Last week, FIFPro, the international players’ union, announced that it was initiating a series of efforts, including legal action where necessary, to challenge and reform the “[FIFA] transfer system and the current economic make-up of professional football.” If the objective sounds aspirational, FIFPro’s commitment to the task should not be doubted. FIFPro President Phillipe Piat’s introduction to the announcement was forthright and unequivocal:
FIFPro will not stand by and watch from the sidelines as football players’ rights around the world are systemically disrespected and the football industry dismantles itself.
Established in 1965, FIFPro represents more than 50,000 players internationally, and operates through a General Assembly, an eleven-member FIFPro Board, and various FIFPro Committees and Working Groups. FIFPro has been consistently been at the forefront of the battles for player rights, with FIFA, Confederations, leagues and clubs most frequently on the opposite side of the table. FIFPro has taken strong positions in protecting player rights with respect to the FIFA transfer system, the role and practice of player agents, third-party ownership of players, and player contracts, among other issues. The announcement indicates that FIFPro’s legal challenge is a holistic approach to those and other issues in football, and FIFPro’s efforts will be divided among several forums in Europe, including the European Commission, the European Court of Justice and human rights courts. The announcement, however, did not specify which provisions of the FIFA transfer regulations that FIFPro intends to challenge, and did not describe how FIFPro will support its claims in any of the forums.
The FIFPro announcement offers some insight into the nature of the challenge. First, FIFPro has made it clear that it believes that the current transfer system violates international players’ basic human rights, including impeding the players’ freedom of movement. According to the announcement, the training compensation calculated pursuant to the European Court of Justice’s precedential decisions has resulted in overvaluing the cost associated with training youth players, which in turn has disproportionately increased the costs to acquire players in the transfer market. Further, FIFPro contends that the monetary penalties for breaches of contract by players are “exorbitant” and “unimaginable in any other industry.”
Freedom of movement for all European Union-national workers—not just international footballers—is a fundamental principle protected by the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union. At its most basic level, European Union nationals are entitled to look for a job in another European Union country and work there without needing to obtain a work permit. FIFPro appears to contend that the byproduct of European Court of Justice decisions—the increased cost to acquire a player on the transfer market—and the breach of contract provisions in player contracts makes it difficult for players to fairly and freely seek new clubs. According to FIFPRO, “[t]hese legal and monetary shackles binding footballers (the employees) to their current clubs (the employers) can no longer be accepted and upheld.”
The freedom-of-movement argument, at least with regard the FIFA transfer regulations, is not novel. Rather, the argument is at the forefront of many of the most recent challenges and threatened challenges to the transfer system. Recently, English-born footballer Joseph Yoffe argued that the FIFA Regulations on the Status and Transfer of Players unlawfully prohibit out-of-contract players from signing with new clubs if their contracts expire in between transfer windows, thereby limiting footballers’ freedom of movement and ability to earn a living.
The second principle underlying FIFPro’s proposed challenge is that the current transfer system harms football as a sport and as a business. FIFPro notes that current regulations “create a spiral of economic and sporting imbalance, which only benefits the richest 1% of clubs and player agents.” According to FIFPro, 28% of the global transfer market is paid to player agents (approximately $750 million according to FIFA’s latest Transfer Matching System (TMS) Report), and is thus diverted from players and the game in general. According to FIFPro, the imbalance in wealth distribution and the significant role of player agents diverts resources from the core of the game: the players.
Third and finally, FIFPro contends that the current transfer system allows and encourages abuses via player agent fees, encouraging third-party ownership and creating ideal conditions for match-fixing. For example, the announcement emphasizes that clubs’ failures to timely pay players make the unpaid players “valuable targets of crime syndicates, who instigate match-fixing and threaten the very existence of credible football competitions.” That is, the present economic conditions and poor payment practices by clubs create situations where players are vulnerable to economic influence and pressure. It remains unclear what tact FIFPro will employ to add pressure on pertinent clubs to timely pay players.
FIFPro’s announcement raises as many questions as it does answers. FIFPro states that it is “preparing all necessary means, including legal action, to reinstall the world’s professional football players’ rights as workers.” The announcement describes a comprehensive approach to reforming an entire transfer system and the “economic make-up of professional football” via various legal and regulatory processes. The lack of specificity and the proposed sea change in football induce some measure of skepticism as to the likelihood of success in FIFPro’s efforts, or even what success will look like.
A FIFPro spokesperson declined comment on FIFPro’s legal strategy. At this stage, whether, how and where FIFPro will accomplish its lofty goals (beyond its traditional methods of advocacy) remains to be seen.