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Appeals court restores promoter's lawsuit against FIFA

In this courtroom sketch, defendants Hernan Lopez, center, and Carlos Martinez, second from right, sit with their attorneys as the jury deliberates, Tuesday, March 7, 2023, at Brooklyn federal court in New York. (Aggie Whelan Kenny via AP)
Aggie Whelan Kenny/AP
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FR171436 AP
In this courtroom sketch, defendants Hernan Lopez, center, and Carlos Martinez, second from right, sit with their attorneys as the jury deliberates, Tuesday, March 7, 2023, at Brooklyn federal court in New York. (Aggie Whelan Kenny via AP)

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 decided this week.

The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in the lawsuit by Relevant 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 Gardens, Florida.

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.

Relevent had first 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.

“Today’s ruling is an important victory for both American soccer and the global growth of the game," Relevent said in a statement. “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.”

Relevent added “there’s still additional work ahead to make this vision a reality.”

FIFA said in a statement that it “will review the written decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals before deciding next steps."

USSF CEO JT Batson did not respond to a request for comment.

Relevent is represented by Jeffrey Kessler, the lawyer retained by members of the U.S. women’s national soccer team who settled their wage and gender discrimination lawsuit against the USSF for $24 million.

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Associated Press Sports Writer Ron Blum works in New York.

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