Most football fans will probably never have heard of an organisation called FIFPro but, if it is successful, the labour market for football players could change quite radically.
FIFPro represents over 65,000 players from around the world. It is effectively an international trade union whose main objective is to promote the interests and defend the rights of professional football players. Its president, Philippe Piat, has recently announced that the organisation will challenge the way the current transfer system operates and is prepared to take its case to the European Commission and the European Court of Justice.
FIFPro’s argument is that players are being exploited under the current system. This may seem difficult to believe in the week when Luis Suarez signed a new four-and-a-half-year contract at Liverpool with earnings of £200,000 per week. However, referring to the transfer system, Piat stated that:
These legal and monetary shackles binding footballers to their current clubs can no longer be accepted and upheld. Football players are workers and only when they are able to enjoy the rights enshrined in law and enjoyed by all other workers, will Fifpro be satisfied.
In order to understand this argument, it is important to understand how the transfer system has evolved and how it now operates.
When the Football Association (FA) first accepted professionalism in 1885 it introduced a registration system. Before this reform it was possible for players to play for different teams each week. The new system meant that players had to register with a club at the beginning of each season. If a player was not registered with a team he was not allowed to play. He could only change team mid-season if his current club and the FA agreed to the transfer of his registration details to a different team. However, a player was free at the beginning of each season to register with a different team. Therefore there were no constraints on his mobility between teams from one season to another.
Significant changes were made to the system in 1893 when the retain-and-transfer system was first introduced. The new scheme allowed teams to keep retaining players they had initially registered for another year. This effectively meant that when a player was signed by a team he was tied to that team for as long as they wanted him. The mobility between clubs from one season to another had been removed. This gave the clubs significant monopsony power in the labour market. If a player wanted to change teams, he had to make a transfer request but the team was under no obligation to put him on the transfer list and allow him to move. Teams could decide to put players on a transfer list and would only allow them to leave if an agreeable level of compensation (a transfer fee) was offered by another team. A maximum wage of £4 per week was also introduced in 1901.
The system was periodically challenged and a number of minor changes were made. In particular, the conditions under which a player could be retained by a club were gradually altered. Originally a player could be retained by a club even if his contract was not renewed. Effectively a team could stop a player moving to another club by holding onto his registration without having to pay him. This was changed so that a minimum wage had to be paid to a player if he was to be retained by the team that held his registration.
The first major change to the system came in 1963 from a player called George Eastham. In 1959 he failed to sign a new contract with Newcastle United and made a transfer request which the club promptly rejected. Although they did eventually allow him to leave and join Arsenal, he still took his case to the High Court and the judge concluded that the retain-and-transfer system was an unreasonable restraint of trade. Following this judgment the system was amended so that, in order to retain a player, a club would have to offer the player a new contract with terms and conditions which were at least as good as the previous one. If this was done, then a player could be retained by a club and his registration would only be released if an acceptable transfer fee was offered by another team.
Perhaps the biggest change to the system was made in 2001 following the famous Bosman ruling. Jean-Marc Bosman had wanted to move to the French side Dunkirk, but FC Liege, the club that held his registration, demanded a transfer fee that Dunkirk were unwilling to pay. Bosman took his case to the European Court of Justice and in 1995 a decision was made that the system was in breach of European Union law on the free movement of people. Following this ruling, an informal agreement was reached between the European Commission, FIFA and UEFA. From 2001 players over the age of 23 were free to leave their clubs once their contracts had expired. Transfer fees no longer needed to be paid for players who had reached the end of their contracts.
In September 2013, Mesut Özil joined Arsenal from Real Madrid on the deadline day of the transfer period for a reported fee of £42.5 million.
Although the ease with which players can change teams has significantly improved over the past 50 years, they still face constraints on their labour mobility that are unusual for employees. Most workers simply have to give a period of notice in order to change employer. These vary between jobs but are not usually longer than 3 months. FIFPro’s argument is that professional football players should have these same rights. This would allow Luis Suarez to leave Liverpool at any point in the next four and a half years without any transfer fee having to be agreed. He would simply have a serve out a short period
of notice and then he would be free to join any other club. Under the current system he would have to wait four and a half years until the
end of his contract before he could leave without a transfer fee having
to be paid.
Whenever the transfer system has been challenged the football authorities have always used the same defence – sport is different from other industries because of the importance of maintaining an appropriate level of competitive balance. It is argued that the ease with which players can change clubs needs to be restricted in order for this level to be maintained. Ultimately a judgment will have to be made between this argument and the principle of freedom of movement.
Fifpro to launch legal challenge against transfer system because it shackles players The Telegraph (17/12/13)
Who gains from Fifpros world without transfers? What a surprise the rich The Telegraph (18/12/13)
Fifpro’s tilt at the transfer market is to be welcomed The Guardian (18/12/13)
Players’ union Fifpro to take transfer system to European courts The Guardian (17/12/13)
The 1960s The PFA.COM (18/12/13)
Luis Suarez signs new long-term Liverpool deal BBC Sport (20/12/13) .
- Explain why the marginal revenue product of footballers is so much higher than it is for people in most other jobs. What impact do you think technology has had on the marginal revenue product of footballers over the past 20 years?
- Draw a diagram to illustrate how the wage rate for footballers would be determined if the labour market was perfectly competitive.
- What is monopsony? Explain how the retain-and-transfer system could give football clubs monopsony power in the labour market.
- Draw a diagram to illustrate the impact of monopsony on wages and employment in the labour market for professional footballers.
- Explain how limiting the mobility of players might help to maintain the level of competitive balance in a league.
- If the proposals by FIFPro were accepted, what impact do you think it will have on players’ wages?