Although there have been no significant new developments or changes to the FIFA Regulations on the Status and Transfer of Players since the Brexit Referendum as exit date finally arrives the penny is beginning to drop for British clubs that their world is about to change in a very significant way. By virtue of leaving the European Union British football clubs will no longer be subject to a number of specific EU rules concerning the status and transfer of players.
The genesis for the current issues can be traced back to what is probably the most famous EU decision of them all – the Bosman case. In Bosman is was clearly enshrined that within the European Union footballers from EU member states (and a number of EEA States) were workers and could not be subject to any nationality restrictions. The decision produced a seismic shock in the football transfer world. For several years FIFA, UEFA and the EU grappled with how you could reconcile the rights of footballers as workers with the goals of protecting the integrity of the game, contributing to sustainable development and protecting the grassroots of the game. Eventually after protracted discussions a special compromise was reached. FIFA would bring forward Regulations on the Status and Transfer of Players which would apply globally however the Regulations would also contain a special subset of amended regulations which apply to transfers within the EU and EEA.
Effectively you have two different systems in operation. Outside the EU minors cannot transfer internationally however within the EU players aged between 16-18 can transfer subject to a number of conditions being met concerning education, training, living standards and the appointment of a mentor. Furthermore, different rules apply on how training football clubs are compensated when a young player moves within the EU compared to when a player moves in another jurisdiction. Professional clubs within the EU also have an additional burden of conditions to meet if they want to secure compensation when a player under 23 leaves at the end of his contract in addition to lower levels of compensation being payable. Within the EU rules on a limit on the number of non-national players are strictly prohibited but are allowable in other jurisdictions.
Leaving aside the incredibly complex situation of Derry City FC which is an outlier subject to a number of exceptions, Irish clubs at all levels are about to have a very significant change to how they deal with clubs from the jurisdiction of the United Kingdom. Traditionally a culture of children as young as 14 being “sent over” to clubs in the UK to pursue football apprenticeships existed. British clubs had extensive scouting networks and identified talented players a young age leading to the players being made an offer at a young age. While this system produced some of the most famous Irish stars of generations past it should be noted for every Damien Duff and Robbie Keane there were 98 other young boys who were sent home, having had an exceptionally poor token level of education and told that they were not good enough. The training clubs often received very little, if anything by way of compensation.
In more recent times with the shift in the regulations precipitated by the post Bosman regulations thankfully elements of this practice have ceased. Instead players have signed with British clubs from the age of 16 upwards with the requirements for education provision being in place. Anecdotally the level of education actually provided is extremely poor. The Professional Football Association of Ireland for example commit a great deal of time, resources and guidance into helping footballers re-engage with education when they return from England and sign with League of Ireland Clubs. Many individual clubs also have relationships with 3rd level institutions which facilitate education for players in Ireland with my own employer University College Cork perhaps being the most prominent example via their multi-level collaboration with Cork City FC.
In theory a more structured system of training compensation to reward the grassroots and senior clubs involved in training the player is in place however this is more often ignored and waved aside by British Clubs rather than honoured. Various estimates of compliance suggesting figures of between 3% and 8% of the training compensation due being actually paid by the new clubs acquiring the young players from their training clubs. A standard play of agents is to make it clear that the foreign club interested in the next young star are only interested if there is no training compensation payable and if the training club looks for their entitlement under FIFA Regulations they will be ‘standing in the way’ of the players development and their big shot. One infamous agent for example when attempting to secure the signing of a promising young player who has gone on to have an excellent career at a high level in the professional game in England and internationally told a training club that they were only signing the young star as a ‘favour’, that the player would never actually make it and accordingly they would not even consider paying any compensation (the English club eventually did pay up after the training club told them where to go). Other agents threaten ‘bridge transfers’ whereby a player is transferred domestically to a professional club which removes the grassroots clubs’ rights to training compensation and then quickly sold on internationally – a practice which the FAI have tried to stop and once which FIFA is about to expressly prohibit.
All this however is about the change utterly. The UK leaving the EU means the transfer of players under 18 will cease. In what is perhaps a telling insight into the entire Brexit Project – the penny only seems to be dropping now what the consequence of this will mean for British clubs. No more will the likes of Cesc Fabregas be able to join a British academy at such a young age and when British clubs do look to sign players once they are old enough to do so the compensation they are, notionally at least, expected to pay will increase significantly. Although during the transition period footballers from the EU will continue to be able to work in the United Kingdom the situation for footballers after Brexit is likely to change. Irish footballers will also find themselves in a somewhat unique position. Ireland and the United Kingdom enjoy a Common Travel Area and workers have free movement within that travel area. An ordinary Irish worker can move freely and take up employment in the UK both as an EU citizen and by virtue of the Common Travel Area. At the end of the Brexit transition period EU workers, including footballers, will likely require a visa to work in the United Kingdom and quotas could be put on the number of players per team (similar to the old ‘3 Foreigners’ rule). Post Brexit Irish workers will still enjoy the right to work in the United Kingdom by virtue of the Common Travel Area however the situation for young Irish footballers is a little more complex.
Come 1 January 2021 young Irish footballers in theory will have the right to work in the United Kingdom their ability to do so will be hindered by the operation of the FIFA Regulations. On the one hand the law of the land will say that they can in in the UK the FIFA Regulations, however, will prohibit the players ages between 16 and 18 from being registered with any club. FIFA has announced that they will not change the regulations but that they will interpret them in such a way during the Brexit transition period to allow FIFA to look upon the UK as an EU/EEA member thus allowing British clubs one further transfer window. The door will firmly shut come the end of the year and without a change to the regulations British Clubs will be locked out of signing young players from abroad.
The implications and opportunities for Irish football are profound. Irish players had already started to struggle to gain a foothold at English clubs given what had been the increased international reach of English clubs in recruitment terms. More than ever the FAI must ensure that the best young Irish players are given an opportunity to develop at home because the traditional destination will be closed off to them. The change in development profile of the Republic of Ireland nation team over the last 10 years has been extraordinary with more players than ever before having League of Ireland in their development background. The recent development and success of the underage national leagues, although not without their critics, is just one small step but if the Irish National team is to have a future the FAI and other stakeholders must create an environment where the best players can develop without relying on someone else to do the graft. Never before has Irish football been handed such an opportunity.
Dr Seán Ó Conaill is the Director of the Centre for Sports Economics and Law at UCC, a Lecturer in Sports Law at the School of Law and a new FAI Council Member