FIFA Responds to Potential Challenge to Transfer and Registration Regulations

Last week, Business of Soccer posited that the FIFA Regulations on the Status and Transfer of Players (the “FIFA Regulations”) may be ripe for challenge in light of footballer Joe Yoffe’s contention that FIFA Regulations, which prohibit out-of-contract players from signing with new clubs if those players’ contracts expire in between transfer windows, unfairly limit players’ freedom of movement and ability to earn a living.

The FIFA Regulations provide, in relevant part, that “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.”  As a result, players whose contracts expire outside of an association’s registration period (often referred to as a “transfer window”) may not sign with a new club unless the registration period of the association to which that club belongs is open.  In other words, a player like Yoffe, whose contract expires at the end of September, may not be able to sign with a new team until January, when the majority of associations’ transfer windows open.

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Business of Soccer reached out to FIFA for comment regarding the contention that the FIFA Regulations improperly restrict the movement of players, thereby limiting some players’ ability to play and make a living.  A FIFA spokesperson responded, declining to comment specifically on Yoffe’s situation because Yoffe has not yet made an official approach to FIFA.  The FIFA spokesperson, however, provided some color on FIFA’s position regarding the current status of the FIFA Regulations:

Speaking generally, FIFA’s on-going work with regard to the transfer of players has been undertaken with the objective to continuously adjust the applicable regulations to the needs of modern football, and tackle the ever-changing challenges that football is faced with in consultation with all football stakeholders. In this respect, any future potential adaptations that could further contribute in this direction will certainly be analysed by FIFA, and implemented, where appropriate, following the necessary consultation and applicable decision-making processes within FIFA’s competent bodies.

The respect of the registration periods, the legitimacy of which has been confirmed on other occasion also by the European Court of Justice, is and will continue to be a fundamental principle of FIFA’s international transfer system. Compliance with the relevant provisions is essential in order to guarantee the regularity and integrity of the sporting competitions at stake.

Taking into account the different interests of the parties concerned, the system has been granted certain flexibility by means of an exception and the possibility to adopt provisional measures.

Finally, we may add that during the course of a calendar year there is not a single day on which not at least one registration period would be open.

As an initial matter, it appears that FIFA is amenable to changes to its regulations, at least when discussing such changes in the abstract and pending due investigation and resolution through standard decision-making processes.  In light of previous experience with FIFA, neither caveat should be taken as a given.  FIFA also emphasizes the importance of the overarching purpose of the FIFA Regulations to “guarantee the regularity and integrity of the sporting competitions at stake.”  That purpose is not contentious, and is in keeping with the expectations associated with regulating player transfer and registration.

In short, FIFA’s statement reflects a concise, if non-committal position on the issues raised, which is fair since no formal, specific challenge has been lodged.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the FIFA spokesperson’s response is the closing line: “Finally, we may add that during the course of a calendar year there is not a single day on which not at least one registration period would be open.”  Certainly, FIFA’s statement was not made in response to any specific challenge to the FIFA Regulations, including Yoffe’s potential claim.  But the mere fact that somewhere in the world, there is always a football association with a currently open transfer window, does not necessarily undermine the argument that the current FIFA Regulations improperly restrict the freedom of movement of some players.

A player under contract with a club in Iceland (like Yoffe) will likely see his contract expire at the end of September, which is well after the transfer window deadlines for nearly all European leaguesOne survey of 2013 summer transfer windows suggests that such a player’s global options are no better.  Indeed, if that player wishes to continue playing from October through December (until the mid-season transfer windows open for most associations worldwide in January and February), the options could be limited to a handful of countries like New Zealand or Hong Kong.  Although clubs in the New Zealand and Hong Kong leagues are certainly options for employment, the economic feasibility of those options could be fairly disputed.  At the very least, the FIFA Regulations limiting a player’s’ ability to sign only with clubs in a handful of countries (out of 209 FIFA Member Associations) during the October through December time-frame would seem to unreasonably restrict out-of-contract players’ freedom of movement and right to work in a country of their choosing.

FIFA has left open the possibility that the FIFA Regulations could be modified or adapted to address new challenges for footballers.  It seems clear from FIFA’s statement, however, that absent a formal challenge to the FIFA Regulations, the current transfer and registration rules will remain unchanged.

Reporting on the business side of the world's game.