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On 4 May 2023, Royal Excelsior Virton (“Virton“), a professional football club in Belgium’s second division, announced that it lodged a complaint against competing club SK Lommel (“Lommel“) with the European Commission (“Commission“) under the new Regulation 2022/2560 on foreign subsidies distorting the internal market (“FSR“). This appears to be the first time the Commission is publicly asked to initiate an ex officio investigation under the FSR.

In a statement, Virton said that it had lodged the complaint to challenge the “financial doping” of football clubs in the EU that benefit from financial support from countries such as Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. According to Virton, this financial support, which it said takes the form of “artificially inflated sponsorship agreements but also – more directly – through capital injections,” distorts competition in the EU football market.

Virton’s complaint appears primarily targeted at its competitor Lommel, which is part of the City Football Group “and therefore receives funds from the Emirate of Abu Dhabi.” According to Virton, Lommel received a new capital injection of EUR 16.8 million (over three times Virton’s budget) from its parent company, which allowed it to obtain its professional licence from the Belgian football federation for the 2023-2024 season. Virton claims that this capital injection is not underpinned by economic rationale and therefore distorts competition.

For that reason, Virton filed a complaint with the Commission, requesting that the Commission “use its new powers [under the FSR] to put an end to the distortions caused by these foreign subsidies distorting the professional football market in the EU and in particular in Belgium.”

The Commission will be able to initiate ex officio investigations into foreign subsidies that distort the EU internal market as from 12 July 2023 onwards. An investigation can cover subsidies granted as far back as 2018.

It is not yet clear whether the Commission will indeed do so following Virton’s complaint. The FSR does not contain a formal complaints process (unlike in anti-subsidy/countervailing duty cases) and there is no obligation on the Commission to act upon a complaint.

If the Commission decides to initiate an ex officio investigation following Virton’s complaint, the first step would be a preliminary review. In that review, the Commission could request “all necessary” information from Lommel, its parent company, the Emirate of Abu Dhabi, and any other company, association, EU Member State and non-EU government that is deemed relevant to the review. The Commission can also request to verify the provided information on the spot (as in anti-subsidy/countervailing duty investigations). If, following the preliminary review, the Commission finds sufficient indications that Lommel has been granted a foreign subsidy that distorts the EU football market, the second step would be an in-depth investigation.

To assess whether any financial support that Lommel may have received from the Emirate of Abu Dhabi is an actionable foreign subsidy that distorts the EU football market, the Commission would take account of several factors, including: (1) the amount and nature of the subsidy, (2) the situation of Lommel (and its parent company), such as its size and position in the football sector, (3) the level and evolution of economic activity of Lommel (and its parent company) on the EU market, (4) the purpose and any conditions attached to, and the use of, the financial contributions on the EU market.

If the Commission concludes that Lommel has benefited from a foreign subsidy that distorts the EU football market, it can impose redressive measures to remedy that distortion. These remedies could include ordering Lommel to (1) refrain from making certain investments, (2) divest certain assets, and/or (3) repay the subsidy. Virton’s complaint under the FSR illustrates the broad scope for ex officio investigations under the FSR, including as another tool for EU companies to address perceived unlevel playing fields.


Fiona Carlin is the head of the EU Competition & Regulatory Affairs practice in Brussels. She is the former Chief Executive of much of Baker McKenzie’s EMEA Region and the former Chair of the Firm’s Global Competition and Antitrust Law Practice comprising more than 320 lawyers in over 40 countries. She has remained an active practitioner throughout her various leadership roles with a particular focus on regulated industries.
Fiona is also the Chair of the European Advisory Board of Catalyst, a leading non-profit organisation dedicated to expanding opportunities for women and business. She was a founding and long-standing member of Baker McKenzie's Global Diversity & Inclusion Committee and is dedicated to creating an inclusive high performance culture where the talent of our lawyers and business professionals can flourish.
Fiona has been listed in "The International Who’s Who of Competition Lawyers" since 2009, and is among Global Competition Review's Top 100 Women in Antitrust. Chambers quotes clients as citing her "legal and pragmatic advice" and describing her as "globally minded".


Arnoud Willems is a partner in the International Commercial & Trade Practice Group in the Brussels office. He joined Baker McKenzie in 2022. He has an extensive network, built over 25 years as a trusted advisor of entrepreneurs, executives, and diplomats. Arnoud has a deep understanding of how trade rules shape global flows of capital, investment, goods, technology, and services.


Nina Niejahr is a senior counsel in the Firm's Brussels-based EU Competition & Regulatory Affairs Practice. She has over 20 years of experience in advising clients on all aspects of EU law, focusing on State aid and competition law. Nina is ranked by Chambers for her State aid practice and listed by Who's Who Legal and the German JUVE directory as recommended/"oft empfohlen". Nina also regularly litigates in the EU Courts in Luxembourg. She has published and speaks at seminars and conferences on a variety of topics of EU State aid law and litigation.


Bram Hoorelbeke is a counsel in Baker McKenzie's European Competition & Regulatory Affairs Practice in Brussels. He started his career in 2007 as a lawyer in the EU, Competition and Regulatory department of a highly regarded Benelux law firm. Bram joined Baker McKenzie in 2017 and is the assistant editor of Competitio, the leading review on Belgian Competition law.


Dr. Bregt Natens is a counsel in the International Commercial & Trade Practice Group in the Brussels office. He joined Baker McKenzie in 2022. Bregt advises clients on EU and international trade law and regulations, with a focus on trade remedies, customs rules, market access and regulatory barriers. Bregt has significant experience representing clients in litigation before the EU courts and the World Trade Organization (WTO), and before EU and EU member state authorities in the context of trade remedies and customs matters.
Bregt also regularly teaches trade law, and his research has been published in leading journals.

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