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USSF, FIFA must face antitrust lawsuit — court

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A promoter’s lawsuit against FIFA and the U.S. Soccer Federation can proceed toward trial after a lower-court judge had thrown it out, a federal appeals court ruled Tuesday.

The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in the lawsuit by Relevent Sports, controlled by Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross, after the USSF refused to sanction a league match between Ecuador’s Barcelona and Guayaquil in Miami.

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In its refusal, the USSF had cited a 2018 FIFA policy that its ruling council “emphasized the sporting principle that official league matches must be played within the territory of the respective member association.”

In a decision written by Judge Raymond J. Lohier Jr., the 2nd Circuit said a three-judge panel disagreed with a lower court judge who said Relevent needed to have evidence to prove that the soccer entities had agreed in advance to adopt the 2018 policy.

“Relevent plausibly alleges that the 2018 Policy reflects a contractual commitment of head-to-head competitors to restrict competition,” the appeals court said.

It added that Relevent’s lawsuit alleged that the policy itself violates antitrust laws and its implementation provides direct evidence of collusion among the parties.

The 2nd Circuit rejected arguments by FIFA that it isn’t subject to a lawsuit in New York. It said the USSF is FIFA’s agent and transactions substantial business on behalf of FIFA in New York.

“Today’s ruling is an important victory for both American soccer and the global growth of the game,” read a statement from Relevent Sports Group CEO Daniel Sillman following Tuesday’s decision.

“By paving the way for the best teams and players from football clubs around the world to compete in competitive matches in the United States, more fans will have the chance to witness the sport being played at its highest level and directly experience all that it has to offer.

“While there’s still additional work ahead to make this vision a reality, today’s decision validates what Relevent has been working towards for the past three years, and we are proud to be leading the fight to bring new opportunities to American soccer fans.”

FIFA, soccer’s world governing body with 211 member associations, announced its foreign match policy after Relevent arranged with Spain’s LaLiga to host a regular-season match between Barcelona and Girona FC in Miami.

Barcelona eventually withdrew, and Relevent sued in 2019 over the issue in New York Supreme Court after the USSF refused to sanction the 2018-19 league match between Barcelona and Guayaquil.

It later withdrew the state lawsuit and brought the claims to federal court, also in 2019, citing antitrust law.

In 2020, the U.S. Justice Department warned FIFA that a prohibition against staging league matches internationally could violate American antitrust laws.

FIFA and the USSF did not immediately comment.

Relevent is represented by Jeffrey Kessler, the lawyer retained by members of the U.S. women’s national soccer team in their wage and gender discrimination lawsuit against the USSF.

Information from ESPN’s Jeff Carlisle and Reuters was used in this report.

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