Offside: Tackling Football Pundits in the Courts

21st December 2020 Sports Law

This year will live long in the memory for a variety of reasons, not all of them entirely pleasant.

Due to global efforts to control the coronavirus pandemic, one landmark might have passed most people by during the summer of 2020.

Fifty years ago, ITV broke with the early conventions of televised football by using studio experts to analyse matches during the Mexico World Cup.

Pundits are now, of course, as familiar a part of games as multi-million pound salaries or garishly-coloured boots.

Back in 1970, though, the former Manchester United legend Paddy Crerand, the flamboyant ex-Manchester City boss Malcolm Allison and Wolves' striker Derek Dougan were carving their own small niche in TV history.

Their insight not only helped change the way that we view football but enabled many well-known players to spin out lucrative careers once creaking ligaments and the inexorable march of time had forced them to hang up their boots.

In recent days, however, I've been pondering on how being on the other side of the touchline is not without its own risks.  Just as footballers’ actions can now be scrutinised after the fact by VAR, so pundits are also subject to retrospective review in the libel courts.

Some have even been accused of doing more damage by going over the top using a microphone than they might have done with the studs of their football boots.

And whilst a mistimed tackle might result in being suspended for a couple of games, an ill-timed comment can result in a trip to the libel courts.

It was something that I reflected on recently having read that the former World Cup-winning midfielder Didier Deschamps is mulling over his options after a defamation claim against Eric Cantona was declared void (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-55279298).

The case stemmed from an interview that Cantona - who had previously called his one-time team-mate "a water-carrier" - had given prior to the Euro 2016 Championships in which he appeared to suggest that Deschamps, coach of the French national team, had failed to select certain players because of their North African origins.

After deciding that Deschamps' lawsuit didn't meet the threshold for defamation in France, a Paris court gave him 10 days to appeal.

Cantona's lawyer summoned up the bravura with which his client had once been renowned declaring the outcome "a victory".

Nevertheless, it was merely the latest illustration of the risks of ex-players offering their opinions on other sports professionals.

It’s worth considering the case of Gary Lineker too. After a squeaky-clean and glittering career was brought to a close by injury without him ever having been booked, he came a cropper when alleging that Harry Kewell's transfer from Leeds to Liverpool had broken transfer regulations.

The remarks - which Kewell characterised as a "hurtful and humiliating attack" - led to a dispute which ended in a draw at one hearing and looked like prompting a legal replay before being settled out of court (https://www.theguardian.com/media/2005/jul/04/pressandpublishing.football).

Sometimes, of course, ex-players find themselves in hot water for waxing lyrical about subjects totally unconnected with the 'beautiful game'.

In the last couple of weeks, for instance, a defamation case featuring Eyal Berkovic - who used to represent West Ham, Portsmouth and Manchester City among other clubs – has concluded.

He had been sued after co-hosting an episode of an Israeli TV talkshow in which he questioned the allegiance of Arab members of the country's parliament, the Knesset (https://www.timesofisrael.com/former-soccer-star-berkovic-cleared-of-defamation-after-calling-arab-mks-spies/).

Although a magistrate in Tel Aviv ruled that Berkovic's statement had not been aimed at anyone in particular, the row underlined how former players must heed the rule of law as once they did football's own rulebook.

I doubt that I would be alone in admitting occasional frustrations with the way in which a clutch of ex-pros dissect matches.

Even so, I think that in the days since Jimmy Hill first revolutionised coverage by using then cutting-edge technologies of slow-motion replays, the best pundits have helped to illuminate our understanding of England's national sport.

As the above episodes illustrate, whilst a spot on “Match of the Day” may becon once players finish their careers and step beyond the touchline, that does not put them beyond the reach of the courts.

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Nick McAleenan is a Partner located in Manchester in our Media & Reputation Management; Data Protection & Privacy department

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