The Case Against the January Transfer Window
Introduction: The Birth of the Transfer Market
‘Transfer windows’ as we know them today, seem necessary because they are familiar. However, did you know that transfer windows are a product of a transfer system which was only introduced in the early 2000’s?
It all started with a ruling by Europe’s top court in 1995, which is said to have opened ‘a Pandora’s box that cannot (and should not) be locked ever again’, namely, the Bosman ruling (“Bosman”). Bosman is known for having abolished the system where an out-of-contract player’s registration could be withheld for lack of a transfer fee, as this was deemed incompatible with the EU principle of ‘free movement of people’.
However, the payment of a transfer fee for a player still under contract was not declared unlawful by the European courts in that instance. Even today, clubs continue to buy and sell contractually bound players for large sums of money.
The current practice, it has been argued, continues to impede a player’s ‘free movement’ rights. For example, a player can only move to another club with the consent of the current employer, which is unlikely to be forthcoming without a new club paying an exorbitant transfer fee. Additionally, the FIFA regulations only allow the registration of players to take place during an aggregated period of approx. 4 (four) months each year (“Registration Period”).
Registration Periods are divided into two – a longer 12 (twelve) week period and a shorter 4 (four) week period – referred to as ‘transfer windows’ in common parlance.
The Transfer System: Striking the Right Balance
Issues have been raised with the “anti-competitive, unjustified and illegal” nature of the transfer system, with FIFPro (the worldwide professional footballer’s union) filing a competition law complaint against FIFA, before the European Commission.
The current transfer system is therefore a constant tug-of-war between the principles of (a) contractual good faith and preserving the integrity of competition on one hand; and (b) not operating in a manner which restrains the ability of a player to carry out his trade, on the other.
In a sense, the transfer system represents FIFA’s attempt at finding a ‘middle-ground’ between each of these principles.
However, some of the most eminent footballing personalities such as FIFA President Gianni Infantino and Arsene Wenger, have publicly called for abolishing the shorter January transfer window (“JTW”). Indeed it is argued that this would be a more effective step towards striking a balance between the need for players to fulfil their contracts on the one hand while respecting their freedom of movement, on the other.
Abolishing the JTW: 8 Reasons Why
However, there are several compelling reasons favouring the abolishment of the JTW, with many stakeholders at play:
1. Players: The JTW provides an opportunity for impatient players, especially those who are past the ‘protected period’ of their contracts, to engage with other clubs and engineer a move away from their current clubs. Consequently, ‘want-away’ players can have a negative impact on the morale and unity of the rest of the squad. Having a single summer transfer window would minimise this effect.
2. Agents: Similarly, the JTW is just another opportunity for agitated agents to engineer the transfer of a player for personal gain.
A study commissioned by FIFPro (the international player’s union), has shown that transfer windows facilitate the circulation of money, only into treasuries of big clubs and pockets of crooked agents. Abolishing the JTW would curb this occurrence.
3. Managers: In addition to agents, the Telegraph has previously reported allegations that 8 (eight) different Premier League managers were willing to accept bribes to facilitate transfer deals.
The JTW therefore incentivises corruption and other similar side-payments.
4. ‘Big’ Clubs: The JTW serves as an easy escape route for the already rich clubs to reinforce their squads, often at inflated prices (for e.g. Andy Carroll’s transfer from Newcastle to Liverpool on deadline day of the 2011 JTW, cost £35 million. Carroll failed to make an impact at Liverpool).
Players are therefore placed under tremendous pressure to live up to their (often) unjustified price tags doing more harm than good for both player and club (for e.g. Fernando Torres at Chelsea).
5. Youth Players: Expenditure in the JTW also impairs the development of a club’s youth, as short-term reinforcements constantly stand in the way of opportunity for the youngsters, hampering not only their development in the short term, but also their careers in the long term (for e.g. Chelsea’s recruitment of Juan Cuadrado from Fiorentina in the 2015 JTW, despite having the firepower of a high quality midfield supported by members of the FA Youth Cup winning side. Cuadrado was then loaned-out half a season later and most of the youth still have not broken into Chelsea’s first team).
6. ‘Smaller’ Clubs: Additionally, smaller clubs with the economic lower hand, are susceptible to having their squads raided by their richer competitors.
This not only disrupts promising momentum but also leaves these clubs with little or no time to find appropriate replacements (for e.g. transfer of Wilfried Bony from Swansea to Manchester City in the 2015 JTW. Bony was then loaned to Stoke City in August 2016, only to be sold back to Swansea in 2017).
7. Fans: Consequently, fans who pay good money for season tickets, arguably do not get their money’s worth when key players leave mid-season, resulting in a subsequent drop in their team’s form.
For example, the fans of Barnsley FC have even officially petitioned to FIFA to abolish the JTW.
8. Media: The JTW gives the media an unnecessary opportunity to speculate and spark rumours for the purposes of boosting their readerships/ viewerships. Media speculation often has adverse knock-on effects on player morale and performance, causing a shift in mental focus on everything but football.
In sum, the JTW considerably compromises the integrity of footballing competition. A mid-season transfer window allows a player who contributes to the success of a team for one half of the season, to strengthen a rival for the second. Surely, the principles of loyalty along with the desire to finish what was started at the beginning of a season is integral to cohesion and teamwork? Surely a 12 (twelve) week summer window is sufficient for a club to assemble/ reinforce a squad?
Indeed, it is true that the January transfer window gives the richest clubs ‘one less chance to fail’.
This article was written by Rustam Sethna who is currently undertaking a Sports Law Master's student placement at Coccia de Angelis Vecchio & Asociati in Rome, Italy. For more information please contact the author directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Linkedin at linkedin.com/in/rustamsethna
The views expressed in this piece are solely those of the author in his personal capacity and do not represent in any way the views of any other individual or entity.
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Case C-415/93 Union Royale Belge des Sociétés de Football Association and others v. Bosman and others, ECLI:EU:C:1995:463.
Now enshrined by Article 45 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union.
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