Retain And Transfer, Slowly Becoming Neither

The winter transfer window has just closed in England.

That is not the only transfer window in the world, although you are forgiven for believing it was. Certainly you don’t exactly hear about any others. Every country sets their own window. FIFA permits every country two windows: an offseason window that’s open for a maximum of 12 weeks, and a midseason window open for a maximum of one month. Transfers are conducted according to the window of the receiving club’s country; players can leave a club at any time. A reasonably up-to-date chart of all national windows can be seen here; when reading it, note that ‘Window 1’ is offseason and ‘Window 2’ is midseason. Not all countries use the full window size, and some will in fact opt to slash the window by as much as half.

It is certainly not unheard of, though, for some countries to match their windows to each other. England’s midseason window, for instance, runs from January 3 to February 2. This is the exact same window listed for Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Greece, Honduras, Malta, and of course Scotland and Wales. As most principal European leagues come within a couple days of each other in their windows, one might be mistaken in figuring that it’s the same window.

For the record, England’s offseason window runs June 10 to September 1, matching Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, as well as Austria, Azerbaijan, Cyprus, DR Congo, France, Malta, the Netherlands, Russia, Switzerland and Turkey. The United States and Canada link up their windows as well, with the offseason window running February 18 to May 12 and the midseason window running July 8 to August 6- the latter of which falling within the British offseason window.

For those new to the transfer-window business, a little background. In the earliest days- in England, of course; that’s where the game was invented- the first kind of structure that was imposed came in 1885, when the national federation, the Football Association, legalized professionalism. The original idea, a step up from the game-by-game ad-hoc pay-me-to-show-up-today system that was going on to that point, was to force players to register with one club for an entire season at a time before they could play, and if they wanted to move somewhere else during the season, the club and FA had to give permission first. In 1893, this was extended to the club having perpetual control in what was called the retain-and-transfer system. If the player’s contract expired and the club didn’t want to renew the contract or sell them to someone else, too bad. The player still couldn’t play, at least not for anyone in the Football League, which extends to the top couple tiers in England (how many exactly has varied over the years). And since players only played overseas in very, very rare circumstances, if the club did that to you- and oh, they would- that was pretty much it for your career.

Retain-and-transfer lasted all the way into 1959, when midfielder George Eastham’s contract ran out at Newcastle United and Newcastle refused to let him go elsewhere, expecting him to give up and re-sign with the club as opposed to, well, involuntary retirement. Eastham called them on it and found another line of work, and a year later, Newcastle said, fine, okay, we’ll sell you to Arsenal. But Eastham wasn’t done with them, going to court for the lost year’s wages. He didn’t get that, but in 1963, the court did sharply reduce the ‘retain’ part of retain-and-transfer. A player that was ‘retained’ could not be offered a worse contract than the previous one as a condition of continued employment, or else the player was entitled to a free transfer. If a club decided to dump a player, the player was also entitled to the terms of their original contract until the transfer happened, because oh yeah clubs would also just stop paying players all of a sudden.

If you’re North American and follow baseball, think Curt Flood.

But it didn’t go away entirely. That was left to Belgian midfielder Jean-Marc Bosman, who in baseball would be the Andy Messersmith of the piece. In 1990, Bosman was fresh off a contract with RFC Liege and wished to go to France to play for USL Dunkerque, but Dunkerque refused to pay Liege’s price, and Liege, not being English and therefore not caring what the English court did with Newcastle United, promptly buried Bosman on the bench and slashed his wages to a quarter of what they had previously been. Bosman went to the European Court of Justice, and in 1995, the court ruled to lift all restrictions on players exiting contracts and wishing to move to another club in the European Union. Not that it helped Bosman by that point, as he had already shuffled around small Belgian clubs for the balance of his career, before going on to have his post-soccer life slowly collapse around him.

Transfer chaos ensued as top players from all over the globe rapidly congealed in an ever-decreasing number of clubs at ever-spiraling salaries. The transfer window was created in 2002 in an attempt to restore some sort of order, and prevent clubs from going out and buying players any time they wanted, which angered the clubs, who rather liked going out and buying players any time they wanted. FIFA originally wanted to make the window apply to out-of-contract players as well, but relented due to pressure from both the clubs and the players, neither of which thought that made any sense.

In 2004, the rules were loosened again, under Article 17 of FIFA’s Regulations for the Status and Transfer of Players. In short, the article states that a player under age 28 can buy out his own contract after three years to declare free agency, or if over 28, after two years, so long as the player gives 15 days’ notice to the club he intends to depart, with effect as of June 2005. It didn’t take long for someone to try it, namely defenseman Andy Webster of Scotland’s Heart of Midlothian. Having reached the legally relevant part of his contract with Hearts, and with Rangers interested in snapping him up, Webster looked to talk with them, only to be refused permission by Hearts. An argument ensued between Webster and Hearts owner Vladimir Romanov, and Webster was buried on the bench. Webster’s response was to head south to England and sign with Wigan Athletic outright while still on the books for one more year at Hearts. Much courtship ensued, during which FIFA approved the move, but as Wigan didn’t give Webster regular playing time, he arranged a loan to Rangers in January 2007, which is where he wanted to go in the first place anyway. In April of that year, FIFA ruled that the only thing Webster had done wrong was fail to give Hearts notice before leaving for Wigan, and for that they merely suspended him for the first two games of the upcoming season. Other than that, the only thing in dispute was how much money Webster was to pay Hearts for the buyout. Hearts appealed to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, only to watch them reduce the money Hearts was owed.

There are other wrinkles in the transfer process, but this is, in essence, where we stand. The process by which we got from Eastham to Bosman, though, is a reminder that a ruling by a court of law in one part of the world does not make it enforceable in another part. FIFA and the Court of Arbitration for Sport have global reach, but no other court you could reasonably expect to take interest in a soccer-related dispute does. Regions outside the European Union- and even your more corrupt nations within it- have a habit of failing to pay their players. Qatar has come under withering fire for their kafala system that has abused both players and construction workers in advance of the World Cup; they’ve announced plans to end it, but have not given a timetable nor do they intend to. Before Qatar became a hot-button topic, Eastern Europe was in the headlines more often for player nonpayment, as well as a variety of other abuse. The abused players become more susceptible to approaches from match-fixers, because hey, at least someone’s trying to pay them.

It’s something that FIFPro, soccer’s international players union, is looking to attack on multiple fronts. Nonpayment of contracts is not just a problem stemming from overly-corrupt clubs. Sometimes it stems from clubs that have gotten in over their head and just plain don’t have the money to make payroll anymore. Either way, the players aren’t inclined to care, and FIFPro is aiming to introduce a rule change that would automatically release a player from their contract if they go unpaid for 30 days. Currently, the threshold is 90 days, long enough for many affected players to get stuck in a morass trying to fight for back pay instead of being able to look for a fresh club.

That’s one front. The second front is attacking the transfer system entirely, seeking a way to make it easier for players to obtain free transfers. Continuing with the baseball analogy, a transfer with a fee attached is similar to what happens in baseball when an MLB team wishes to grab a player from Japan via the posting system. A team pays a fee to the club that is losing the player as a condition of being able to sign that player, who is paid separately. As any baseball fan that’s watched a posting process unfold knows, the result of that is less player movement, as teams that are willing to pay out for the player may not want to pay the transfer fee on top of it. It keeps the weaker league in some sort of competitive contact, making it easier for them to hang on to their top talent and compensating them for losses, but at the same time, it hamstrings players who may want out but are stuck on a team unwilling to sell them on. And besides, as FIFPro claims, some 28% of the money circulated in the global transfer market- about 460 million pounds, or roundabout $697 million US- comes out of the soccer economy entirely, going into the hands of agents. (EDIT: We mentioned here last month that high-profile players tend to hand over 5-10%.)

To put that in perspective, in MLB, agent fees range from 1.5-5%. In the NFL, the maximum permitted fee is 3%. In the NBA, it’s 4%. You can see why 28% seems a tad high to FIFPro.

The clubs intend to fight any such effort, on the grounds that it would only accelerate the movement of top players to megaclubs while leaving smaller clubs playerless and now cashless as well. But that argument hasn’t stopped the courts yet. The only real saving grace to the smaller clubs is that no matter how big a club is, they can only play 11 people at a time, and any player consistently finding themselves outside of that 11 tends to look to get on the pitch somewhere else. Seven clubs- Chelsea, Manchester United, Bayern Munich, Juventus, Napoli, FC Barcelona and Real Madrid- all sent at least 11 players apiece to the World Cup in Brazil, topping out at Bayern Munich’s 15. (The number was three clubs in 1998; two in 2002; eight in 2006; four in 2010.) Eventually, a club runs out of room to acquire players. You’re not going to see a situation where Real Madrid sends 368 players- the equivalent of 16 23-man squads- to the World Cup, and FC Barcelona sends the other 368, and all the other clubs in the world just wither up and die because Real and Barca keep signing anyone above pub-league quality. There is an upper limit to talent consolidation.

The questions, though, are where is it, how fast are we getting there, and is it better or worse for the game if we find it.

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