You probably haven’t heard of English footballer Joe Yoffe. Why would you? Until recently, he played for UMF Selfoss in the second tier of the Icelandic league. But Yoffe could be about to change the way footballers are transferred.
The player has mooted potential legal action over what he says are unfair rules about when a player can transfer between clubs in Europe. In itself, Yoffe’s claim is unlikely to have the same impact as the decision of the Court of Justice of the European Union in the famous Jean-Marc Bosman ruling. The Court of Justice’s ruling in Bosman transformed the market for professional football players by outlawing limits on the numbers of foreign players in club teams. The Court also required that players be permitted to move without the payment of a transfer fee upon the expiry of a contract with their club.
Yoffe’s claim is that FIFA’s rules on player transfers outside of the transfer window are in breach of his rights under European Union laws designed to facilitate the free movement of workers within the union.
The case is unusual in that his playing contract with UMF Selfoss comes to an end in October. Under FIFA’s existing rules he would not be eligible to sign for a new club until the transfer window re-opens in January 2014. The transfer rules do permit players who were free agents prior to the closing of a transfer window to sign with new clubs outside of these periods. However, this does not extend to players, like Yoffe, whose contracts end while the window is closed.
Yoffe may well have a case that the rule – which effectively prevents him from employment as a professional footballer for a significant part of the year – is in breach of laws which give nationals of EU Member States the right to seek and take up work elsewhere in the Union.
However, any amendments to the transfer rules would be relatively minor, simply permitting free agents to sign for new clubs irrespective of the point in time at which their contracts came to an end. This would certainly be to the advantage of journeyman players who take advantage of the schedules of different national leagues to play all year round, not just during the traditional August to May season of football’s major European countries.
Yoffe’s path to the Court of Justice would be a long one in any case; any direct legal action would first have to be brought before a national court, which would then have the discretion to refer the matter to the CJEU. Though in the past FIFA has demonstrated a desire to resolve such disputes prior to a court ruling.
Yoffe’s case gives rise to the spectre of a potentially more significant legal threat to one of football’s rules – the concept of the transfer window as it applies to all transfers.
There is no doubt that the transfer window system imposes limits on the free movement of professional footballers, meaning for much of the season they are unable to move between clubs. EU law will only permit such limitations where they are justified as a proportionate response to important sporting needs.
The Court of Justice has previously ruled – in a case relating to basketball – that transfer windows may be legitimate in the interests of team stability and ensuring competitive balance between teams. The transfer window, however, cannot automatically be regarded as being legitimate; the presumption is that, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, such rules are an unlawful restriction. This point was emphasised by a recent report commissioned by the European Commission in relation to the “home grown player” rule.
There are certainly those within the game who believe the transfer window serves no useful purpose. It is now down to the football authorities to ensure they have a sound case for its continuation. Otherwise we face a situation where everyone, from Joe Yoffe to Lionel Messi, becomes a journeyman, moving wherever the next pay cheque takes them.