Footballers playing for more than one team in a season

The transferring of football players

The transfer system is an intrinsic part of the sport of football. It enables players to move from club to club to improve their fortunes and that of the club acquiring their services.

Are there rules which limit how many clubs a player can play for in one season?

Currently, under the FIFA Transfer Regulations, a football player is only allowed to be registered with a maximum of three clubs in one season. This also applies regardless of what country that player has plied his trade in, whether that is in Europe, Africa or South America.

During this period, the player is only eligible to play official matches for two clubs. However, a player may be eligible to play in official matches for a third club during the relevant season if he has moved between two clubs belonging to associations with overlapping seasons (ie, start of the season in summer/autumn as opposed to winter/spring). This is only allowed if he has fully complied with his contractual obligations towards his previous clubs.

Can a player be prevented from representing a number of teams in a particular competition?

If a football player is registered to a team in the English FA Premier League, he could play in the following domestic competitions:

  • the FA Premier League
  • the FA Cup
  • the English Football League (EFL) Cup

If a player has already represented another team in a match in the FA Cup or the EFL Cup, they will not be able to represent their new club in that competition during the same season. This is known as being cup tied.

However, this rule does not apply to the FA Premier League, meaning a player can play for more than one club in that competition in the same season.

Why do the cup competitions have the notion of being cup tied?

As the cup competitions in England only contain a certain number of matches it is regarded as unfair if a team can buy a player who has already played in the competition for another club to bolster their chances of winning the trophy.

Accordingly, a player can only play for one club in either the FA Cup or the EFL Cup in a particular season.

What effect did the creation of transfer windows have on this rule?

The imposition of two transfer windows throughout one season was implemented by FIFA in 2003. Prior to this players could move between clubs at any stage during the season. This meant a team could purchase a player just before the FA Cup final but they would not be able to use them if they had already played in the tournament.

However, in most seasons, Premier League teams will first first play in the FA Cup during (or after) the January transfer window, meaning that players will not have played in the FA Cup yet that season if they move in January. However, they will still have been able to play in the EFL Cup.

Does this only apply to players moving between Premier League clubs?

This concept of being cup tied applies to players moving between any levels in the English game. Lower league clubs will play the earlier rounds of the FA Cup prior to January, so if a player moves in the window he may have already played in the FA Cup and will therefore not be able to play in the competition for his new club.

Any player transferring to an English club from overseas who has played in that country’s domestic cup competitions will not be cup tied for FA Cup or EFL Cup matches.

Does this concept also apply to European competition?

Generally, a player may not play in a UEFA club competition (UEFA Champions League and UEFA Europa League, excluding UEFA Super Cup) for more than one club in the course of the same season. However, a player can play for one club in the first, second and third qualifying round, and/or the play-offs, of the UEFA Champions League or UEFA Europa League, and then represent another club from the group stage of either competition.

A club can register up to three new eligible players for the knockout stage of a UEFA club competition. This must be completed the end of the January transfer window. One of these three players can have been fielded in a group stage by another club in the current season, provided the player has not been fielded: in the same competition for another club; or for another club that is currently in the same competition.

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.