EU backs free-to-air right

European Union legal backing for the free broadcast in Britain of the World Cup and European Championship has been labelled good news for fans.

An Advocate-General at the European Court of Justice rejected appeals by FIFA and UEFA against a ruling that the matches should be open to bidding from pay TV companies.

The Advocate-General - whose formal "opinion" will now be considered by the full court before a final ruling - said national authorities had the right under European Union (EU) law to ensure "broad public access" to competitions deemed as "events of major importance for their society".

FIFA and UEFA, who organise the World Cup and European Championship finals respectively, claim an EU directive on television broadcasting which allows member states to block restrictive broadcast rights to major national events breaches their commercial freedom to sell exclusive screening access.

Such events are compiled on a UK list, approved by the European Commission as compatible with EU rules, and which includes all matches of the World Cup finals or the Euro finals.

Conservative MEP for East Midlands Emma McClarkin said: "Of course these are events of national importance in Britain.

"You only need to glance at our newspapers during a major tournament to realise that - or look at all the flags flying from people's windows and cars.

"These events bring the country together. People get wrapped up in the whole tournament, including many who may not usually watch sport and who do not have paid-for cable channels.

"They fill in their wall-charts, they take part in the office sweepstake and they watch all the matches. For lots of people, this is a huge part of being British."

Irish MEP Sean Kelly said free-to-air broadcasting of soccer was just as important to fans in Ireland:

He said: "Watching live sport has long been an extremely popular source of entertainment and I welcome moves to ensure that there will be no pay-per-view for the World Cup or European Championship.

"The EU strives to promote sport in all capacities, including the viewing of live sport. If the court adopts the Advocate General's opinion, it will further our commitment to sport in the EU."

FIFA and UEFA have challenged the description of such matches as "of major importance" under the EU rules.

But Advocate General Niilo Jaaskinen said today that the EU member states alone were "competent to draw up the national lists intended to ensure that events of major importance for society are broadcast on free television".

The aim of allowing national authorities the right to draw up lists of events of major importance was to balance the right to provide services in the area of television broadcasting with the need to protect the right to information "within the context of the cultural diversity of the member states".

Judges making a final ruling early next year are not bound by the Advocate-General's legal advice, but follow it in about 80 per cent of EU cases.