FIFPro Takes Aim at Transfer System

There is no doubt that soccer has reached the highest point in the long history of the sport in the 21st century.  Mega-clubs line up the largest sponsorship deals in the history of the game, teams vie for a chance to play in the Champions League to receive television revenue, jerseys and footwear are bought in large quantities by adoring fans.  Major sports networks (NBC, Fox Sports) have discovered soccer as a viable programming option that draws a large audience.  There is more money to be made in soccer than ever before.  Competition among top teams to win the signing race leads to large investments in promising footballers.

The enormous amounts of money clubs have spent on players in the past decade have threatened the financial stability of many teams, leaving players vulnerable.  FIFPro, the representative body of all footballers world-wide, has recently taken aim at one of the more controversial parts of the modern game, the transfer system.

Created in the 1990s, the international transfer window opens during the summer months and for several weeks beginning in January.  This window allows clubs worldwide an opportunity to add new players to their teams after negotiating both a fee with a player’s current club as well as wages for the transferred player.  The window is intended to create stability for teams, allowing managers to focus on strategy rather than playing the market all year round.  However, the transfer system has come under scrutiny by coaches, teams, football associations, and, most recently, FIFPro.

In December of 2013, FIFPRO announced their intention to challenge the legality of the transfer system.  In April, FIFPro Division Europe General Assembly met in Dublin for two days to discuss issues with the transfer window.  Twenty-nine European member countries unanimously supported FIFPro’s battle with the transfer system.  Prior to FIFPro Division Europe’s General Assembly meeting, FIFPro America announced its full support of FIFPro’s initiatives.

FIFPro President, Philippe Piat, explained the difficulties with the current system in December.

Football players are working and only when they are able to enjoy the rights enshrined in law and enjoyed by all other workers, will FIFPro be satisfied.

After FIFPro’s most recent conference, they announced clear objectives in regards to transfers.  In addition to other objectives, FIFPro addressed initiatives, which include safeguarding the “fundamental rights of professional footballers as well as their fundamental economic freedoms”, improve the “competitive balance of the football industry regarding the product market”, and eliminate “inflated agent fees and third-party ownership”.

In essence, these objectives relate to the various infringements on the rights of players surrounding the transfer window.  As FIFPro Division Europe President Bobby Barnes explained

Thousands of players worldwide are not paid on time, or not at all, while 28% of the global transfer market (an estimated $750 million annually) is paid to agents and lost to the game.  Something is not right with this picture.

The dangers of third-party ownership, specifically in South America, are becoming more public.  FIFPro has made an effort to publicize issues with player transfers.  Most recently, two footballers in Hungary faced unfair labor practices when their teams nearly forced them to sign a new contract to reduce wages.  The players were threatened with less playing time if they did not agree to take less pay. This demonstrates a clear violation of the player’s right to freely negotiate with other teams if a player’s contract is set to expire.  Instead, the player is forced to work for a club against his will or leave the club and receive no payment for terminating the current contract.

The reality is that the transfer window does not create competitive balance or stability in leagues around the world, particularly in January.  Due to the short time frame for European clubs to sign new players and turn their season around, it raises the demand for players and causes many teams to make pricey transfers with little promise that the club will get a return on their investment.  The transfer window stretches the finances of the club, hoping to quickly improve the quality on the field to raise their profile and to increase revenue.  Many clubs have succumbed to making poor decisions during the transfer window, have spent more than the club has earned, and have been unable to pay players.  It was only a year ago that FIFPro publically denounced clubs in Turkey, Cyprus and Greece for their inability to pay some of their players.  This trend among clubs in Europe led to FIFA’s infamous Financial Fair Play.

FIFPro is not the only opponent of the current transfer system.  Longtime Arsenal manager, Arsene Wenger, publically denounced the transfer window this past January, advocating for its quick demise.

Moving forward, FIFPro will most likely continue to file grievances against specific clubs when a player’s economic freedom has been violated.  Change certainly will not happen overnight and the transfer system may not fall out of favor for years, if ever.  However, the pressure that FIFPro puts on FIFA, Football Associations, and clubs around the world may precipitate change to the international transfer system sooner than many expect.

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