A leading sports lawyer says out-of-contract players in England can ignore FIFA proposals and leave their clubs at the end of June, even if the season has not resumed.
Nick De Marco QC, who has represented sports governing bodies, players, clubs and agents since 2002, says players will be entitled to “walk away” from clubs if their contracts expire on June 30.
Earlier this week, FIFA proposed that contracts are “extended until such time that the season does actually end”, and asked for the same principle to be applied to contracts due to begin when the new season starts.
But De Marco says their recommendations cannot be enforced under English employment law.
“Legally, they cannot be forced to continue to play for the club,” De Marco, of Blackstone Chambers, told Sky Sports News.
“Nobody can force them to do so; FIFA, the FA, the club or anybody else. If they want to walk away, that’s a matter for them but it will really be a matter of whether, financially, that makes sense for them.
“What you’re most likely to see as a preferred option is probably very short-term extensions of contracts based on existing salary terms. That won’t suit everyone, and it can’t be forced on anyone in England.
“For example, if you’re a player coming towards the end of your contract and, perhaps, the end of your career, maybe you only have one more contract left, you may be very reluctant to sign a contract for only a few weeks or an indeterminate period of time.
“If you’re a lower league club, financially stressed, you won’t be wanting to pay players beyond June 30. So, a one-size-fits-all solution isn’t going to work. It’s going to depend on each case. The key is going to be agreements.”
Will players walk away?
De Marco is advising the Professional Footballers’ Association during the coronavirus pandemic but cannot comment on ongoing negotiations.
He says, from a legal perspective, players who are out of contract from June 30 are entitled to leave, regardless of their club’s preference when the season resumes.
“If the players are out of contract then, so far as the law is concerned, they’re no longer employees and they’re free to walk away,” he explains. “The real issue is, ‘Do the players walk away or not?’. That will depend on the circumstances of each case.
“If the transfer window is closed, they may walk away and not be able to find another club. Now they may have a legal claim in those circumstances, or they may just have to wait two or three months. They might prefer that, to signing a contract that stops them making the next move. What individual players will do will depend on each player and each club.”
Transfer window: “Could be very unfair”
FIFA says it will allow associations to move the dates of this summer’s transfer window.
“The bigger issue for all of us is obviously how long this coronavirus goes on for and when we can resume the season,” he explains. “That will have the greatest effect on the transfer window and when the season restarts. What would happen if the season couldn’t start until August or September, which is quite possible?
“If you didn’t start the transfer window until after that, it could be very unfair to players, who are going to be out of contract in June, and don’t want to sign the new contract. It could be very unfair to clubs who would be desperate, some of them, to release players. The real problem is going to be when the season is practically capable of restarting.”
Pre-contracts: Good idea?
“One possible solution that’s been suggested is allowing players to sign pre-contracts,” says De Marco. “So, if a club wants to keep a player, but the player doesn’t really want to sign a two-month contract because they’ve got an offer of three years somewhere else, they can sign the three years somewhere else, but it starts in two months’ time.
“The problem with that is you have all sorts of integrity issues. There is no easy solution. I don’t think we will really know what the solution is until we’re closer to knowing when, and how, the season can resume.”
Coronavirus: A ‘depressed’ market
“I think the most important thing we will see is the global economic crisis and, in particular, the squeeze on football finances means that it’s going to be a very depressed football market,” says De Marco. “Not just in terms of transfer fees but, also, you’d expect that to have a knock-on effect on players’ wages. That’s probably the largest effect you will see.
“You will have also some clubs who can afford to go out there and buy and will be able to do so on much more favourable terms, and you will have other clubs who will be, perhaps, forced to sell at under value. What that will most likely do is increase the difference between the wealthiest clubs and the rest, which is generally not a good thing for football.
“There are clubs who can afford to pay players’ [high] wages, there will still be those clubs. I’m not going to name them, but you know the type of clubs that are out there, both in the UK and in Europe. Those clubs will be competing for the very best players.
“It does mean that those very best players will still be able to maintain a high salary and that will have some knock-on effects. Yes, there will be a depressive impact.”
FA “should listen to football”
FA chairman Greg Clarke has warned that clubs and leagues could be “lost” as a result of the financial impact of the pandemic.
De Marco says English football’s governing body must maintain regular dialogue with everybody in the game.
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