Six key points for footballers to consider when signing their first professional contract

Published 07 April 2017 By: Thomas Barnard

Handshake with football field in background

All too often the back pages of the national press are littered with stories of young, gifted footballers who have found themselves hitting the headlines for all the wrong reasons. Whether it's a legal scrape with their club or The FA, or (worse still) serious criminal offences, it doesn't seem unusual for young players to end up in the news for their off-field activity, rather than on-field performances. At the time of writing, it has been reported that two promising young French players, signed to Paris St Germain and Toulouse, have been sacked by their clubs for alleged involvement in a pellet gun attack.[1] Not a great start to a professional career at top flight clubs.

Whilst this guide doesn't address moral or ethical questions, it hopes to serve as a useful and practical tool for educating young players about some of the most important legal principles and sets of rules that they should be aware of when signing their first professional contract.

 

1. KNOW THE RULES OF THE GAME

The FA Rules (known as The Rules of the Association or "The FA Handbook") are extensive and complex. In broad terms, they set out how football operates in England and Wales. They cover everything from how The FA operates; to how leagues and competition are organised; to safety requirements; to anti-doping rules; to how disciplinary panels operate (and much more).

The FA Rules prohibit and regulate many activities, and it’s no bad thing for a young player seeking their first professional contract to seek a broad understand of what the Rules cover. There are plenty of digestible and understandable accompanying guides produced by The FA that young plyers can access on line (see examples below).

One important point to note is that the Rules extend to a diverse range of off-field conduct such as scholarships, transfers, gambling and general behaviour. 

It's not unusual to hear of youngsters (and in some cases more senior players who ought to know better) inadvertently falling foul of the Rules not because they deliberately intended to, but because they simply didn't realise that the off field conduct they engaged in was regulated. By way of very recent examples, Sheffield Wednesday manager Carlos Carvalhal has recently been charged by The FA for improper conduct during a match[2] and it is widely expected that The FA will investigate claims that Sunderland boss David Moyes warned a female reporter that she may “get a slap” during a press conference[3]. Not young players, but it goes to show that even experienced professionals can fall foul of the Rules when it comes to off-field conduct.

Young player will do well to read up and understand what’s expected of them. Here are some useful links to some of the most important sets of rules:

 

2. WHAT SORT OF CONTRACT CAN YOU AGREE WITH A CLUB IF YOU ARE UNDER 18? 

The FA and FIFA regulate not only when a player can negotiate a transfer (i.e. in the transfer window), but the type of contract that a player can enter into.  

The FIFA Regulations on the Status and Transfer of Players 2016 (the FIFA Regulations) state that players under the age of 18 can only enter into contracts of less than three years in duration[4], and with clubs in a given geography.  They prevent the international transfers of young players, except in exceptional circumstances. So, until a player is over the age of 18, an international playing contract is not on the cards unless: 

(a) the players’ parents move to the country in which the player’s club is based (and they do so for non-football related reasons)[5]; or

(b) the transfer is within the EU/EEA and the club also agrees to provide, and proves that it is providing footballing and academic or vocational training to the player and looking after the youngster in the best possible way[6]; or

(c) the player lives within 50km of the national border and the registering club is also within 50km of the same border[7]

The international transfer of young players is deliberately restrictive (although the proportionality of these regulations has been contested[8]), and clubs and players often fall foul of the Regulations.

 

3. DO YOU NEED AN AGENT?

Just as clubs are keen to sign the brightest young talent, so too are agents (who are now also known as “Intermediaries”).  

Acting as a football agent or intermediary is an activity that The FA regulates. Players need to ensure they contract with an intermediary who meets and complies with the The FA’s Regulations on Working with Intermediaries (the “Intermediary Regulations”).

There are potential pitfalls here, as financial penalties can be levied against players and clubs using unlicensed intermediaries, or properly licensed intermediaries who fail to conduct business in accordance with the Intermediary Regulations.

Ask your agent if they are authorised to act for you (you could ask to see their FA Number) and, if in any doubt, contact The FA This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

To learn more about the Intermediaries Regulation, please this LawInSport article.[9]

 

4. GENERAL CONTRACTS 

This brings us on to a few generally applicable issues when a young player enters into any form of contract. 

(a) Length of contract - always check how long are you contracting for, and whether you can terminate the contract if the relationship doesn't work out as you expected. This is a common pitfall, not just for footballers but young athletes and musicians generally, that we are frequently asked to advise on. The early days of any relationship generally start well, but what happens with your contract when it turns out your agent (or whoever else you may have contracted with) doesn't perform as you expected to? Can you bring the contract to an end, without having to rely on a breach by the other party? Understanding the way the contract works before you sign it is crucial.

(b) Commercial terms - understand the commercial terms of any contract and how this might affect you as your circumstances change. What may seem like a good deal at the time can quickly sour as your circumstances change. How much will you be paying for any given service in 3 years, say, if your earnings increase significantly in that period and the price you pay is determined as a percentage of your earnings, rather than a fixed amount? Whilst it's usual to calculate charges as a percentage of a salary or transfer fee, for example, think about what those charges might amount to in future years. It's common to negotiate caps or limits on charges for this reason. Don’t be afraid to negotiate.

(c) If you are under 18 - in the eyes of the law, minors (under 18s in England and Wales) cannot enter into any contract except in certain situations (regarding contracts for the provision of education services, for example). Youngsters may therefore be asked to get their parents to Register to a deal, too, and it's important in this scenario that everyone understands their rights and obligations before they enter a contract.

(d) Know who you're contracting with - are you engaging an agent directly, for example, or their limited company (or other corporate entity)? This can have implications when the individual you expected to provide a service tells you that someone else will be handling your affairs, for example. Look carefully at the contract to see who the parties are defined as, and you can check online with Companies House (here) to see that the company is actually incorporated in England and Wales.

 

5. IS THE CONTRACT YOU ARE SIGNING A GOOD DEAL?

Does the contract set out the best deal for you?

Look past the financial package being offered, and make sure the deal set out in the contract allows you to develop to your full potential.

Remember, when negotiating with a club, the club will be acting in their best interests, which aren’t necessarily aligned with your best interests. For example, clubs don't only scout for the best talent, they hoard it too and whilst one club may offer you slightly more financially, you may find yourself on the bench indefinitely, or on long-term loan to a club in a lower tier.  

This is increasingly reported as a growing problem in English football, and it’s not unusual for clubs to lure players in with generous packages, partly to stop competitors from signing them. Training compensation payments are also reported as an issue,[10] but this is something that needs to be dealt with at the highest levels of the game rather than at the player level.

It is important to know that you can negotiate and change the terms of the deal if you are not happy with it. Do not feel pressured into immediately signing the first version of the contract that is handed to you. 

 

6. TALK TO A PROFESSIONAL

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, take advice from professionals.

Although paying for lawyers, accountants and financial advisors can seem expensive, sound advice from trusted, reputable and regulated professionals who are acting on your behalf and in your best interests can help you avoid a whole host of problems later down the line and prove invaluable in the long run.

If you have any problems with your professional advisors, remember that they are also regulated in the UK, and you can always approach their regulator to help you. For example, solicitors are regulated by the Solicitors Regulatory Authority

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Author

Thomas Barnard

Thomas Barnard

Tom is a solicitor specialising in commercial litigation and sports law. He acts for a wide variety of high-profile athletes, including cricketers, footballers, gymnasts and cyclists.

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