Footballers who rise up through the youth team of one club and choose to move to another once they become professionals may be asked to pay their old team for the training costs they incurred, European Union judges ruled on Tuesday.

The case refers to Olivier Bernard, a defender who in 2000 left Olympique Lyon in France to move to Newcastle United in England. In so doing, he broke the rules enforced at the time by the French Football Association (FFF), which allowed clubs to force their youth players to sign their first professional contract with them.

Bernard was sued in a French court by Olympique Lyon and was asked to pay back more than 53,000 euros (72,500 dollars), equivalent the salary he would have received in one year as a professional player in the French team.

The EU’s Court of Justice, asked to give an opinion by France’s highest appeal court, said restrictions such as those agreed by the FFF “can, in principle, be justified” even though they constitute “a restriction on freedom of movement of workers,” one of the basic rights enshrined in the EU treaties.

The reason is that the rules are “likely to encourage football clubs to seek new talent and train young players,” a legitimate aim given “the considerable social importance of sporting activities and in particular football in the European Union.” However, the Luxembourg-based court stressed that the French scheme went “beyond what is necessary” because clubs should only be allowed to recover training costs actually incurred and not the total economic damage resulting from the loss of a player.

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