TAPPING UP IN FOOTBALL: A CASE OF OUTDATED REGULATIONS
The post has been authored by Dhananjay Dhonchak.
Dhananjay is a second-year student of the B.A. LL.B. course at the prestigious NALSAR University of Law, Hyderabad.
INTRODUCTION: WHAT IS TAPPING UP?
The current football regulations stipulate that a club cannot either directly or indirectly approach a player duly registered with another club, to secure his transfer. Regulation 18.3 of FIFA’s Regulations on the Status and Transfer of Players (“FIFA Regulations”) and Section T of the Premier League Rules (“EPL Rules”) talk about the prohibition of tapping up in international and domestic (England) transfers respectively. The procedure states that first, the two clubs must agree on a transfer fee, and thereafter the buying club is allowed to contact the player they are interested in chipping in. Interestingly, the flouting of these rules has now become commonplace in the football transfer market. This illegal approaching of players already under contract with another club is called tapping up. A club may try to tap up a player in clandestine ways such as through the exchange of text messages and other more brazen ways by expressing public admiration for the player. All these practices constitute ‘tapping up’.
PREVALENCE OF TAPPING UP
The unofficial approaching of contractually bound players by football clubs is endemic to the transfer market. It begins at the youth level with agents and club representatives luring players from the youth academies of other clubs by offering them football boots and jerseys. There have been several instances where clubs have offered to pay for the child’s education or even simple favors as fixing the car of the player’s father. At the higher level, this translates into players being lured by persuasive managers and agents. There shouldn’t be anything wrong with a player being made aware of better job opportunities elsewhere. It also makes sense for the club to get to know whether the player is interested in moving in the first place or not. There is no point in conducting complex transfer negotiations and agreeing on a transfer fee after a burdensome process, only to be ultimately rejected by the player. Thus, clubs try to gauge beforehand, whether the player is interested in the transfer or not. In case the parent club is unwilling to sell, clubs try to influence the player to stir up trouble so that the parent club is forced to sell. All these tactics are a crucial part of the transfer strategy of clubs. As several former agents and clubs’ owners have come out publicly and stated;
“Tapping up is a common practice such that it has become an essential part of any transfer process."
An example of tapping up a player is that of Virgil Van Dijk. He was a Southampton player being pursued by Liverpool in 2017. Southampton threatened to report the incident and Liverpool subsequently issued an apology and withdrew their pursuit. What prompted Southampton to threaten legal action was not the fact that Liverpool was luring Van Dijk but the brazen way in which they were doing the same. Since all stakeholders including clubs, players, and agents employ tapping up tactics, no one is willing to take formal action when the same happens to them.
The only clandestine understanding is that there still must be a certain degree of respect with which the clubs must go ahead and tap-up players under contract. The fact that Liverpool had breached this clandestine understanding and there were widely reported stories of the Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp exchanging texts and going on dinners with the player is what seemed to have angered the Southampton hierarchy. The player was eventually bought by Liverpool in the next transfer window in 2018 but his performances for Southampton were below par during that particular season. Southampton was able to sell him for a prodigious amount, the highest amount ever paid for a defender but the fact that he was unsettled during the 2017-18 season due to the prior approach of Liverpool was there for all to see. This is an impact that tapping up can have, which can negatively affect both the player and the parent club.
GAP BETWEEN FIFA REGULATIONS AND EPL RULES
There is also a disparity that exists between FIFA regulations that govern international transfers and Member Association regulations that govern domestic transfers concerning the tapping up of players. Regulation 18.3 of the FIFA Regulations simply places an obligation to ‘inform’ the parent club before establishing contact with the player. Whereas, Section T.1(2) of the English Premier League rules places an obligation to obtain the ‘consent’ of the parent club before entering into negotiations. This creates dis-proportionality in the transfer market. A domestic club competing for the transfer of a player with a foreign club will be at a disadvantage as the foreign club has to merely ‘inform’ the parent club. For example, when Bayern Munch (German Club) chief executive Karl-Heinz Rummenigge made a public statement expressing interest in the young Chelsea FC (English Club) winger Callum Hudson Odoi, it was not a violation of FIFA regulations.
However, clubs like Manchester United (English Club) who were bound by the Premier League rules could not make such statements and were disadvantaged in their efforts to court the player. This shows an obvious disparity in the chances that a domestic club has to sign a player when compared to a foreign club. Thus, to bridge this disparity, clubs resort to unofficially approaching players as that remains the only option to establish a level playing field.
FIFA’s rule of merely ‘informing’ is also damaging to the parent club. It not only affects the team’s integrity but may also be devastating to the player, who may feel unsettled. It further has financial repercussions for the parent club too. For example, in the above-mentioned case of Hudson Odoi, Chelsea was forced to offer a more lucrative contract that was twice the value of the earlier contract to tie down Odoi to the club. Moreover, one must understand that football is also as much about fans as it is about clubs, players, organizations, agents, etc.
When a player is being linked to different clubs, and foreign clubs are making public statements about how much they would love to sign the player, then that necessarily damages the relationship between the fans of the parent club and the player. In a scenario where the transfer doesn’t eventually materialize, the feelings of resentment and betrayal remain with the fans and are often expressed in home matches. Situations, where the home support starts booing and chanting against their own team’s player, are a natural consequence of irresponsible statements being made by foreign clubs.
A PROTECTOR OF CONTRACTUAL STABILITY?
The activity of tapping up generally does not infringe upon local laws. No local or domestic legislation in England prohibits employees to look for better job opportunities elsewhere. The logic behind tapping up regulations is that it ensures competitive integrity, contractual/team stability, and competitive balance. Preserving the contractual stability of player contracts is an important issue for both clubs and players. Players very often sign long contracts to ensure financial stability in their lives. Unlike other employees, players continue to get paid even during long periods of absence due to injury. For example, if two teams are set to meet in a competition on the weekend and the star player of one team is constantly being courted by the officials of the other team, the player’s loyalties are bound to get questioned.
Contractual stability is believed to be important not only for the club and the player but also for supporters who have paid significant sums of money for their season tickets in anticipation, in part at least, that particular star players will, in accordance with their contracts, be with their club for the coming season. It must not be forgotten however that the ultimate authority to decide on a transfer rests with the club itself. No player can leave without the consent of his/her parent club. As seen in the example of Diego Costa of Chelsea in 2017, the player tried hard to force a transfer but the club refused to sell. Thus, the commonly made argument that the club loses authority over its player and the stability of the original contract is threatened falls short as the club can always reject the transfer.
The simple truth of the matter is that players are constantly being linked with other clubs anyway. Thus, the ‘tapping-up’ rules fail to act as a deterrent to prevent clubs from approaching players already under contract. This is in part due to the fact that FIFA and its Member Associations are not only lackluster in formulating and implementing ‘tapping up’ rules but are also ineffective in sanctioning when wrongdoing has been proven. The tapping up of Antoine Greizmann by FC Barcelona from Atletico Madrid is a case in point. Greizmann, a World Cup winner, was on the radar of Barcelona for some time and was eventually signed in the 2019 Summer Transfer Window.
Atletico had publicly complained of Barcelona’s illegal approach during the transfer saga and eventually registered a formal complaint with the Real Federación Española De Fútbol (“Spanish FA”). The case was investigated and Barcelona was found to be guilty and was directed to pay Atletico a paltry sum of 300 euros. Such a minuscule amount cannot be expected to have a deterrent effect on a club of the size of Barcelona. An insignificant fine imposed on the world’s richest club calls into question the authorities’ commitment to their own rules.
It would be unfair for a football club to negotiate with another club if they are unaware of the willingness of the player to join them. Most players also prefer to first understand what their role will be at the club before making any effort to push for a transfer. Thus, an unhappy player would want to come into contact with other clubs and evaluate his options before pushing his parent club to sell him. More importantly, trying to implement ‘tapping up’ rules is impossible. In the age of WhatsApp, it would be unfair to expect an organization to effectively monitor whether a player has been approached before the transfer fee was agreed or not. The way I see it is that expecting clubs to not approach players in unofficial ways and without the consent of the parent club is an aspirational ethical standard. It can be argued that tapping up is a standard that everyone must abide by but it also cannot be forced upon clubs.
The author can be reached for comments on his email at email@example.com
Cite as: Dhananjay D., Tapping Up in Football: A Case of Outdated Regulations, Extra-Cover: The Sports Law Blog of India (31st August 2020), Accessed at https://www.extra-cover.org/post/tapping-up-in-football-a-case-of-outdated-regulations [Date of Access].