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European court upholds fans' right to see 'important' games on free TV

Europe’s highest court has dismissed an appeal from two of international football’s most powerful bodies. The ruling means that European fans should be able to continue to watch most World Cup and Euro games on free TV.

Thursday's ruling by the European Court of Justice upheld a previous General Court decision, which had found that Belgium and the UK acted within their rights when they designated the World Cup, and in Britain's case, also the Euro tournament, as events of major importance to the public.

Such a designation, made by the national government of an EU member state, effectively means the event in question must be broadcast on so-called "free TV" as opposed to "pay TV," for which subscribers must pay extra costs.

This is set out in a 1989 directive on television broadcasting issued by the Council of the European Economic Community, which preceded the European Union (EU).

The world governing body, FIFA, and its European counterpart, UEFA, had challenged the Belgian and British designations of matches played in the World Cup and Euro, arguing that not all the games in either tournament could be considered events of major importance in those states.

A statement published on the Court of Justice's website said it had found "that it is for the Member States alone to determine the events which are of major importance."

Door left open

At the same time though, it expressed sympathy for the FIFA and UEFA position, saying that in future cases, such tournaments "must be regarded as events which are, in principle, divisible into different matches or stages, not all of which are necessarily capable of being characterized as an event of major importance."

So while the ruling means that British and Belgian viewers will continue to watch all World Cup or Euro games on free TV, the door remains open for FIFA and UEFA to generate revenue by selling the rights to single matches of less public interest in any given EU market to pay-television operators.

The ruling suggests that any games of future tournaments that any other EU government designates as a matter of major importance to its citizens, would also have to stay on free TV.

pfd/kms (AFP, dpa)