Fresh Off World Cup, FIFA Faces a Legal Challenge From Ukraine

LONDON — Fresh from the conclusion of the men’s World Cup, soccer’s governing body FIFA faces a legal challenge of its rule that allowed players to immediately leave Ukrainian club teams because of Russia’s invasion.

On Thursday, sport’s top court will begin hearing a more than $40 million claim for damages brought against FIFA by a top Ukrainian soccer team.

The hearing at the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Lausanne, Switzerland, centers on a temporary rule by FIFA that allowed overseas players on Ukrainian teams to suspend their contracts and sign for teams elsewhere. The Ukrainian league stopped play for about six months, then restarted in August.

Shakhtar Donetsk, the club that is bringing the claim, has lost several of its top players without receiving a transfer fee under a regulation first implemented in March. The system is slated to run at least until June next year.

Under FIFA’s emergency statute change, the suspension is only temporary, meaning that many players will eventually have to return to their host teams in Ukraine as their contracts continue to run. But with little sign of the war ending, many of those players may be out of contract by the time FIFA lifts the temporary order, which would enable them to leave as free agents.

The State of the War

  • A Botched Invasion: Secret battle plans, intercepts and interviews with soldiers and Kremlin confidants offer new insight into the stunning failures of Russia’s military in Ukraine.
  • A New Russian Offensive?: A top adviser to President Volodymyr Zelensky said Ukraine is bracing for the possibility that Russia will sharply escalate the war in a winter offensive that could include mass infantry attacks.
  • The War in the Skies: As Ukrainian officials warn of a new Russian ground offensive, waves of Russian missiles continue to batter Ukraine’s infrastructure. The attacks are leaving a trail of destruction and grief.
  • Russian Draft: A Times reporter spoke to Russians at a draft office in Moscow to gauge how they felt about going to war.

“We want fairness and justice,” Sergei Palkin, Shakhtar’s chief executive, told The New York Times. “On one side FIFA protects players but it should also protect clubs.”

FIFA did not respond to a message seeking comment.

Shakhtar has seen millions of dollars worth of talent leave for nothing since the invasion started, losing a crucial source of revenue it requires to balance its books. Last summer, it could only watch as top players moved without fees to teams in England’s Premier League, historically a lucrative market for Shakhtar, and also to France’s top division.

“Two days before FIFA made the announcement, we almost had a contract on the table: we were to sign the next day,” Palkin said of one high value sale that was scuttled. The club pulled out from the talks, he added, learning it could instead register the same player for free.

To make matters worse, no special provisions have been put in place for Ukrainian teams whose finances have been crushed by the ongoing war. The league was initially suspended before restarting without fans, even as the war continues. Several matches have been suspended by air raid sirens, with players and officials forced to take cover in shelters.

Shakhtar and the other Ukrainian teams are still required to pay money owed to teams outside the country, including for players that have been allowed to suspend their contracts.

Palkin described an example of one situation in which the team agreed to sign a player from an Italian team just before the Russian invasion. The player never set foot in Ukraine and was allowed to move elsewhere, leaving Shakthar on the hook for about $9 million for a player that had never set foot in Ukraine. It asked his former team to scrap the deal and to sell him elsewhere, but those talks floundered. Shakhtar has balked at the payment, Palkin said, and the club, which he declined to name, is asking FIFA to punish Shakhtar.

Palkin said efforts to come to an arrangement with FIFA have largely been met with silence. Multiple Ukrainian teams have asked the governing body to suspend their obligations to other clubs until normal operations can be established. He also suggested FIFA, which announced it had made $7.5 billion from the World Cup in Qatar, could also establish “a reparation fund” for Ukrainian teams.

Shakhtar, which is owned by the billionaire Rinat Akhmetov, has the highest payroll among Ukrainian teams. But it is also benefiting from playing in the Champions League, Europe’s top club competition. Its home games are played across the border in Poland and have provided a lucrative — and much needed — financial boost, as well as providing a platform for its domestically reared talent, which, unlike foreign players, are not able to suspend their contracts.

That has allowed Palkin to try and negotiate player sales ahead of the opening of the midseason European player trading window next month. He attended meetings in London recently with English clubs interested in signing forward Mykhailo Mudryk, 21, who is considered to be one of European soccer’s biggest emerging talents.

Palkin said he is conscious of teams looking to take advantage of his team’s situation and is unwilling to be forced to sell for a below-market price despite the ongoing hardship. That means Mudryk could remain with Shakhtar until next summer’s off-season, a time when the biggest trades are typically made. “It’s quite a long negotiation process,” he said.

The Ukrainian league is currently on break for the winter and is scheduled to restart in March. By then, there should be a resolution in Shakhtar’s case against FIFA.

“We want to sit together with all the stakeholders and work out a plan,” Plain said. “And we want fairness and justice.”

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