Contract killers

Footballers want the same rights to move around the EU as all other workers. Tim Springett explains how FIFA and UEFA are trying to make life easier for players

There is panic among football clubs, mir­rored by unbridled glee among agents. The Euro­pean Commission believes football’s transfer system contravenes EU laws on free move­ment of labour. Transfers have already seen one major shake-up recently courtesy of Mr Bosman, to which football still has yet to adjust fully and which is currently prejudicing the football authorities’ ability to act rationally.

The Commission’s desire for footballers to enjoy the same rights to switch employer as other workers has led to FIFA and UEFA, some­times in unison but not exclusively so, to attempt to concoct a replacement system which will comply with European law without consigning all but the largest clubs to oblivion. The proposals they have advanced so far, however, look doomed to fail on both counts.

Even more alarming is the fact that nobody appears to have spotted the fundamental flaw in the Commission’s case. This is that foot­ballers already have the same rights as any other worker who freely signs a fixed term employment contract. Indeed  foot­ballers are in a more advantageous position, since they are able to end their contracts prem­aturely by mutual agreement. Transfer re­quests are us­ually granted these days and the price of a play­er’s registration is set by a free market.

Fixed term contracts are far from illegal under EU law– indeed a directive to regulate their use was adopted last year. This acknowledged that they are appropriate for certain occ­upations, benefiting both employers and wor­kers. Surely the football authorities are capable of making a case that football is such an occ­upation? Once their contracts expire, foot­ballers now have all the freedom they could pos­sibly want. If they feel the need to move between clubs more often for no fee, it is within their power to sign shorter contracts.

This is not the first time the Commission has attempted to regulate football. It was in­strumental in devising the “3+2” rule governing the number of foreign and “assimilated” players per­mitted to take part in Eur­opean club competitions, which was declared illegal by the European Court of Justice. The tim­ing of the Com­mis­sion’s latest in­tervention is especially problematic.

FIFA and UE­FA, still reeling from Bosman, are clearly so eager to avoid a second clash with the Euro­pean powers-that-be that they are on the point of meekly capitulating. They fear that, unless an agreement is reached, the transfer system will be declared illegal and players will move clubs for no fee. This, they argue, would widen the gap between rich and poor and ren­der many small clubs unviable. Even more alar­m­ing, though, are their own proposals. They include uniform transfer windows ac­ross Europe, player contracts with a minimum duration of one year and a maximum of three or four, a system whereby a player’s price is decided by a tribunal (based on factors such as the likely worth of the player and the rate of inflation) and a rule forcing a selling club to justify the fee asked for a player.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realise that these would place more restrictions on play­ers’ freedom of movement than now ap­ply. Forcing players to serve at least a year is contrary to free movement principles, as is a stipulation that transfers can only take place at certain times of year.

Similarly, a selling club’s valuation of a player is justified by a buying club’s willingness to pay it. As for the tribunal proposal, price-fixing is a practice that the Commission has spent more than 40 years trying to eradicate. Such a move would also make it easy for a club to take a star player from a close rival sim­ply to stop him playing for the rival. Hardly the spirit of competition.

Bosman caused an earthquake in football from which the dust has still not settled. For the Commission to intervene at this stage is premature and its move is founded on ig­nor­ance and arrogance. The football authorities need to act not only with unity but with far greater lucidity. They should challenge the Commission’s claims by demonstrating the considerable freedom of movement en­joyed by players within a regime of fixed-term con­tracts and avoid saddling the game with ill-considered schemes that will aggravate all the most serious ills from which it is suffering.

From WSC 169 March 2001. What was happening this month