What are the potential legal issues surrounding the football transfer window?

European Union Involvement in Football

There have been a number of occasions in which the European Commission has become involved in issues surrounding football, most notably the mid 90’s decision in the Bosman case.

FIFA Regulations for Transfers

Following the Bosman case, again due to European Union involvement in the football transfer system, the FIFA Regulations for Transfers were established. The main focus of the FIFA Regulations for Transfers was in relation to younger players with the outlawing of international transfers for players under 18 and the payment of training compensation to teams losing players under the age of 24.

Another aspect however of the FIFA Regulations for Transfers was the introduction of two transfer windows during one season.

Football Transfer Windows

During a European Football season running from the end of August until May the following year there are only two periods or windows whereby a team can buy and sell players. The first of these windows runs throughout the off season and comes to an end at the end of August. The second of these windows is for the entirety of January.

When did this first come into play?

The rules concerning the two distinct transfer windows were made compulsory in the 2003-02 football season.

What is the reason for the two distinct transfer windows?

The main reason for the transfer windows is to stop certain teams having an unfair advantage as they will have more money than anyone else in order to buy a player at any stage of the football season. For example before the introduction of the transfer windows the so called big clubs were able to splash the cash after only a few poor results. The smaller clubs simply didn’t have the means to do this and so were considered to be at an unfair disadvantage creating a distortion in the competition.

Would stopping a player moving during the transfer window be considered a restraint of trade?

Stopping a player from moving during the period when the window is closed could be regarded as a restraint of trade as that player is restrained by the rules and regulations of his profession from undertaking his profession.

Could this also be viewed as a restriction of the fundamental freedoms guaranteed by European Union law?

One of the fundamental freedoms guaranteed by the European Union is the right to free movement of workers. The rule regarding the transfer window does on the face of it appear to be in contravention of this rule. If we look to the Bosman decision the key fact of that was that a player no longer under contract with his club could not move without a transfer fee – this was seen to be in contravention of the EC Treaty as it restricted the free movement of workers.

If we apply the same analysis we can see that preventing players from being sold during the periods when the window is closed clearly prevents them from moving freely.

If this is the case how can the European Commission be behind this FIFA rule?

The European Commission has stated that in certain cases there can be good sporting reasons to justify some kinds of economic restrictions with the benefits of team stability and regularity of sporting competition being at the top of that list.

In the Bosman case there was no good sporting reasons to limit the movement of players whereas in the case of the transfer window there is.

Are there valid sporting reasons for the transfer window?

The above stated reason in restricting the big clubs spending money whenever they need it is often cited as the main reason for the transfer window being in existence. However, there is a counter argument that the transfer window can in fact put the clubs with less money at a competitive disadvantage.

Clubs preparing for the transfer window

Following from the introduction of the transfer window clubs have had to plan for the fact that they can only strengthen their squad at designated times meaning that the clubs with huge amounts of money will purchase more players during the transfer window to prepare for any possible eventualities to occur during the season while the window is closed such as injury to key players. This has meant that the potential transfer fees for certain players have gone up as the big clubs may be bidding for them as potential squad players when if the window did not exists they would not bid for them at all.

Furthermore the smaller clubs do not have the ability to strengthen their squads in the same way and so if an injury occurs to key players they will often struggle with their smaller squad.

Loss of season defining signings

Prior to the windows being introduced many clubs had guaranteed their Premier League survival by purchasing players just before the end of the season for a final push. Often these were not expensive players but older players who had vast amount of experience but were coming to the end of their careers. Often these players would salvage the season and their own career following one transfer.

It was on such deals like this that many managers have saved their jobs. Now without the ability to do this the knock-on effect of the window has been the loss of many football managers’ jobs.

Sale of players protecting clubs from going bust

One of the biggest assets that a small football club may have is developing a hugely talented player which they can then sell onto the bigger clubs making a large profit for themselves. This has been part and parcel of football and in many cases has been the only reason that clubs can manage to stay afloat and avoid going into administration. Now without the potential to sell their assets immediately as the threat of administration looms we can see the potential of many clubs going bust where this would not have happened prior to the adoption of the transfer window.

Is there any potential for reform?

There are many arguments for and against the football transfer window but FIFA on current evidence seem happy with its existence. As a result of this it is very unlikely that there will be a rule on a decision which seems to meet the approval of the European Commission.