Unlucky Article 13 – the difficulties facing junior UAE footballers when signing their first professional contract

Published 21 June 2019 By: Daniel Magdi Louis, Adam Powell

UAE Football

This article examines the United Arab Emirates (UAE) Football Associations (UAEFA) Regulations on the Status and Transfer of Players (RSTP). More particularly, Article 13 of the UAEFA RSTP is proving controversial at present for two main reasons:

  1. It obliges amateur junior players, upon turning 18 years old, to sign their first professional contract with the same club at which the players had been training;

  1. It only applies to UAE nationals, not to a new category of “non-UAE citizens” (namely children of Emirati mothers, expats born in the UAE, and expats resident in the UAE for at least the past 3 years) who are now permitted to compete in domestic sports pursuant to a 2018 UAE Cabinet Resolution.

We discuss each point in turn.

The UAEFA Regulations on the Status and Transfer of Players (the RSTP)

Article 13 of the RSTP provides the following conditions (amongst others) for UAE nationals to become professional football players:

  • UAE players should be at least eighteen (18) years old;

  • Players are obliged to sign their first professional contract with the club they have been training with as an amateur junior player (the Parent Club), under the condition that a written offer is to be presented by the Parent Club to the player within two (2) months after the player’s eighteenth (18th) birthday;

  • The written offer presented to the player should not exceed a term of five (5) years;

  • Any offers presented by the club to the player should be legally binding on both parties;

  • In the absence of the above-mentioned written offer, the player is considered, and further to the elapse of the two months period, to be free to contract with a third party club at the discretion of the player.

The obligation on amateur junior players, upon turning 18, to sign their first professional contract with the same club at which they had been training is controversial. Whilst beneficial to the clubs, it appears to conflict with the doctrine of “freedom of contract”.

The imposition of the condition was previously justified by sports specificity in the UAE football market. Football clubs in the lower division had raised concerns that high-performing junior UAE players developed at a Parent Club would not stay with those clubs once they reached the age of eligibility (eighteen years old) to sign their first professional contract. This meant that such players could benefit, at the club’s expense, from the club’s investment training programs and facilities and then immediately upon reaching the age of eighteen leave to join one of the higher ranking, more powerful clubs.

This situation created an imbalance between clubs - rather than being able to sell the economic and federative rights to a player to a third party club for a financial benefit, a parent club would receive only a sum equal to training compensation1 (a “one-off” compensation payment to a parent club that developed a player from the age of 12 but did not ultimately sign a professional contract with the player on turning 18)2. In all cases, the level of such training compensation was significantly lower than a corresponding rights-based transfer fee. This situation was deemed unfair and thus Article 13 of the RTSP was viewed as a legitimate means to create certain balance by protecting the investment of Parent Clubs while still encouraging players to seek to develop at different clubs in the country.

However, because of the strict conditions of Article 13, it became common practice for some UAE national payers to refuse to sign their first obligatory professional contract and to try to circumvent this obligation3. This situation has created tension between different clubs and players within the UAE and of course creates the potential for disputes.

FIFA’s view

The provisions of Article 13 raise questions as to its general compatibility with the UAE Constitution, Civil Code and employment laws and the FIFA RSTP, primarily in relation to compliance with the doctrine of freedom of contract and the freedom of movement of players.

In its circular to the UAEFA evaluating the UAEFA RSTP4, FIFA recommended that, unless UAE Law generally contained a provision similar to the restrictions under Article 13, it should be repealed as it violated one of the most valuable principles in football; the freedom to contract.

Despite the recommendations made by FIFA, and the absence of any parallel laws in the UAE allowing restrictions on contracting with Emirati football players turning 18 years old, the UAEFA has maintained its position, justifying the imposition of this restriction under sports specificity in the football market.

It is accepted that FIFA has no authority to oblige the UAEFA to amend the provisions of Article 13 since the content does not fall under the mandatory provisions imposed by FIFA on its affiliated members (i.e. provisions that must be included in the regulations of the national football associations). Hence, the provisions are an internal matter under the exclusive jurisdiction of the UAEFA and FIFA’s powers are limited to evaluating UAEFA regulations and to making recommendations for amendments.

Moreover, Article 13 only applies to Emirati players and clubs affiliated to the UAEFA. This means that in the event of a dispute arising between a player and one or more clubs in connection with Article 13, FIFA has no jurisdiction as there is no international dimension - the dispute is between members of the UAEFA. Accordingly, the UAEFA Players’ Status Committee5 is the competent judicial body to address any issue.

The Cabinet Resolution and its impact on the UAE football market

Moving onto the second area of controversy - in June 2018, United Arab Emirates Cabinet Resolution No. 27 (Resolution) was issued following the Instruction of His Highness Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, President of the UAE. The Resolution allows certain “non-UAE nationals6, mainly including:

  • children of Emirati mothers,

  • expats born in the UAE, and

  • expats resident in the UAE for at least the past three (3) years7,

to participate and compete in official domestic sports competitions on the same terms as nationals, offering them the possibility to become professional athletes.

One of the reasons behind the Resolution was to expand the base for selection, feeding competitive sports in the UAE.8 Increasing the level of competition and play is, in the long term, expected to increase standards at the national level as well. Prior to the Resolution, only UAE nationals were able to lawfully compete in competitive domestic sports. There has now been a restructuring of UAE national sports federations to accommodate new categories of non-UAE nationals eligible to compete.

In relation to football, Article [20.1] of the Resolution allows certain non-UAE National to compete and play in official domestic competitions and to enjoy the privilege of being considered as local players. Non-UAE nationals are now no longer classed under the “quota” rules for foreign players, which restrict the permissible number of foreign players in any professional football club to a maximum of four in the professional league9 and two in the first division10. As a result, they can enter into professional contracts and enjoy the same privileges and protections as Emirati players.

In addition, they also benefit from FIFA’s jurisdiction and the enforcement of FIFA’s regulations (mainly with respect to the freedom of contract and freedom of movement), because their non-UAE citizenship provides the requisite international dimension for FIFA to assume jurisdiction over disputes involving such players (Article 22 FIFA RSTP11). This means that the general doctrine of freedom of contract should prevail to the extent permissible for non-UAE national players. Of course, under Article 13 this presents an interesting dynamic, as a UAE football club that develops a non-UAE national junior player cannot oblige that player to enter into a first professional contract with the club. This of course stands in contrast to the position with Emirati players discussed above and appears to raise issues of potential discrimination against UAE nationals.

Comment

Prior to the issuance of the Resolution, the restrictions placed on Emirati Players under Article 13 were arguably explainable by reference to market requirements, sustainability and sports specificity - the rationale is to protect the overall interests of football development in the UAE by granting powers to protect the interests of clubs, particularly feeder clubs skilled at player scouting and development. However, this overarching objective must still be achieved by proportionate means, and as a minimum such measures should not be discriminatory or inhibit players’ fundamental rights.

In the authors’ view, the issuance of the Resolution and the discriminatory result on Emirati players identified above may have unintentionally increased concerns as to the proportionality of Article 13 and could have opened the door to legal challenges. We shall have to see what happens next, although the UAEFA could consider reforming it by, for example, reducing the maximum term permitted for the first professional contract, imposing it across all categories of junior amateur players or waiving Article 13 in its entirety.

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Author

Daniel Magdi Louis

Daniel Magdi Louis

Associate, Al Tamimi

Daniel is an Associate in Al Tamimi & Company’s Corporate Sports Law & Events Management practice group, based in the Dubai office. He is qualified in Egypt and has a wide array of experience representing clients in contentious and non-contentious matters relating to sports, employment and commercial law. His practice includes representing high-profile professional athletes, coaches, intermediaries, clubs and sports governing bodies. A key focus of Daniel’s practice is the representation of athletes and clubs before dispute resolution and arbitration committees within national sports federations, regional sports federations, international sports federations and the Court of Arbitration for Sports in matters relating to transfer agreements, intermediaries, anti-doping, match fixing and disciplinary sanctions.

Adam Powell

Adam Powell

Al Tamimi, Head of Corporate Commercial – Ras Al Khaimah

Adam qualified in the UK as a solicitor in 2001 and practiced in London as a corporate commercial lawyer until 2015, when he transferred to Al Tamimi & Company in the United Arab Emirates to head the corporate commercial practice in the Ras Al Khaimah office.

Adam has a wide array of regional experience in drafting and negotiating commercial contracts and documentation relating to the sports and events management sector, having acted for local government and private entities on a significant number of matters relating to sports and events, from joint venture arrangements, sponsorship and promotor agreements, licensing and merchandising, to venue/facilities management arrangements.

In 2017, Adam spent a number of months on secondment at Yas Marina Circuit (Abu Dhabi Motorsports Management LLC) supporting the central legal function of the iconic F1 venue and island entertainment facilities.

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