English-born footballer Joe Yoffe, a little-known journeyman who has made his way through lower leagues in England, Spain, Ireland, Australia, Canada, and, most recently, Iceland, is considering bringing a legal challenge to FIFA transfer and registration regulations. Yoffe claims that the FIFA regulations, which prohibit out-of-contract players from signing with new clubs if their contracts expire in between transfer windows, limits his and other footballers’ freedom of movement and ability to earn a living.
Yoffe’s current contract with UMF Selfoss in the Icelandic second division will be up at the end of September and Yoffe will be presented with an interesting dilemma: Yoffe had represented English minnow AFC Telford United in the Conference National (fifth division of English football) in 2012. At the beginning of 2013, Yoffe moved to UMF Selfoss on a free transfer, signing a contract that would keep him with the club through the end of the season, which ends in September. As an out-of-contract player, Yoffe will be looking to leverage a strong season at UMF Selfoss to generate new opportunities with interested clubs across the globe. Under FIFA regulations, however, clubs in most countries will not be able to sign Yoffe until the next transfer window opens in January 2014.
Under the FIFA Regulations on the Status and Transfer of Players (the “FIFA Regulations”), “Players may only be registered during one of the two annual registration periods fixed by the relevant association. As an exception to this rule, a professional whose contract has expired prior to the end of a registration period may be registered outside that registration period.” The problem with this provision is that players whose contracts expire outside of the transfer window will not be able to sign with a new club until the opening of the next transfer window.
In an interview with Business of Soccer, Yoffe put it very simply: “If I was out of contract before the end of the [transfer] window, then I wouldn’t have an issue. I could just walk over to another club and if they liked me, then I could just sign then and there because I am an out-of-work professional. . . . If I want to move to another club to play, I have to wait until January because my contract finishes after the close of the transfer window. . . . If my contract finished on August 30, for example, I could then go as a free agent to England, Spain, wherever . . . . I could sign for free before the end of the window.”
When Yoffe’s contract ends at the end of September, Yoffe would be permitted to sign with clubs in leagues that have transfer windows (or, as referred to in the FIFA regulations, registration periods) that remain open (i.e., those leagues that have transfer windows that roughly coincide with the Icelandic league’s transfer window). Given the Icelandic league’s unique season length (May through September) and corresponding transfer windows, the natural consequence is that from October through December, Yoffe’s new club options will be severely limited and Yoffe may be unemployed for the remainder of 2013.
Yoffe’s situation is not unforeseeable. Footballers that are unable to break into the first team of top-level clubs move from club to club frequently, singing on free transfers for clubs that do not have liquidity to enter into year-round contracts with players. Yoffe notes that “We’re not paid all year round . . . because there is not the financial backing. . . . If I was paid a 12-month contract, I wouldn’t have anything to moan about. [But] if I was even to come back to Iceland, my contract wouldn’t even start until February, so that leaves a four- or five-month gap where we are not paid.” And for journeyman players who are struggling to maintain and advance their professional careers, the threat of being out of action until a new transfer window opens is very real.
It is unclear whether FIFPro, the worldwide players’ union, would step in to assist Yoffe and other similarly situated players in their challenge to the FIFA Regulations. But it appears that there could be meaningful international support for sweeping changes to the transfer and registration system. A few weeks ago, UEFA President Michel Platini had this to say about the current transfer system, which he described as “robbery”:
“What irks me is, that today, the player is more a product than a footballer with a whole pile of people trying to get commissions. We should think about that and try to find something more healthy. Players are not free and they don’t even belong to the club. Whereas before they did, they now belong to a holding company, a financial company or only one individual.”
Given Platini’s sentiment that the current player transfer system is detrimental to players, one hopes that the players in the most difficult of playing and financial circumstances—like Yoffe—would be entitled to greater deference in the transfer and registration process.
Whether Yoffe challenges the FIFA regulations and whether Yoffe would be ultimately successful may depend on the feasibility of club options for Yoffe when his contract ends and the willingness of important international football powers—namely FIFPro and high-level administrators—to throw their support behind broad changes to the current system. Until that point, players like Yoffe will need to concern themselves not just with their performance on the field and their next club opportunity, but with the fact that each new contract may preclude their ability to be gainfully and consistently employed at the end of the contract.
[FIFA's response to the potential challenge can be found here.]
*This article has been updated based on a Business of Soccer interview with Joe Yoffe to more clearly describe the basis for Yoffe’s potential challenge to the FIFA Regulations. The article also previously stated that AFC Telford played in the Conference North (Sixth Division) during the 2012-2013 season. AFC Telford played in the Conference National (Fifth Division) during the 2012-2013 season.