“In Barcelona, on 14 December 2000 and the presence of Messrs Minguella and Horacio (Gaggioli), Carles Rexach, Director of Football of F.C.B., hereby agrees under his responsibility and regardless of any dissenting opinions, to sign the player Lionel Messi, provided that we keep to the amounts agreed upon.”
Carles Rexach, the then Director of Football of F. C. Barcelona, scribbled this on a napkin to sign up a young Argentinian wonder kid, Lionel Messi, as he had never seen such a talent before and did not want to lose out on him. Thus, began the fairytale journey of Messi’s tryst with Barcelona and as history suggests this gamble that played out 20 years ago, turned out to be the most profitable for the club and rewarding for Messi.
Messi has been the Messiah for the club on several occasions, wriggling the club out of tough situations with his magic touch. With Messi on their side, Barcelona established itself as a formidable force that won everything that world football could offer. As all good things inevitably come to an end, this fairytale match appeared to have come to an end when Messi formally notified the club of his intention to unilaterally terminate his contract.
The events that transpired after the news broke out of Messi’s intention to leave highlight some troubling issues that are currently plaguing the football transfer market; in particular, the breakdown of relationships between a club and a player at the instance of their squabbling over better wages and contracts. Messi’s dispute with Barcelona revolves around the unique nature of a football contract and the role relationships play in such contracts.
In order to understand the dispute better, one must first have a formal understanding of the football transfer market.
What is a football transfer? Generally, a transfer in football is like any other business transaction that takes place between two football clubs and involves the transfer of a player who is under a contract with one club to another club in consideration of a fee known as a transfer fee.
A transfer is considered complete when the buying and selling clubs agree on the terms of sale and when the buying club enters into a contract with the player.
How does football transfer work?
If a transfer has to take place, the buying club must first approach the selling club and inform in writing before entering into negotiation with the player. This is legally mandated under Article 18(3) of the FIFA Regulations on the Status and Transfer of Players (the ‘Transfer Regulations’).
It is important to note however that the ultimate bargaining power in a transfer still lies with the selling club.
What is a transfer request?
A player, who is dissatisfied with his current club and finds himself in a position wherein the club has rejected all transfer bids from other clubs, may put in an official transfer request to the club. The only drawback is that such a request has no legal bearing and the club may choose to reject the plea.
When can a football transfer happen?
A transfer can take place during the “registration periods” which are provided by the governing bodies of the respective national associations.
In Europe, there are officially two periods during which transfers can take place – summer (July 1st – August 31st) and winter (January 1st – 31st) transfer window.
What is the duration of contracts between the players and the clubs?
The duration of a contract entered into by a player with the club may vary from short term to long-term depending on a variety of factors such as the age of the player, their skill, commercial value, potential growth and injury risk of the player. The term of a contract is determined mostly by these factors.
According to Article 18 (2) of the Transfer Regulations, the minimum term of a contract shall be from its effective date until the end of the season, while the maximum term of a contract shall be five years. Players under the age of 18 may not sign a professional contract for a term longer than three years.
Having garnered a basis of what and how a football transfer works, it is necessary to understand the terms of the contract between Messi and FC Barcelona that enables him to leave Barcelona on a free transfer and the reason behind the current situation between two.
What enabled Messi to leave Barcelona for free? Messi extended his contract with Barcelona in 2017 for a duration of 4 years, which was a deal that would enable him to retire at the club. However, on the insistence of Messi, an additional clause was added in the contract, which granted Messi the right to unilaterally terminate the contract at the end of each season and leave for free, provided that he notified the club prior to June 10th.
What was the legal issue involved in their dispute?
The legal issue involved the interpretation of the terms of the unilateral termination clause in light of the unprecedented COVID–19 pandemic that led to the interruption and the subsequent extension of the season.
Messi claimed that since the pandemic had suspended the season temporarily and it restarted only after June 10th (La Liga re-started on June 11th, 2020), it was impossible for him to exercise such a right before June 10th. Messi thus wished for the terms of the contract to be viewed liberally in light of the unprecedented events.
The Barcelona Board however contested that the terms of the contract strictly mentioned June 10th, hence Messi could not unilaterally terminate the contract post that date. The issue therefore would depend on whether the terms of the contract specifically mention a “specific date” or whether it is termed as the “end of the season”. In any case, according to Article 16 of the Transfer Regulation, a contract cannot be unilaterally terminated during the course of a season.
Relationship v Contract: what matters more?
The reason behind this issue turning unpleasant is largely due to the long-standing relationship that Messi had with Barcelona ever since he was a young boy. On a deeper analysis, the issue throws light on an important question – what is the nature of a football contract; is it purely a business transaction or does it involve the building of a relationship of trust, faith and respect?
Generally, the nature of any football contract is such that a player is associated with a club for a period of 3-4 years. It is unlike a business transaction of sale wherein it involves a single transaction. Instead, football contracts bind a player to the club for a considerable period of time and hence building a definitive relationship with the club is essential for the success of the contract. While the contract may describe the legal relationship, the true essence of the deal is the personal relationship.
Therefore, if a football contract failed to build a human connection between the player and the club, it would only increase the chances of the player leaving mid-contract and create a hostile environment for both parties.
In this case, Barcelona should have gauged the reasoning behind Messi’s intention to include a clause to unilaterally terminate his contract at the end of each season. Adding to the misery, the club management seems to have created a situation, which ultimately drove him to the point of making a decision to leave.
Barcelona’s actions, post Messi’s notification to leave, has been criticized as a tactical move to ensure that Messi had no other option but to stay at the club or could only leave provided the Club received his hefty release amount of € 700 million.
While Messi decided not to take the matter to Court, Barcelona seems to have made a big commotion out of it by forcing him to change his decision and stay with the club, perhaps until next June, thereby destroying the long-standing relation between the two.
Image Credits: Photo by Connor Coyne on Unsplash
If a football contract failed to build a human connection between the player and the club, it would only increase the chances of the player leaving mid-contract and create a hostile environment for both parties.