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They think it’s all over!
Sports lawyer Benoit Keane (Pic: Cian Redmond)

14 Feb 2024 / sports law Print

They think it’s all over!

Brussels-based Irish lawyer Benoit Keane has started 2024 in a positive frame of mind, after what he describes as a “dramatic finish” to the last year.

Keane, who specialises in sports law and EU competition law, is part of UEFA’s external legal team in its legal battle with those football clubs behind the proposed European ‘Super League’.

On 21 December last, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) handed down its judgment on questions referred to it by Madrid’s Commercial Court, where the Super League organisers had challenged measures announced by UEFA and FIFA aimed at preventing the project from coming to fruition.

Keane describes the “high drama” of watching the judges read out their answers, then receiving the CJEU press release at the same time as everybody else. That release, which UEFA has reportedly described as “inaccurate”, initially sparked headlines such as “boost for Super League”.

It highlighted a finding that the rules laid down by football’s governing bodies that require any new club competition to be approved by them were unlawful; but the drama had just started.

A game of two halves

As UEFA was quick to point out, this finding related to previous pre-authorisation rules, which were updated in 2022. And Keane told the Gazette that, after reading the full judgment, his mood had turned “very positive” by the end of that morning – and remains so.

“UEFA can remain both a regulator and organiser: it can require preauthorisation, and it is allowed to protect sporting merit,” he says.

He notes that a number of EU law commentators quickly concluded that UEFA retained the right to protect the European sports model.

“Of course, the CJEU requires UEFA and FIFA to have transparent rules for authorising independent events; but UEFA was already working on this when the Super League was announced, and has since adopted a comprehensive set of rules which codify its rules and procedures – including the protection of sporting merit. UEFA is committed to applying these rules in a non-discriminatory manner.

“Therefore, any new proposal from the promoters of the Super League would have to meet these requirements.”

The case now goes back to the Madrid court on 14 March, but it is far from over. The case before the CJEU focused on UEFA’s rules, Keane points out, but the CJEU noted that there remains a “robust debate” on the compatibility of the Super League project with competition law, due to its closed features.

Whatever the outcome, Keane believes that the December ruling is more important for the future of the European sports model, which is based on elements such as sporting merit and the pyramid system of promotion and relegation, and is recognised in article 165 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union.

“We should look at it, not only in the light of this specific case, but also as a long-term signpost that the European sports model can be protected, as long as there are clear, transparent and non-discriminatory rules in place,” he says.

Keane encourages sports’ governing bodies to ensure that their authorisation rules meet these standards, so that they can continue to act in the interests of their sports, in line with EU competition rules.

Great advert for the game

The Cork-born lawyer had previously spoken to the Gazette before the CJEU ruling, when he had described his involvement in the Super League case as a “huge honour”, but also a huge responsibility.

He also wondered if his journey to the courts of Luxembourg and Brussels had almost been “written in the stars” – there’s the unusual first name, for a start! While there are French connections, there is, surprisingly, no French blood.

Keane’s grandparents worked in Paris on the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe after World War II and, when his uncle Benedict was born, the locals began to call him Benoît.

“When I was born, my parents, who are French teachers, really liked the name, and they decided that they would give me the French version of the name, not the English,” he explains.

The family went on holidays to France every summer, and the young Benoît was even sent to a colonie des vacances, a summer camp for French children. He emerged, he says, with some French – but much better football.

When he went to study law at UCC, which he chose mainly because of its strong EU-law programme, he also made French a component of his degree.

Playing a blinder

It was a summer spent in the Belgian city of Ghent, however, that crystallised his ambitions. As well as visits to the EU institutions in Brussels, there was a trip to Bruges, where Keane stumbled across the College of Europe. He was allowed in to have a look round, and was later selected for a one-year immersive master’s programme in European law.

During that year, there was a visit to the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) to watch the court’s first case in the wake of the momentous Bosman ruling on player contracts.

“I was fascinated by it. But I had little idea that I would actually be in court opposite a number of the lawyers who had brought that case within a few years,” he recalls.

A period at an international law firm in Brussels deepened his interest in European law: “When they offered me a trainee contract to become a solicitor in England and Wales, it was an obvious thing to do, but I always kept an eye on returning to Brussels,” he says.

Keane also arranged for five months of his training to be done as a stage (traineeship) with the European Commission. This is when the young Irish lawyer had his first taste of EU sports law.


The commission was, at the time, investigating whether the English Premier League’s media-rights deals were breaching competition rules, and Keane was allowed to sit in on tense meetings between the league and the commission officials.

“It was brilliant, but what it also meant was that I spent the five months really immersing myself in the subject.

"I think I came out with an expertise, but mostly I came out with an idea that maybe this is something I could do myself when I went back to practise as a lawyer. So, in the next few years after that, I tried to build up a bit of sport experience.”

No easy games at this level

While this was valuable for his future career, he acknowledges that, sometimes, a little bit of luck helps.

A case was brought in Charleroi by lawyers who were suing FIFA over the rules covering the release of club players for international matches.

At the preliminary hearing, Keane realised that this case would have huge ramifications for UEFA. His contacts with some Belgian lawyers led to UEFA’s eventual intervention in the case, which was settled some years later: “It was my personal gateway into working in a serious way with football and European law”.

After that, he learned much from working on cases involving media rights and listed-events regimes.

Keane later worked on UEFA’s defence of its financial fair-play rules before the
European Commission and national courts.

Goals win games

As you’d expect, Keane does have a strong interest in football (he’s a Liverpool fan). It’s not his first sporting love, however.

“I was very involved in my local tennis club. I used to run the local club competitions for the juniors – I was actually a coach for a while for young players,” he says.

“When I went into European law, it was to be a classic European lawyer working on competition cases, or free-movement cases. It was only when I was working on the European Commission case that I could suddenly see that there was an opportunity here – that sport was going to be increasingly affected by European law.

“You can be as interested as you want to be in a subject, but it’s not necessarily obvious that that’s going to be your career. I’ve been very lucky to blend the two of them together,” he acknowledges.

After his initial exposure to sports law, he began to attend conferences on the issue, getting to know people in the industry, and building up a network of contacts.

“That meant that they knew who I was in the competition sphere. It’s not every day that they’re going to have competition issues, but they knew who to turn to.”

Team effort

That was how he turned an early opportunity to work on one sports case into a body of work that eventually led to the establishment of his own practice, Keane Legal, in Brussels in 2012.

He works as an independent lawyer – in some cases entirely on his own, but often as part of a team with different skill-sets.

“Firstly, I bring in the EU law and competition-law expertise to a classic sports-law firm. But the second dimension is for EU-law practitioners who don’t necessarily have an immediate sense of the sports world. I work alongside them, and I bring them the sports perspective,” Keane says. “It is very much a team effort.”

He describes sport as a “unique sector” because competition law was built on the premise that independent entities should compete with, not help, each other. “Clubs work together – they cooperate within leagues, member associations, and international federations,” he explains. “International federations need to be able to enforce their rules on a global basis.

So this is a highly interdependent sector that, in other sectors, from a competition perspective, would simply not be permissible.”

Play to the whistle

Keane argues that the EU courts have, from the first cases in the 1970s, recognised the special position of sport – including its social and educational role.

This culminated in the broader recognition of the European sports model provided by article 165 of the Lisbon Treaty.

He adds, however, that this does not give sports bodies or clubs a “blank cheque” on compliance with competition law: “It’s always a question of how much weight one gives to the social element, versus the realities of competition law,” Keane says.

“In the Super League case, the fundamental question is sporting merit. The idea of promotion/relegation is a fundamental value of football. Without it, the whole model collapses,” Keane adds.

The table doesn’t lie

Asked about advice for any young solicitors seeking to gain a foothold in sports law, Keane says that things have changed since he began, with more direct routes into the field.

He cites a number of master’s courses in sports law, as well as a diploma run by the Law Society every few years.

He acknowledges, however, that it’s harder to forge a career in the area in Ireland, as most of the main sports-law practices are either in London or Switzerland, with some in the larger EU member states.

“I think looking outside of Ireland and then, maybe, coming back is no harm. That’s how you can find yourself an international career and gain the contacts, and then, if Ireland is where you want to be, you know you have the opportunity to come back when the jobs arise,” he advises.

“UEFA, FIFA, the IOC, and the big sports organisations – even the big clubs – now all have very sizable legal teams. Gaining that experience is going to be outstanding for anyone who wants a long-term career in sport,” Keane adds.

Drawing from his own experiences, his main message to those wanting to pursue careers in EU or sports law is not to focus on themselves too much.

“Don’t forget that it will be with the help of other people that you will achieve this. It’s very often easy to think of it as only your individual achievements, but your achievements are actually thanks to the help and support of colleagues or clients – people who put trust in you over the years. That’s why I always say that a legal career is very much a team sport,” he concludes.


What makes you happiest?

When I’m with my children.

Favourite concert?

The Pixies last year.

Favourite song?

‘Drive’ by REM.

Gadget you can’t live without?

It has to be the iPhone! (If I had to choose a second one it would be my Marshall speakers.)

What are you most grateful for?

My family (wife Alexandra, children Raphael and Sophia).

Favourite lunch companion, living or dead?

Leonardo da Vinci – so much to discuss and he was the ‘patron’ of my academic year at the College of Europe.

Why choose law?

Because it opens up so many possibilities. It’s an opportunity to work in any sector in any part of life.

Career high?

Undoubtedly representing UEFA in the Super League case – the legal equivalent of playing in a Champions League final!

Andrew Fanning
Andrew Fanning is a freelance journalist