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European Union pressured to stop the flood of foreign investment in soccer clubs

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

European soccer is a global business. European teams attract investors from the United States, from China, from the Middle East. And in recent years, super-wealthy owners have tilted the balance of competition in favor of a handful of elite clubs that can drop hundreds of millions of dollars - or euros - pursuing the world's best players. This reminds me of debate in pro baseball against richer and less-wealthy teams from smaller markets. There is now a move for the European Union to halt the flood of foreign investment. NPR's H.J. Mai has more.

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UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: It's Manchester City's time.

H J MAI, BYLINE: Manchester City, Newcastle United, Paris Saint-Germain all have something in common. And it's not what you think. It's Gulf-state ownership with deep pockets. That's brought a radical change to the European soccer landscape, now dominated by these new super teams, says sports business professor Simon Chadwick.

SIMON CHADWICK: What we essentially have now is a hyper-industrialized, a hyper-commercialized sport.

MAI: And while this trend of foreign ownership began with American and Russian billionaires in the early 2000s, it's the injection of dollars from the UAE, Qatar and the Saudis that's put it into overdrive.

CHADWICK: We're now, I think, reaching a tipping point because Europeans are starting to realize that if you want a healthy soccer industry, there does need to be some regulatory interventions.

MAI: The European Union last year passed a new law to review and correct market distortions triggered by subsidies from non-EU countries. And so this summer, a small Belgian soccer club and Spain's La Liga filed separate complaints aiming to bar investments from those wealthy Gulf states. It's to test whether this new EU law might actually extend to European soccer. A commission spokesperson confirmed to NPR that they are assessing those filings. But Sibel Yilmaz, competition law expert with Covington & Burling in Brussels, cautions that soccer is just not high on the list for EU intervention.

SIBEL YILMAZ: I think there are a lot of other areas that they feel are still kind of more priority for this than non-European investment in football clubs.

MAI: Yilmaz says that new regulation is really intended to prevent outside tampering in critical areas like national security and economic stability. That said, if the European Commission decides to take up the issue, it won't be the first time a European body is intervening in soccer. The 1995 Bosman ruling by the European Court of Justice established free agency in European soccer. And, Chadwick cautions, as in the Bosman case, it could take years before a ruling is issued.

H.J. Mai, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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