In the first of what will be a regular series, we caught up for a quick chat with Jonas Baer-Hoffmann, Director of Policy at FIFPro Division Europe; to discuss their work, and in particular their on-going campaign to overhaul the global transfer system.
For those who don’t know: who is FIFPro and what do you do?
FIFPro is the global trade union body of professional football players. We have 58 members, who are independent, player-driven footballers’ unions. Collectively we represent approximately 60,000 players and are structured in a similar way to other international trade union confederations. Our main job is to represent the interests and voices of the players to the best of our ability, to improve their working conditions, protect their health and wellbeing during and after their footballing careers; and at the same time contribute to a sustainable and democratic development of our game.
You have recently filed a complained with the European Commission about the current transfer system. What is it about? What’s the problem with the current system from the players’ perspective?
We filed our complaint in September 2015 after a long and exhaustive process of consultations and failed negotiations with industry stakeholders – FIFA, ECA [European Club Association] and EPFL [European Professional Football Leagues] – over improvements to the transfer system governed by FIFA. The transfer regulations are both the core labour market and economic regulation of football, and they therefore have a very significant impact not only on shaping club-player relations but also the competitive environment between clubs. In depth analysis shows that the system is failing football in various ways:
It fails to protect players against breach of contracts by clubs (e.g. via non-payment of salaries) by providing no effective deterrent, prevention or means of protection for players
It has further shifted the imbalance of rights and protections for players in favour of clubs, and has effectively closed the door on many players’ ability to move
The pro-competitive mechanisms that are meant to foster redistribution amongst clubs (i.e. the training compensation and solidarity mechanisms) are failing to counter an ever-growing disparity between clubs
By allowing for the possibility of artificially inflating player recruitment costs, transfer fees act as a method by which dominant clubs are able to cement their dominance. Spiralling transfer fees are both the cause of and explanation for this phenomenon
The principle of assigning every player a price tag, combined with a lack of transparency and oversight, are a fertile source of abusive and speculative practices – such as third party ownership or trafficking of minors
All of these facts combine to encourage ‘jackpot economics’ on the part of club management, which manifests itself in speculation, financial distress and widespread bankruptcies.
What would the ideal outcome of the complaint be? Does FIFPro see an alternative to the current system?
The ideal outcome would be a collectively bargained reform of the regulations – with or without legal intervention from the European Commission. There is no blueprint for a new system but it must follow some core principles:
Stronger protection of fundamental player rights and more quality jobs for footballers
Removal of unjustified restraints of competition between clubs to create a more level playing field
A greater balance between the contractual rights of players and clubs to truly balance the interests of employers and employees
A healthier and more sustainable redistribution model, which stimulates healthy and widespread growth within the game, and thereby generates more quality jobs for our members
A commitment to collective bargaining of collective employment rules in football
It has been argued that the current transfer system helps many small/medium-sized clubs by providing them with an essential source of income. Does FIFPro agree? How would your alternative transfer system help ease the financial crisis that many clubs find themselves in?
When it was (re)introduced in 2001, the current transfer system was largely justified by its benefits: redistributing football’s wealth, encouraging and rewarding clubs for training talent, and fostering solidarity. FIFPro will always defend and argue for these principles. Yet the current system does not pass the eye test. A ‘redistributive dysfunction’, whereby the vast transfer fees circulate amongst an elite group of clubs and leagues has been identified by the CIES research institute, and its existence is undeniable.
Any ‘trickle-down’ effect is extremely limited, largely because the career paths of players have changed, with talents joining larger clubs and their academies earlier and earlier. Therefore, any ‘redistribution mechanism’ is in reality a game of chance. Unless a talented kid happens to show up on a club’s doorstep and stay for a while before turning pro, neither the meagre transfer system share of 1.84% solidarity mechanism nor the even smaller amount in training compensation ends up with smaller clubs.
Solidarity amongst clubs is arguably at an all-time low and it requires a readjustment and commitment by all stakeholders to foster it and counter the growing wealth gap. More money could be devoted to a broader system of stimulating training clubs e.g. via an international training and development fund. Solidarity mechanisms could be strengthened to channel more money down better defined and widespread pipelines through the football pyramid.
SD Europe’s network consists of supporters’ organisations and member-run clubs. Our final question: how would you sell the idea of a new system to them? How would they benefit?
At the moment, football arguably presents 20% of players with great working opportunities, whilst the others are handed precarious, short-term, average to low paid jobs. This is to a significant extent caused by ever-decreasing competitiveness and financial stability across the game – and as well as the players, this has a negative impact on the majority of clubs, and all supporters. This is what we want to change.
We need a strong, resilient, transparent and prosperous game. We need sustainability and a new vision, with greater competition and greater levels of solidarity. We believe that we share these values with supporters and member-run clubs – like them, we care deeply about the game’s governance and long-term development.