Believe it or not, once upon a time there were little to no rules governing transfers in football – clubs could buy and sell players completely free of any shackles of rules and regulations (as long as they could afford to pay up, obviously).
But these days, the advent of the transfer window, financial fair play rules and even the Bosman ruling have combined forces to completely alter the landscape of football transfers – now, more than ever, the richest clubs and the most sought-after players and their agents hold all of the aces as the beautiful game screams ever faster towards a monopolistic market.
At least the imposition of the transfer window prevents the biggest clubs from flexing their financial muscle all-year round. Instead, they are limited to just two opportunities to buy their way to glory per season.
What Is the Transfer Window in Football?
If you’re battling insomnia, you may find that downloading, printing off and reading FIFA’s rules on the Status and Transfer of Players a great help. It’s a weighty tome full of legalese and bureaucratic nonsense, but there are some key rules in there regarding the transfer window.
Officially known as the ‘registration period’, FIFA allow each national football association to declare two transfer windows per season – the first can last up to 12 weeks, and the second up to a maximum of four weeks.
The football associations operating in the EU got together in 2002 with the European Commission to come up with uniform rules across the continent, and that explains why today competitions like the Premier League, La Liga and Serie A are in sync with their summer and winter transfer windows. Other jurisdictions have their own rules on transfer windows, with the dates falling into line with the timing of their football seasons.
When Can Football Transfers Be Completed?
As mentioned, players can negotiate a transfer during either of the two windows. The dates for each transfer window are dictated by the schedule of the season. As a guide, here’s when the transfer windows are open in each major footballing nation:
- Most of Europe – June to late August/early September & January
- Scandinavia – January to March & August
- Brazil – January to March & July to August
- Japan – January to March & July to August
- USA – February to May & July to August
- Australia – July to October & January
As you can see, even though many different geographical locations have their own transfer window dates, there is still some crossover from one jurisdiction to the next – allowing a Premier League club to sign a player from Brazil, for example, in the summer or in January.
How Does a Football Transfer Work?
When you walk into a shop, if you see something you like then you buy it by paying the price displayed on the item. In football, transfer deals require much more haggling than that – the ‘value’ of a player is often the cause of much debate between the buying and selling parties. This compensation paid is the transfer fee, and once agreed the contract of a player can be transferred to their new employer.
In addition to the transfer fee, there can be other items on the agenda to be discussed. Those can include sell-on or loan back clauses, bonuses when the player/club achieve certain feats and other financial inducements. There is usually a hefty percentage paid when an agent is involved in the negotiations too.
Even after a transfer has been agreed in principle, that’s not to say it will go ahead as planned. Sometimes a player and their agent won’t be able to agree on contractual terms with the buying club, whether it’s the salary to be paid or other add-ons like performance bonuses, signing-on fees and image rights. A player will sometimes fail their medical examination too, which can force a transfer to be shelved or a lower fee to be agreed.
What Does a Football Agent Do?
You might think that a football transfer involves three parties: the player, the selling club and the buying club. However, you’d be wrong. The football agent has become an integral figure in the beautiful game – first at the top level, but increasingly lower down the league pyramid, as well. An agent essentially has one job: to get the very best possible contract for their player, while scoring themselves a handsome payout into the bargain.
A football agent is an essential part of the football transfer process, as a deal will not proceed unless they believe the terms suit their player – agents are no strangers to negotiating with other clubs in a bid to secure the best available pay packet for their client.
Unsurprisingly, football agents are not universally popular within the game. However, they are now part and parcel of the sport due to the role they play in negotiating on behalf of players, and there is no doubt that these individuals have played a key role in seeing the average pay of a footballer skyrocket in the past few decades.
How Much Can Football Clubs Spend on Transfers?
Some football leagues, such as Major League Soccer in the USA, have regimented rules on transfers that include a salary cap, which puts a ceiling on how much each team can spend. But in Europe, there are no real rules on how much a club can spend on transfers – even if UEFA will try to convince you otherwise.
They created their Financial Fair Play (FFP) rules in a bid to level the playing field in football, but these regulations have so many workarounds and loopholes that they are generally considered unfit for purpose. It’s why clubs like Manchester City and PSG, bankrolled by Middle Eastern sovereignty, are able to spend exorbitant sums on new players that force them further into real terms debt.
In theory, FFP was brought in to prevent clubs from spending beyond their means on transfers and player/staff wages. They must not exceed a total loss of around £50 million per monitoring period, meaning that those that spend big on transfers have to find a way to balance their books – i.e. by selling other players.
However, some clubs have found workarounds. FC Barcelona, despite being around £1 billion in debt, were still able to splash the cash on Robert Lewandowski and other marquee signings in the summer of 2022 – how? They agreed a series of bizarre deals that saw them ‘sell’ their La Liga broadcast rights to a third party capital partner.
UEFA have punished some for breaching FFP rules in the past, but the truth is that the reality of the debt in football goes far beyond the limits supposedly imposed by the governing body. This is a sport where money talks – without it, clubs cannot be competitive in the transfer market. New financial fair play rules are being planned for 2023. Now, all clubs competing under the UEFA umbrella can only spend up to 70% of their annual revenue on transfers, player wages, agent fees and the like.
Are Their Rules on Transfers in the Premier League?
The English Premier League, like many of its European counterparts, has imposed a two-window system when it comes to buying and selling players. These transactions can take place between the end of May and, typically, either August 31 or early September, if the 31st falls on a weekend. The second Premier League transfer window runs throughout January.
As mentioned, clubs can sign whoever they like – assuming that they can meet FFP rules, although there are some limits on how many of certain player types they can transfer in. A Premier League squad can have up to 25 registered players, but at least seven of these must be classed as ‘homegrown’, i.e. those that have lived in the UK for three years by the time they turn 21.
Since leaving the European Union, Premier League clubs are now banned from signing ‘international’ players under the age of 18, too. There are workarounds, however, with some choosing to send their talented foreign youngsters to feeder academies in countries with more relaxed rules on such matters.
Transferring players in has been complicated further by Brexit. Now, all potential international signings must satisfy criteria based upon the number of appearances they have made for club and/or country, the perceived quality of the country they are being transferred from and so on.