Why FIFA's attempt to clean up the transfer market is dumb and pointless

Yahoo Sports
General view of the FIFA logo before the start of the draw (Reuters)
General view of the FIFA logo before the start of the draw (Reuters)

So FIFA wants to clean up the transfer market. Ho-hum.

Historically, soccer’s governing bodies have not had much luck trying to curb the commerce of its players. That’s likely because the first-ever transfer fee was paid in 1893 when West Bromwich Albion sold Willie Groves to Aston Villa for a hundred pounds. FIFA wasn’t founded until 1904, and UEFA not until 1954.

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By the time the global governing body had been formed, the transfer record was already up to 700 pounds – Andy McCombie, from Sunderland to Newcastle United. And by the time a European regional body existed, Juan Schiaffino had left Penarol for AC Milan for 72,000 pounds.

Transfers, in other words, predate the bodies that seek to govern them. And so does the rampant inflation in the transfer market. It was up 700 percent at the time of FIFA’s founding and 72,000 percent when UEFA came along.

It’s little wonder, then, that those bodies have never had much luck trying to regulate the player market. In fact, a certain overzealousness to restrict the market may have inflamed things further. When the European Court of Justice ruled in favor of Jean-Marc Bosman in 1995, granting soccer players in Europe their free agency, the court also struck down rules capping the number of foreigners in European leagues, which only drove the number and value of transfers up even further.

Nevertheless, FIFA is going to take another crack at it, apparently.

Upon his election as FIFA president two years ago, Gianni Infantino promised to take on the almost entirely unregulated and largely opaque transfer market, in which all manner of agents and shadowy intermediaries have thrived for decades. Recall, for instance, that when Manchester United bought Paul Pogba from Juventus for a then-world record $116 million in 2016, his agent Mino Raiola collected some $53 million in commissions and fees on top of that. When Neymar left Santos for FC Barcelona in 2013, it turned out his own parents controlled more than half of Neymar’s transfer rights, netting them some $47 million. Neymar, of course, went on to become the world’s first quarter-billion player in the summer of 2017 when he moved on to Paris Saint-Germain, more than doubling the previous world-record transfer fee.

But trying to do something about it seems a fool’s errand because almost nobody in the game is actually incentivized to put a stop to it. Not even the clubs seem particularly bothered about paying the skyrocketing fees, as their incomes in this age of hyper-commercialism have kept pace with the transfer-fee inflation.

Last week, the New York Times first reported that Infantino will nevertheless take a stab at it. He convened a task force that has produced a report the newspaper got hold of.

In it, FIFA muses about a central transfer clearinghouse as a kind of check on the rampant system. That’s how fees and agent commissions would be processed, the latter capped at five percent of transfer fees or salaries – that seems yet to be determined.

More significantly still, this mechanism would create an algorithm of some sort to calculate a fair price for a player, and once again place a ceiling on a transaction. Anybody paying above that price would have to fork over a luxury tax to be divvied up between previous clubs. Then there’s the idea of a salary cap tied to revenue and the introduction of a fixed buyout clause in the nations that don’t already require them.

There are other suggestions too, like a standardized test for agents, and a limit on roster sizes and the number of players that can be loaned – either coming or going out – to stop teams from hoarding talent. There is even a suggestion of a digital player passport to keep track of a prospect’s soccer lineage from the age of 12 to ensure that his youth clubs are properly compensated in the solidarity payment mechanism.

On Thursday, ESPN confirmed that story and added that a FIFA committee will meet on Wednesday to discuss the proposals.

There are plenty of good ideas in here, mostly in the latter group of reforms. Agents were once licensed and then that was done away with. Teams like Chelsea take advantage of the loan system to essentially speculate on young players – making tidy profits even on the majority that don’t make it into its first team. And better tracking of young players would be a great advancement for a sport that sometimes treats prospects like cattle.

But trying to curb transfer fees is price-fixing, plain and simple. And it doesn’t really serve soccer. The massive transfer fees are also a kind of wealth transfer. The very rich clubs buy a player from a rich club, which replaces him with a player from a well-off club. The well-off club perhaps buys a player or two from a middle-class club, and so on and so forth. Soccer is one of the few places in our society where wealth really does actually trickle down.

There is nothing inherently wrong with the escalation of transfer fees. Especially when far fewer clubs are living above their means, like they did in the past. Sure, the cream is rising to the very top, but that isn’t solved by some kind of ceiling. Those clubs would just find other ways to attract the elite talent, through perks or bonuses or higher salaries, if those weren’t somehow limited as well. Or they’ll simply pay the luxury tax and not even bother pretending.

And it isn’t fair to either the player being sold or the club selling him. There really isn’t any significant upside.

As for the agent caps, that just invites corruption. All of it does, really.

It’s hard to see these any of these attempts at stopping the soaring sums being paid to clubs and agents actually working. And all they do is undermine whatever integrity and transparency the market has left. It invites workarounds and even more financial shenanigans.

The transfer market is very far from perfect. But it also isn’t exactly broken. It functions. It does the job it’s intended to do: move players to the highest bidder. FIFA’s proposals, for the most part, are solutions in search of a problem.

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.

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