‘I am criminal! ’ – this was the desperate cry launched by Martin Reim from the columns of Postimees.ee
More ‘For all my life I have fought in the name of this country. However, now, a court decision says that I have consciously not paid taxes. I feel I don’t want to do anything good anymore for this country.’
A punch on the stomach from a guy who has represented his country for 157 times on a football pitch, the most-capped Estonian international ever, a living legend and the U-21 coach.
Martin Reim was a pint-sized attacking midfielder (14 goals with the Eesti Koondis, one scored also to my ‘Azzurri’, three of them awarded with the ‘Silver Ball’)
However, this time it is not about attacking.
This time, it is about defending.
Like in a boxing match, Martin Reim has been cornered by a court decision following the ‘Maksu ja Tolluamet’ – Tax and Customs Board - action aimed at claiming back more than 18,000€ of unpaid taxes out of ‘stipendium’s.
The ‘stipendium’s were paid from ‘Martin Reimi Jalgpalli Kool’ (Martin Reim’s football academy located in the Tallinn’s district of Viimsi) out to their employees (youth coaches and staff).
Before continuing, we need to explain what a ‘stipendium’ is and why it is at the basis of football and sports in general in this country.
Latin word for ‘scholarship’ (used in German as well), ‘stipendium’ is a form of economic support awarded by the Estonian state to certain categories.
The financial support allow them to dedicate to activities that notoriously (and unfortunately) do not bring any concrete and immediate profit: students, university students and researchers, artists, they all can enjoy a form of ‘salary’ while they try to find their successful way in the profit-oriented capitalist market of Estonia.
The ‘stipendium’ is also awarded to sportsmen and sportswomen by a precise and separate act contained in the ‘Spordiseadus’ (The Sport Act) - English text here.
The paragraph § 10 provides disposition to adopt a regulation that would implement what entered into force in 2006, meaning the ‘Riiklike spordistipendiumide ja -preemiate määramise tingimused ja kord’ – conditions and situation for granting state scholarships and awards in sport (English text not provided, our own translation).
According to the Sport Act:
‘The Government of the Republic shall grant state sports awards for outstanding sporting achievements and the Minister of Culture shall grant state sports scholarships to stimulate top results in sports’.
The aim of the law is quite simple and evident even if you are not familiar with law texts: bring Estonian sport to top levels, a difficult target to achieve without a financial back up.
What are the conditions that would award a sportsman/sportswoman the monies of the ‘stipendium’?
The regulation describes them in 2nd chapter, we summarize: the scholarships/awards are assigned for outstanding sport achievements. The scholarship is awarded only to physical person.
However, institutions can forward a request of ‘stipendium’ on behalf of the individuals.
Who are those ‘institutions’?
Ministries, local councils, sports organizations and other juridical people who deal with sports as established in their charters.
The Culture Ministry upon request (to be forwarded each year before the 10th of January) grants the scholarships.
Quite significant it’s provision contained at paragraph § 9. (2):
‘scholarship for career is granted to a person who, for a year long, has given a contribute to Estonian sport winning high appraisal from the public and whose whole life's work has been an example to the younger generation’.
From my law studies I have learnt that the broader the legal definition of something is, the most various and conflicting the interpretations can be.
Result: uncertainty of law. The opposite effect of what law is about.
I would say that quite important in the above definition are the concept of ‘public’ and ‘example to the younger generation’ to understand how this short-sighted decision from the Tax and Customs Board court is likely to be a dangerous precedent to kill the way sports is supported in Estonia.
What is ‘public’?
It’s indeed a broad concept.
Public can be a crowd in Vabaduse Väljak (Freedom Square in Tallinn) acclaiming Olympic Champions returning with a medal around their necks.
It can be thousands of people crowding a stadium to watch the national team playing a play-off to access a football final tournament for the first time.
Going to the grassroots, the public can be a group of parents who acknowledge great merits for their children developments to a youth coach.
A concept that is no stranger to this regulation as in next line (3) says explicitly:
‘for granting a scholarship, it is considered (…) the successful coaching job’
Being an ‘example to the younger generations’ is what a youth coach is demanded to be in an healthy society not driven by success at all costs.
In this, I will always remember words from Roman Ubakivi, former Estonian national team coach and legendary football coach at the basis of an entire generation known as ‘Tallinna Lõvid’ – The Tallinn Lions.
Martin Reim was one of those ‘Lions’ among many others (Mart Poom, just to mention one…).
‘The most important thing is this’ said Ubakivi ‘each of them got started in their own lives and each of them is a good man’.
Words echoed by Risto Kallaste, one of his 'Lions', when I have interviewed him last year:
‘My opinion is that sports, in general and regardless any profit perspective, they help growing up the individuals. If done for several years in a row, they define your character and this is important for all your life. I see it with my younger son, he enjoys to come to trainings and playing football and this is good even though it´s not a priority.’
However, we all need to eat and pay our bills, also the youth coaches do.
The ‘stipendium’ is the way the State and the community behind it rewards their commitment in growing great individuals and, why not, hopefully, great footballers who could give shine to the country in future.
According to the tax law, the scholarships are exempt from taxes.
It’s an essential provision as this is a financial support, not a profit earned.
Asking to pay taxes and other fees on monies the state gives for support, it would be like taking back a part of it.
So, why the Tax and Customs board, in the light of what we have just illustrated, are requiring the Martin Reim academy to pay back all the taxes and fees and the interests attached?
Why what was paid out to youth coaches and staff of the youth academy growing young men and footballers is considered as a ‘salary’?
The football movement (as many other sport areas) is living and supports itself with the ‘stipendium’ system. Also referees of football, who want to take on the job at a more serious level, are supported via the ‘stipendium’.
Is this to be considered a salary paid out via the Estonian FA?
Are not they helping the football level to improve?
If one foundation of this building will collapse, I am afraid the entire building will fall too. The risk is to plunge football in Estonia into a dark age.
The problem lies in the very strict interpretation of the law given by the T&C Board as confirmed a while ago by Andres Ottender, basketball representative for the Tartu University Sports Club: ‘the clubs read the law in one way, the Board in another’ said in January to Postimees.ee.
If the T&C Board interpretation will win the risk we have forecast is clear in Ottender’s words: ‘it would mean pure amateur sport. If this is what the State wishes, it is surprising’
We would not agree the less.
The result would totally go against the purpose of the law: bringing Estonian sports (football included with its almost 15,000 people practicing) to the next level.
A professional one, where Estonian sportsmen can compete at international level.
Does the Estonian state really want this? We doubt.
It is time for the lawmaker to step in and give an original interpretation of a broad-meaning regulation.
It’s the lawmaker responsibility to help what the law is there for and its inner spirit:
- Helping the grassroots sport and not killing it.
- Supporting the people behind it and not showing a metaphorical ‘middle finger’ with myopic decisions.
- Overriding a strict interpretation given by stone-cold bureaucrats reading the law by the letter and not allowing the law to be used against our sport communities and its spirit.
The law is to be respected.
However, this World would have not changed if certain laws would had not been overruled, overthrown or, more simply and moderately, changed and adapted for the most favourable and reasonable interpretation.
We want the rule of law. But the rule of a certain law that would give sports a chance of survival in a country where money invested in football is little.
Do the right thing and hands off Martin Reim.