Matt Scott: Big transfer fees even bigger rights and morality issues

The transfer of Gareth Bale to Real Madrid is set to generate £83 million and more in fees. This is by any measure a staggering sum of money. Whether the world-record sum represents value for money and whether his club can justify it under UEFA’s financial fair play rules are subjective matters for Real and UEFA to consider.

But it is intriguing to wonder whether Real’s owner, Florentino Perez, considered recent legal arguments as he haggled with Tottenham Hotspur’s chairman, Daniel Levy, over Bale. This question lies in a recent protest from Philippe Piat, the vice-president of the confederation of international players’ unions, FIFPro.

Piat has denounced the application of Article 17 of FIFA’s employment-contract rules, which was, he says, introduced to facilitate the free movement of players under the European Union’s Treaty of Rome. He claims initial deliberations on how the system would work involved the European Commission.

According to Piat, the EC agreed that players leaving their clubs after three years of a contract (or two if they are over 28) would pay compensation to the clubs they leave based on the wages remaining to be paid on their contract.

Fifpro’s website quotes Piat saying: “Compensation for breach of contract, equal to the salary remaining due… under the contract… is fair and consistent compensation.”

When Andy Webster used the mechanism to leave Heart of Midlothian in 2006 it was expected it would usher in a new ‘Bosman’-type landmark echoing the 1995 rule on free movement for out-of-contract players.

The practical effect, says Piat, is very different. “The rule on the stability of contracts operates to the advantage of clubs and is still inapplicable for players,” he added.

Hence club executives striking bargains in smoky rooms over the transfer fees payable to clubs. Players have almost no control over these transactions.

FIFA would point out that freedom of movement for players is intrinsic to its rules in that they may leave their clubs without suffering “sporting sanctions” if they leave after fulfilling a three-year “protected period” tying them to the club. But far from considering only the remaining salary cost, there is a complicated formula calculating what a player breaking his contract must pay in compensation to his old club.

This does include the wages he would be due over the course of the contract, but also its duration and the transfer fee paid for him. The player and his new employer are “jointly and severally liable” for paying this compensation.

With the multimillion-pound transfer fees being agreed between clubs factored in to compensation calculations, Piat concludes, there is an unintended consequence restricting the free movement of player labour.

It seems FIFPro is arguing that players like Bale are effectively rendered chattels, bonded to their employers by the size of the transfer fee their clubs have paid; fees that very few others could afford, even after being amortised down over three years. Sure, players like Bale are very well rewarded for that, but in effect the principle of free movement no longer applies.

At a lower level than Bale’s agreement with the nine-times European champions the rules have just as powerful an impact. Clubs who employ unwanted players after three years have a legal basis for demanding a significant fee to let them go. This restricts the number of clubs that can afford to take the player on.

His only hope then would be to fall so far out of favour with his current employer that “sporting just cause” applies and he is able to leave without significant compensation. This would be a perverse ambition and poisonous to dressing-room harmony for all concerned, given that this relates to “established players” who have been reduced to selection in only 10% of games for which they are available. It is hardly a recourse even a player as unsettled as Manchester United’s Wayne Rooney is likely ever to seek.

And so in the meantime, the practice of clubs paying ever-inflated fees for players marches on. “Compensation mutually agreed between two clubs under the present system… is immoral and contrary to the fundamental rights of every individual,” Piat said.

These are strong words from Piat but he certainly feels he has a case to argue. He told FIFA’s president, Sepp Blatter, back in March he would apply to the courts for the system he originally envisaged prior to the practical introduction of Article 17.

Football must be ready for that application now to be served. If Piat is successful, the days of £83 million transfer fees may already be past.