Until the beginning of the 1890’s football players could change clubs (almost) at will. But then, the Football Association in England set standards that have not changed for more than 100 years …
Put simply: a player who had a valid (professional) contract with a club, could not leave without his club letting him – even when his contract expired and he didn’t even play for the club anymore. The first option was an agreement to let the player go for free, the second was for the other club – the one wanting him – to pay compensation (transfer fee).
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Things changed with Jean-Marc Bosman in December 1995 when the European Court of Justice ruled that players from the EU have the right to a free transfer at the end of their contract, with the provision that they were transferring from a club in one member state to the other. The snowball started and never stopped rolling: what became known as the Bosman rule is now valid all over the world.
Players are changing clubs faster and easier than ever – but mostly either under the Bosman rule or with compensation being paid. The compensation amount can be agreed between the buying and selling club or on the basis of the number previously written in the player’s contract (also known as the “buy-out clause”).
However, there are two “must-know” exceptions in the recently updated FIFA Regulations on the Status and Transfer of Players:
Article 15: Terminating a contract with “sporting just cause”
A player can terminate his contract on the basis of “sporting just cause” if he has appeared in fewer than 10 per cent of the club’s games in the course of the season.
The existence of “just sporting cause” is established on a case-by-case basis. In such a case compensation may or may not be payable. The player can only terminate his contract under this article in the 15 days following the last official match of the season of the club with which he is registered.
Article 17: Leaving after the “protected period”
Article 17, named “Consequences of terminating a contract without just cause” allows a player to unilaterally walk away from a contract – but only after the so-called “protected period” has passed. Any player who signed a contract before the age of 28 can buy himself out of the contract three years after the deal was signed. If he is 28 or older the time limit is shortened to two years.
What is important is that compensation must be paid. Who pays it – the new club or the player himself – and how high it is, depends on individual circumstances. Scot Andy Webster was the first player to do so in 2006 (find out more about The Webster ruling).
Players should also have in mind that they can always terminate their contract if the club fails to fulfill its duties (and vice versa). This mostly happens for financial reasons as a lot of clubs run out of money before the end of the season. Players usually keep playing until the start of the next transfer window as they are unable change clubs earlier.
There is an exception for professional players without a contract (free agents)– players whose contract ran out or was terminated before the end of the transfer window. They can sign a professional contract with a new club based on the specific rules that apply to a certain country. In the majority of countries they can do that all the way to the start of the beginning of the second part of the season.