Steve Menary explores the growing number of transfer fees that remain undisclosed and the reasons behind it
Debate over the size of transfer fees is part of football, but an increasingly endangered part. Players now – certainly at lower levels – are increasingly sold for "undisclosed" amounts. Clubs, players and agents are within their rights to withhold the relevant figures but this trend is also short-changing fans.
AFC Bournemouth reputedly received £1 million from selling striker Danny Ings to Burnley recently, but the fee – like that of six other players sold over the past year – was undisclosed. Estimates suggest debt-free Bournemouth will eventually earn £3m but manager Lee Bradbury is bringing in free transfers and loans.
With club accounts repeatedly delayed, Cherries fans are split. Chairman Eddie Mitchell is either praised for righting a debt-laden ship or decried as an asset-stripper. The situation works in reverse too. Driven by an ambitious chairman, a club splashes out untold sums on players for undisclosed fees, then the chairman disappears as the club collapses. Those left picking up the pieces are often the fans, who – if transfer fees had been disclosed – could have queried their club's spending much earlier.
Transfer fees are lodged with the FA and available in club accounts but the figures quoted are often an amalgamation, and few lower-league clubs voluntarily make any financial details available anyway. FIFA-licensed agent Faizal Khan explains: "To aid cash flow, it may be a transfer fee of £20m is paid in instalments over three years with a player in exchange and other benefits. The £20m deal may only be £7m in cash today and be made up of instalments, player bonuses, a high-profile pre-season friendly and lump sums after the player makes international caps to, in time, all add up to £20m.
"To not rock the boat, it is sometimes best not to disclose everything. If the selling club publishes that they sold a player for £20m yesterday and do not spend near £20m in that transfer window on replenishing the squad, some fans will go beserk."
That creates pressure on managers and owners, but the most thick-skinned of the latter simply carry on regardless, particularly in the lower divisions where there is less focus. "Figures are reported in mainstream media and you get that figure from people close to the deal, like the buying or selling club or the agent," says Nick Harris, chief sports news correspondent at the Mail on Sunday and editor of sportingintelligence.com. "Sometimes those figures are accurate, sometimes that are very wide of the mark. Premier League clubs will be scrutinised as more journalists are asking questions, but in the second or third division, if the local papers don't have the will or the power and the owners don't want people to know, there's not a lot you can do."
Since October 2010, clubs transferring players internationally must lodge details – including fees – with FIFA's Transfer Matching System, which was used for 2,451 international transfers in the first transfer window of 2011. The combined transfer value of those deals was $320m (£197m) and FIFA estimate more than 4,000 clubs use a system that is bound by Swiss data protection laws and confidential.
With FIFA mired in allegations of corruption and the debacle of the failed England 2018 World Cup bid, there is an urgent need for more transparency in football. The Football Supporters' Federation (FSF) recently launched a campaign to make the game subject to the Freedom of Information Act. This, however, would only apply to governing bodies rather than clubs. "We haven't got a policy on disclosing transfer fees, but it's something most fans would want to see," says Michael Brunskill, FSF director of communication.
The FA and Football League do not have policies on disclosure of transfer fees, while Premier League spokesman Dan Johnson says: "It's down to individual clubs and some feel it is commercially sensitive so choose not to. Also, it's sometimes a case that what the buying and the selling club wish to present are slightly different variations – adding in or not taking account of various clauses such as appearance, international or success payment triggers in the contract."
Even the most blinkered fan must appreciate that disclosing how much money has been paid out or received during a transfer window is not conducive to good business. If a player is attracting interest from a club flush with cash from a big sale of its own, a bigger fee will be demanded.
In the longer term, annual disclosure of money spent during a season would at least give fans greater clarity on what is happening to their club and some of their money.
From WSC 296 October 2011