Can football players unilaterally break their existing contracts?

Player power in football

Player power in football is an issue which is consistently discussed when talking about top level football – one of the most lucrative industries in the modern world. Players are currently paid vast sums of money on a weekly basis for the contracts which will earn them millions per year.

Following the Bosman ruling, which enabled out of contract football players to move to clubs within the EU without the requirement of a transfer fee, we have seen a significant increase in player power. For example, players will often refuse to sign a new contract with their existing club so they can become out of contract and thus move for free. If the club the player moves to is not required to pay a transfer fee, they will be willing to provide that player with huge amounts of money both as a signing-on fee and in wages.

FIFA transfer rules

In the wake of the Bosman ruling, FIFA updated its transfer rules. The FIFA transfer rules now allow the unilateral termination of the contract by the player, but only in certain conditions.

Article 13 states that a contract between a professional and a club may only be terminated upon expiry of the term of the contract or by mutual agreement.

However, under Article 14, a contract may be terminated by either party without consequences of any kind (either payment of compensation or imposition of sporting sanctions) where there is ‘just cause’. Just cause is not defined but would cover, for example, where a player has not been paid for months.

Article 15, allows an ‘established professional’ to terminate his contract on the grounds of ‘sporting just cause’ if he has appeared in fewer than 10% of the official matches in which his club has been involved during the season. If a sporting just cause is found, sporting sanctions (see below) won’t be imposed, though compensation may be payable. A player can only terminate his contract on this basis in the 15 days following the last official match of the season of the club with which he is registered.

Article 16 states that a contract cannot be unilaterally terminated during the course of a season.

Article 17: compensation

If a contract is terminated without just cause, the person in breach will have to pay compensation. Generally, when calculating the level of compensation, the law of the country concerned and the specific city of sport will be considered. Other criteria which will be taken into account will be the player’s pay and benefits due under the existing contract and/or the new contract, the time remaining on the existing contract up to a maximum of five years, the fees and expenses paid or incurred by the former club and whether the contractual breach falls within a ‘protected period’.

For players under the age of 28, the protected period for their contract is three years, meaning they can buy themselves out of the contract three years after signing it. For players over the age of 28, the protected period for their contract is two years. The protected period starts again when, while renewing the contract, the duration of the previous contract is extended.

Entitlement to compensation cannot be assigned to a third party. If a player has to pay compensation, he and his new club shall be jointly and severally liable for its payment. The amount may be stipulated in the contract or agreed between the parties.

Article 17: sporting sanctions

In addition to the need to pay compensation, sporting sanctions will also be imposed on a player in breach of contract during the protected period. This means they will be banned from playing in official matches for up to four months, or, where there are particularly aggravating circumstances, up to six months. These bans will take effect from the start of the following season at the new club.

Sporting sanctions will not be imposed if a player unilaterally breaches his contract without just cause/sporting just cause after the protected period. He may, however, face disciplinary measures if he fails to give notice of termination within 15 days of the last official match of the season (including national cups) of the club he is registered with.

Article 17: clubs and officials

Club in breach of contract or found to be inducing a breach of contract during the protected period will also have to pay compensation and have sporting sanctions imposed. If a club signs a player who has terminated his contract without just cause, there will be a presumption that the club has induced the player to commit a breach. The club will be banned from registering any new players, either nationally or internationally, for two registration periods.

Anyone subject to the FIFA statutes and regulations (club officials, players’ agents, players, etc.) who acts in a way designed to induce a breach of contract between a player and a club to facilitate the transfer of the player will also face sanctions.

Article written by...
Lucy Trevelyan LLB
Lucy Trevelyan LLB

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Lucy graduated in law from the University of Greenwich, and is also an NCTJ trained journalist. A legal writer and editor with over 20 years' experience writing about the law.