The governance network of European football: introducing new governance approaches to regulate football at the EU level.

Author:Geeraert, Arnout


Sport originally was a self-regulating activity. The highest governing bodies of sport, global sport organisations (GSOs) like FIFA and the IOC, regulated their sports or events autonomously through self-governing networks with their own rules and regulations. This meant that sport generally fell outside the law, thereby escaping to a large extent the normal application of e.g. labour or fiscal law. At the same time, sport is increasingly relying on public services. A pertinent example of this are the police forces, which have to be deployed by governments in order to ensure a safe environment for sporting events. In recent years, we have also witnessed the growing commercial nature of sport organisations. Sport has largely become an economic activity, influenced by powerful commercial actors. This evolution has urged central and local governments to question the autonomous status of sports. Political entities now try to get a grip on sport bodies from a rule perspective, but encounter great difficulties in doing so. Sport organisations are very reluctant to give up their cherished autonomous status and point to the 'specificity' of their sector to justify this.

In addition, due to its growing economic nature, sport in general has been subject to a series of high profile difficulties in recent years. Henry and Lee (2004) mention different types of failure in governance in many GSOs. In football for example, we have witnessed cases of corruption, bribery, gambling scandals, money laundering, malicious players' agents, etc. Most recently, FIFA came under fire after some senior officials had been accused of taking bribes (BBC News 2010, Gibson 2010). These abuses clearly indicate a failure of governance in the football sector. At the same time, however, governments seem to grant sports a special status. Football in particular is often treated with economic and legal exceptionalism by governments. At the European level, ever since the Bosman1 case, FIFA and UEFA adhere to a strong protectionist vision of sport governance, even arguing that they should be afforded complete decision-making autonomy by the EU institutions (Parrish 2011). In the light of the many governance failures in the football sector, this claim does not seem legitimate. On the other hand, because of its limited legal competences regarding sports and because of the recognised autonomous status of sports governing bodies at the European level, the EU does not have the power to intervene too strongly in the sector. This means that at the EU-level, a difficult balance has to be found between allowing total autonomy and establishing an extensive government intervention. In this article, the authors make an attempt at identifying the structures of the governance network of European football in order to assess if the current balance can be considered democratically legitimate.

Whilst a lot has already been written on the emergence and empowerment of new stakeholders in professional football, the authors of this article feel it is now time to assess the governance structures of professional football; in particular how they function, and more specifically to what extent they can be considered democratically legitimate and what can be done to improve the latter. Our work builds up on the excellent work of Garcia (2007a, 2007b, 2008, 2009) and Holt (2007, 2009). This article aims at introducing a new approach in the academic debate on governance failures in professional football, but does not claim that our research is definitive. Rather, our goal is to present a broad, theoretically informed analysis on the governance structures in professional football, suggesting possible avenues for analysis. To this end, we use the Democratic Anchorage Model developed by Sorensen and Torfing (2005). It is our sincere hope that this article will open a new agenda for further research on this topic, based on modern governance approaches.

Theoretical framework

The evolution from a traditionally autonomous sector to a sector with government interference seems somewhat atypical from the perspective of modern governance theories. According to the latter, the public sector has seen an erosion of government in order to deal with today's multilayered society. In the sports sector, however, traditionally autonomous sport bodies are now subjected to attempts by governments to regulate their sector. Thus, there is no erosion of government intervention in the sector, but rather an increase. However, there is certainly an erosion in the power of the central regulatory bodies, i.e. the GSOs, due to the increasing government interventions on the one hand and the rise and empowerment of stakeholders on the other.

In this article, we summarise how the evolution from a self-governing network into a multi actor, multi-level governance network took place at the European level in the field of professional football and begin with definitions of the relevant terms.


In Anglo-American political sciences, the concept 'government' refers to the formal institutions of state and their monopoly on the use of coercive power. 'Government' is characterised by its ability to unilaterally make decisions and implement them. The term thus refers in particular to the formal and institutional top-down processes which (mostly, but not exclusively) operate at the nation state level (Stoker 1998).


In the last two decades, a significant body of governance literature has emerged. This has led to some considerable theoretical and conceptual confusion regarding the concept. Van Kersbergen and van Waarden (2004) for example, distinguish no less than nine different meanings regarding 'governance'. Therefore, it is necessary to strictly define this concept for the purposes of our analysis.

Society is becoming increasingly complex, fragmented and layered. In order to govern efficiently, there is a need for negotiation and interaction between the different kinds of organisations and groups of state, market and civil society (See Figure 1; Sorensen and Torfing 2005). The concept civil society refers to a multitude of organisations, ideally initiated and maintained by the voluntary activities of citizens (Dekker 2001).

However, this does not mean that central and local governments are being hollowed out (Hirst 1994). States still play a key role in local, national and transnational policy. Yet at the same time, their powers are steadily eroding, since they no longer monopolise the governing of the general well-being of the population (Rose 1999, Sorensen and Torfing 2005). Governments increasingly control society by involving different groups of citizens, professionals, voluntary organisations, unions and private actors in their decision-making (Rose 1996). In other words, governments are gradually controlling society in a horizontal or networked way. This new horizontal form of governing is called 'governance'. It can be viewed as the counterpart of the formal, classical and vertical or top-down 'government'.

Governance networks

In the light of the many examples of government and market failures, governments are increasingly governing society through self-governing networks. Within these networks, different kinds of citizens, professionals, voluntary organisations, unions and private actors are being involved in policy-making. This allows authorities to govern 'at a distance' (Rose 1996). The concept 'governance networks' thus refers to the upcoming forms of interactions between government, civil society and market actors regarding public policy issues. These interactions are usually characterised by high degrees of self-regulation and a relatively small degree of external regulation (Klijn and Koppenjan 2004, Torfing 2005). The concept 'governance networks' in fact combines the concept 'governance' and the policy network as an organisational framework.

One might ask whether it makes sense to talk about governance networks in a generic sense. Because there are 'a number of distinctive features of network-types of governance that permit us to define governance networks as a general category that captures different forms of public-private interaction', Sorensen and Torfing (2009, p. 284) believe that this does make sense. They define the term as follows:

'A relatively stable horizontal articulation of interdependent, but operationally autonomous actors, who interact through negotiations, which take place within a regulative, normative, cognitive and imaginary framework that to a certain extent is self-regulating and which contributes to the production of public purpose within or across particular policy areas' (Sorensen and Torfing 2005, p. 197). The authors of this article agree with the arguments of post-liberal theorists that governance networks are an essential part of today's society. We should therefore focus on the opportunities they give us. Sorensen and Torfing (2005, p. 201) state on this note that 'we should rather ask ourselves how we can improve the democratic performance of governance networks, instead of writing them off for being inherently undemocratic'.

Evolution in the governance of European football: from autonomous self-governance to mixed governance

Political, legal and economic driving forces leading to a governance network

Since there already exists a large body of literature on how the current situation in football governance has emerged, we limit ourselves in this section to a summary of the political, legal and economic driving forces that are gradually leading to the emergence in European professional football of a governance network as defined by Sorensen and Torfing (2005).

The hierarchic pyramid network of football (Croci and Forster 2006, Garcia 2007b) can be characterised by the concept of 'government' in the sense that football's governing bodies use coercive power to unilaterally make and implement decisions. This highly undemocratic...

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