Gustavsson, Långholmen FC chairperson, told The Local.
Långholmen applied to the Swedish FA's competition committee for a dispensation from the rule but their initial request was rejected.
"We were obliged to reject the application as there was no room for manoeuvre within the regulations for providing a dispensation," said Swedish FA lawyer Lars Helmersson to The Local.
But the expat community club decided to contest the decision and, with the backing of an association representing the interests of division three clubs, appealed to the board of the Swedish Football Association.
The FA board returned their affirmative decision last Tuesday, much to the relief of a Långholmen still uncertain about where and with whom they would be playing in 2010, with less than a month to the big kick off.
”Of course we are happy that we have been given a dispensation, but I think that the main issue here is that hopefully our fight will lead to a change in the rules so that other clubs do not have to go through the same thing,” Mats Gustavsson said.
The regulations, which stipulate that half of the match squad must have been registered with a Swedish club for three years between the ages of 15 and 21, affect all players, regardless of nationality, Gustavsson pointed out.
"The board gave the club's players a dispensation on the grounds of them being amateurs and having come to Sweden for reasons other than football. The purpose of the rules was never to discriminate against immigrant clubs such as Långholmen," Helmersson confirmed.
Gustavsson told The Local that while the club has been a little ”shell-shocked” by the experience, preparations for the coming season have not been disrupted.
"We did discuss adopting a form of affirmative action policy by recruiting players who qualified under the rules. But this would mean we would have had to turn away players who had the wrong background – dangerously close to sorting people according to skin colour, or sexuality, and nobody wants that," he said.
The dispensation applies to 13 Långholmen players – all amateurs who have moved to Sweden through work or romantic connections – and extends only for the 2010 season. The Local asked Gustavsson what the future holds for the English-speaking set up, which joined the Swedish league's bottom rung, division 8, only seven seasons ago.
”We were given the dispensation on the grounds that the players were amateurs. But if we were to win the division and move into division 2 then we would have to put them all on contract... we'll cross that bridge when we come to it,” he said.
According to the Swedish FA regulations, from division 3 and upwards at least half of a match day squad must be made up of homegrown players. The rules were introduced in Sweden in 2006 to replace regulations which limited the number of non-EU players (to three).
”Sweden introduced the regulations after an EU court ruled against the previous praxis of limiting non-EU players. We instead adopted UEFA rules stipulating homegrown players - but these are designed for elite competitions," said Lars Helmersson.
Helmersson confirmed that the FA's competition committee has been tasked with reviewing the regulations during the 2010 season to avoid a repeat of the situation that has afflicted Långholmen.
He added that although the UEFA regulations were developed in consultation with the EU and world football body FIFA, they have never been examined in court.
"It is only when they are challenged before the courts that the issue can be looked at legally," Helmersson said.
On the same day as the Swedish FA told Långholmen of its decision, March 16th, the European Court of Justice ruled in a landmark decision regarding the French player Olivier Bernard, stating that clubs have the right to claim compensation for their investment in the training of young players.
"All of these issues are basically on the same principle as the Bosman case. Until the Bernard ruling I would have said that the ECJ would have found this all consistent with EU law, but now it is anyone's guess - this indicates that the court is becoming more interested in the justifications for the special status of sport," said Johan Lindholm, an expert in EU and sports law at Umeå University.
"Within EU law, a lot of questions remain unanswered, especially within football," he told The Local.
The 1995 Bosman ruling by the ECJ concerned the freedom of movement of workers within the EU. The case had a profound effect on the transfers of football players within the EU, banning restrictions on foreign EU members within the national leagues.
Currently Långholmen's players are amateur and so would not fall under EU legislation on the free movement of goods and services. However if they were to progress up the league system and become professional then they probably would qualify as "economic actors," according to Lindholm.
"The basic principle is that anything that makes it less attractive for people to find work would probably qualify as discriminatory."