As the transfer window opens there is bound to be increased speculation over the transfer of players and a flurry of activity as the transfer window progresses. Many transfers will take place and the most headlines will of course be attracted by the biggest transfer fees between the biggest clubs. The transfer system itself however does tend to present an inherent difficulty for small footballing nations such as Ireland.
The world of multi-million euro transfers the transfer system is essentially a function of the market where clubs in need of new talent can purchase that talent from another club. In such a world financial muscle becomes a huge influencing factor on the destination of the most talented players, and as result on the shape of club competition with the richest clubs signing up the best players from around the world.
Although UEFA through the Financial Fair Play accords and the broader club licensing system have made certain efforts to try to limit the distortion of competition that arises when certain clubs have the backing of multi-billionaire owners in an age where sport has become a global business and players enjoy post Bosman rights, the influence of big money on football is always going to be a factor.
Such a system however creates a fundamental problem - if the top richest clubs are focused on buying in all the best talent available the duty of developing these players tends to fall on smaller less well-resourced clubs. The biggest clubs only want to best players who are the pretty much the finished article while smaller and less well-resourced clubs are more willing to take risks to allow young talent develop. In the case of youth football in particular, local clubs invest hugely in developing talent at underage level and present senior and professional clubs with a player who has benefitted hugely from years of intensive training, usually provided in the home community of the player. For small football jurisdictions such as Ireland with a super power neighbour such as the English game this presents a particular problem.
In recognition of this reality FIFA, as early as 2001, put in place a system which was designed to recognise the role played by schoolboy clubs and smaller clubs in the development of players. The system has two essential elements to it. In the first place training compensation is to be paid to all clubs that had a role in the development of a player if he becomes a professional footballer before the end of the season of his 23rd birthday. This training compensation is only payable either when a player signs his first professional contract or when a player is transferred internationally. The FAI, like most associations, operates a separate training compensation mechanism for the domestic game where league of Ireland clubs upon a player signing as a professional the League of Ireland club pays the local schoolboy clubs a fee in recognition of the role they played in developing the player.
The level of training compensation varies depending on the duration of the training and the level at which the original training club and the new club competes at. By way of example if a 18 year old amateur player from a League of Ireland Club who had trained with them since the age of 15 were to sign for Manchester City the League of Ireland could in theory be entitled to as much as €270,000 in recognition of the training provided. If the same player were to sign for Forrest Green in the Conference the League of Ireland would only be in line to pick up a maximum of €30,000. Any other clubs who the player played from the age of 12 onwards would also be entitled to compensation on the basis that this would be the player’s first professional contract.
The second, and perhaps more controversial element is the solidarity payment system which comes into effect when a transfer fee is paid for a professional footballer. When a professional footballer is transferred 5% of the fee to be paid must be set aside to be distributed among the clubs who were responsible for providing training for the player from the age of 12 to 22 with each club roughly getting 10% of the solidarity fee for each year the player was with them. In the modern age were multi-million euro transfers are the norm in the top divisions in Europe this can result in very significant sums being paid to schoolboy clubs. By way of example a number of Dublin clubs were reported to have benefitted quite significantly from the respective transfers of Damien Duff and Robbie Keane, which would seem to be only fair given the role these clubs played in the development of such fantastic talent and for a time the regulation was even known widely as the 'Robbie Keane Rule'.
Unfortunately the story didn't end there. After a series of appeals to various FIFA bodies it has since been held that the solidarity payment is only due when a transfer fee is paid and when a player moves footballing jurisdiction to another country. No solidarity fee is payable when a player is transferred within the same country. This situation arose due to the wording of the FIFA regulation which in one instance says solidarity payment are due whenever a fee is paid however elsewhere (and somewhat vaguely) in the same regulation it is said that the regulations apply to international transfers.
This decision by FIFA has a disproportionally harsh impact on Irish clubs whereby virtually all of our top level professional footballers play in England due to the historic links and the financial muscle of the English clubs although it should be noted that to their credit the FAI have campaigned strongly for Irish clubs and offer plenty of support to clubs who seek advice.
Recently for example when Shane Long transferred from Hull to Southampton - a club owned by a multi-millionaire investor - none of the Irish clubs who had a role in his development were entitled to any compensation for the role they played in shaping him as an international level footballer. Very often with Irish players, such as the likes of Shane Long or Seamus Coleman, tend to transfer initially for a small, if any, fee (and thus a small resulting solidary payment) and then appreciate in value the more they play. Were Seamus Coleman to transfer for a large fee to another Premier League club this window no clubs who played a role in his development would be entitled to a solidarity fee.
Without a later stage solidarity payment the original training clubs are left in the lurch. It is difficult to see the justification for FIFA in not amending their regulations to make allowance for solidarity payments when players transfer between clubs with turnover in multi-millions for large fees, regardless of the jurisdiction the transfer takes place in. 5% of a multi-million euro transfer fee is unlikely to make any great difference to Premier League clubs but would make a huge impact in Ireland in developing future talent. In Ireland any such development would add significantly to the huge efforts being made by the FAI to develop talent and allow the clubs that have already developed to reinvest and hopefully develop the Robbie Keanes and Seamus Colemans of the future.
Dr Seán Ó Conaill is a Lecturer in Sports Law at the School of Law at University College Cork and a former Board Member of FORAS, the Cork City FC Supporters Trust. Twitter: @soconaill