The transfer window may not be popular, but the alternative at the time of its introduction would have been the death of football’s economy.
So, the 20th European summer transfer window opens on July 1. Except the transfer window has already been open since June 10 for domestic transfers in England. They have been in France, too, but they haven’t yet in Germany, Italy or Spain. Across Europe the dates of various transfer windows are something of a mess that really could do with a tidy. Like that drawer in the kitchen.
Transfer windows have almost always existed. Traditionally in England, clubs could not buy players after a transfer deadline day that was usually at the end of March, and almost always with a cut-off time of 5.00pm. There was no internet in those days, and office hours clearly mattered to the Football League. The rationale for the transfer deadline was purely about maintaining the integrity of competitions. Wealthy clubs being able to sign players whenever they wanted would upset the competitive balance of the league.
The current iteration of the transfer window in England can be traced back to 1992. Clubs were still operating under the same system as they ever had, but there was growing debate about regulating the transfer market in the hope of curbing the worst excesses of the rapidly growing network of agents that was starting to shoot up, as player salaries started to significantly rise. That it might make clubs think more strategically and plan better was also considered a potential benefit.
A vote was defeated in 1992 on the basis that some clubs may need to ‘sell to survive’ at points throughout a season and that the existing system was a fair compromise, and by the time it was introduced in the global game ten years later Premier League clubs were against moving towards a more tightly regulated window, with Arsenal vice-chairman David Dein saying shortly after their introduction that “the English clubs did not want it, they were very happy with the existing system but, due to no fault of our own, we have had thrust upon us a new system which makes life more difficult”.
It could be argued that the clue was in the new league’s logo. By 1990, it finally felt as though there might be a break in the clouds after decades of dismal investment in facilities, increasing hooliganism and, consequently, steadily falling attendances had ended in an air of toxicity hanging over the game and, ultimately, death. There’d finally been an upturn in crowds, supporter behaviour had improved a little, and the post-Hillsborough Taylor Report was bringing in a raft of stadium redevelopment across the country.
But this recovery was still fragile, and in taking the decision that they did, in thinking of themselves first as sellers, clubs were really passing comment on that fragility, even if they didn’t realise that they were doing so. In the same year that this vote was taken, two Football League clubs – Aldershot and Maidstone United – went bust mid-season, the first to do so in 30 years. But ten years on, a lot had changed. Fuelled by a decade’s worth of ever-increasing television money, commercial revenues, crowds and ticket prices, the Premier League was stuffed with apex predators, buying clubs who certainly didn’t want any further restrictions on when they could buy players.
Only in 2002, they didn’t have a choice. FIFA were introducing them across the world from the start of the 2002/03 season, whether they liked it or not. Part of the fallout of 1995’s Bosman ruling, which enshrined in law the right of players at the end of their contract to leave a club without a transfer fee, was that the entire transfer system had come under scrutiny from the European Commission, with an increasingly prevailing view becoming that no employee should be prevented from leaving an employer for another at any time. The global football transfer system might even have been at the point of being found in contravention of The Treaty of Rome.
Professional football might have looked very different, had this happened. The gloves would certainly have come off immediately in terms of a faster and greater concentration of power at the top, likely even greater than exists now. With players able to walk away from clubs at will, ‘transfers’ as we understand them would likely have disappeared altogether. Contracts would have changed, and there may have been further court cases over what sort of restrictions could be put on them without becoming too onerous. The collapse in value of transfers and contracts may likely have destroyed many clubs dependent on bringing through young players for revenue streams.
But this player power might not have lasted very long. At the very top of the game, there may have been few worries for players on that front. It’s not an issue if you’re always guaranteed a new contract. But elsewhere in the game, it wouldn’t have improved the lot of the players. It’s not difficult to imagine clubs putting in performance-related KPIs and firing players who didn’t hit them. Redundancies would likely have been commonplace, while relations between clubs and both players and other clubs would have been considerably less trusting. Football has never been a secure profession. For the majority of players, it would have become even less so. The biggest beneficiaries would have been agents.
In 1999, UEFA proposed a six-week winter transfer window across all leagues, but this was rejected by England and Germany. But while there were concerns over what might happen if transfer fees were banned outright and the devastating effect that such a decision could have upon the game’s fragile economic system, the EC weren’t stupid. They were aware of the fact that this could happen, and no-one wanted the entire global economy of football to collapse in on itself. A compromise was the best route out of all of it, even notwithstanding the Premier League’s griping. FIFA ended up stepping in and agreeing fixed periods which offered a degree of surety to all.
Under FIFA regulations, transfer windows are formally called ‘registration periods’ and there are two per year, the dates of which are fixed by national associations in accordance with their respective season calendars. The first, the summer window, begins after the end of the season and usually closes again shortly after the start of the following season. This window is permitted to run for no longer than 12 weeks. The second registration period, the winter or January window, is only permitted to last four weeks.
But for all the binary nature of the idea of a transfer window – it’s either open or not – it’s not tidy at the moment. In England and France, the transfer windows have been open since June 10, but in Spain, Italy and Germany they don’t open until July 1, all of which explains much of what feels very much like the stop-start nature of early stories. No-one can stop clubs from negotiating with other clubs or players outside of a transfer window. Agreements can be reached, the principles of contract drawn up, but what can’t happen is the registration of that player, and these different dates can get confusing.
Not all leagues work to the same calendar as Europe, either. In Brazil, the ‘summer’ transfer window runs from January to April, with their ‘winter’ one running from the third week in June to the third week in July. In the USA and Canada, the ‘summer’ window runs from February to May, with their ‘winter’ one coming from the second week in July to the second week in August. It is notable that these two leagues have both scheduled their ‘winter’ window for the busiest period in the European summer window. That’s a market that few can afford to miss out on.
And these dates can be important because in football, paperwork matters a lot. Failure to have player registrations completed correctly, for example, could have an effect on insurance policies, rendering them invalid or more difficult to claim. A club signing a player in one tax year but deliberately delaying reporting the date of the payment of the instalments could find themselves attracting the interest of the taxman, and HMRC have already been plenty hostile to football clubs over the years. Getting contracts that are worth an awful lot of money right first time is absolutely critical to the smooth running of the professional game, and having different dates for different countries doesn’t seem to simplify anything.
The matter is further complicated by the fact that, for the vast majority of player contracts in both the Premier League and the EFL, the expiry date will be June 30 of the final year of the contract (clubs want to be absolutely sure that a player will be with them beyond the end of the season), meaning that there is this three-week long black hole when transfers might be able to happen but might not for a couple of weeks, depending on the countries involved and the contract status of the player.
The English transfer window opening on June 10 makes sense, when viewed in splendid isolation. It comes with the annual AGMs of the leagues, the throwing out the old and ringing in the new, marking the formal passing from one season to another. Premier League clubs were resistant to the introduction of transfer windows in the first place, so it’s hardly surprising that they should reopen here at the earliest available opportunity. But considering that most player contracts don’t expire until the end of June and that most of the biggest European leagues don’t reopen until the same time, would it not make more sense to move the whole lot to the end of the month, so that everybody knows exactly where they stand?
Nothing would stop the gossip. Nothing would stop clubs and players from making arrangements and getting everything ready to go, just as they do during the rest of the year. It would just be a clear demarcation in the sand that everyone could adhere to and understand. And while having the freedom to be flexible over these dates on a country-by-country basis matters, it would seem to make sense to find some sort of common ground. Because of the issue of players’ contracts expiring, the end of the month seems like the right time for everything to restart. We all know that football season never ends these days, but a little more synchronisation to tidy up what feels like an untidy part of the year wouldn’t go amiss.
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