Over the past few weeks we have witnessed our own version of transfer window madness in the Hyundai A-League. While in Europe there are players moving for millions of pounds or euros, A-League fans and clubs alike have become increasingly frustrated with players asking to be granted a release before their contracts are up, and leaving clubs scrambling for replacements.
Mitch Nichols, Steven Lustica and Danny McBreen have been amongst the headlines in recent weeks and months as they’ve attempted to engineer moves away from their respective clubs. Melbourne Victory and Central Coast placed price tags on Nichols and McBreen respectively which were eventually met by the clubs chasing their signatures, yet Adelaide United couldn’t do the same.
The Reds lost Lustica for no compensation by agreeing to grant the players’ wishes, and he is now eligible to play against United if they were to meet the Roar during the finals. So why are the clubs in this position where players can make such demands?
According to the Professional Footballers Australia collective bargaining agreement (CBA) the fact there is “no transfer and compensation system within A-League” is named as one of the key benefits for players. However, this leaves fans often scratching their heads and clubs with their hands tied once a player decides they want to move on.
With the new television broadcast rights deal that began at the start of this season, each club has their salary cap covered with the financial windfall that the deal provides. But are the clubs now in a position to afford to pay transfer fees to one another? Of course the expenses of running a football club do not begin and end at player salaries.
National and international travel, technical staff, administration & media staff and venue hire are all some of the costs that can prohibit clubs from producing a healthier bottom line. Not to mention the cost of running National Youth League and W-League sides that also compete nationally. Due to the geographically diverse nature of the A-League, the competition encompasses multiple economies with different strengths. This means that the values of commercial arrangements differ greatly from club to club.
The A-League is often compared to Major League Soccer (MLS) in terms of profile and league structure, so why not develop a transfer system based around what is used in all major North American sports, the player trade?
The European model of player movement has improved since the Bosman ruling, although it is soon to be legally challenged by FIFPro. The A-League may be able to replicate this model or whatever that may become after FIFPro’s legal challenge, but as it stands now most clubs are not in a position to operate with such financial freedom.
In baseball, American football, ice hockey, and basketball, a player who is under contract will only move after a trade has been agreed between his current club and his future club. This also applies to any player moving between two MLS clubs. The club receiving the player must offer a player(s) or draft pick(s) that match the valuation placed upon the player they wish to acquire. So although there are no draft picks in the A-League as there is no draft, this system could be adapted to suit the needs of clubs and players alike.
Take the Steven Lustica situation for example. Lustica was under contract with Adelaide but wanted to join his former side, Brisbane Roar. Under the current system United couldn’t have demanded a fee so they were faced with three choices; play him despite his unhappiness and knowing that he wouldn’t have been fully committed, they could have sent him to the NYL team, or what they ended up doing which was release him and lose a player that had played in 15 of their 16 matches this season.
In reality Adelaide had only one option and that was to release the player. On Sunday night Adelaide confirmed that Lustica had been released from his contract and it is now only a matter of time before he joins the Roar as a free agent, meaning Adelaide lose out and both Lustica and Brisbane benefit. In the current system United were caught between a rock and a hard place, where the player has the majority of the power. Possibly helping in this situation was knowing that they had Michael Marrone as an option to fill the vacated spot in the roster.
But what if a team could demand a player of equal value from the club wooing their player? They would be in a position whereby they could be duly compensated for the loss of a player through the acquisition of a satisfactory replacement. Rather than having to sign a player who has not played for some time and would require a period of adjustment, they can at least bring in a player who has been a part of the league since the start of the season.
The player they acquire will have been training and possibly playing with an A-League side all season, and will have a grasp of the physical demands that this league places upon players.
Any trade between clubs would obviously have to involve the financial aspects of the players’ contracts still falling under the salary cap as they move teams, but if players of similar ability are being sought then there should be no issue. Clubs will have to make the deals fit inside the parameters of the cap, just as those in the aforementioned North American sports do.
There could also be the option for a club to request multiple players be included in a deal. This could mean two youngsters moving one way as part of a deal for an established A-League player, or other deals that would allow clubs to free up space in their playing squads.
Teams would be forced to think longer term about their recruitment strategies as players become tradeable commodities, rather than just sellable ones. Investing in youth would not only allow clubs to sell on the best prospects to Asian and European clubs, but also to trade other youth products to sides within the A-League, receiving a replacement in turn.
As the league grows over time the possibility exists that cash could form part of any trade deal, adding a new bargaining tool for clubs. There would be the potential to see the likes of nouveau-riche Melbourne Heart able to offer cash as well as a player(s) in deals, but the presence of the salary cap still maintains the competitive balance that is desired by Football Federation Australia. The ability to include money in a deal also benefits the clubs that are well run and turn a profit, allowing them to reinvest those finances in player recruitment while clubs are not only compensated but also rewarded for bringing young players through.
What about the rights of players? Would they still be protected? For long serving players, Professional Footballers Australia (PFA) could advocate the inclusion of ‘no-trade clauses’ into their contracts. In North America’s basketball league, the NBA, ‘no-trade clauses’ can only be written into contracts if a player has been with the team he’s re-signing with for at least four years, and at least eight years total in the league. The right to not be traded can be waived at any time by the player if he so chooses, meaning that the player can still move to another team if they wish to, if his team is adequately compensated through a trade.
The end of season and January transfer windows would become ‘trade windows’ as well as transfer windows, with teams only allowed to make trades within the dates that they can currently make transfers and loan signings. I know this may sound very Americanised and contrary to the system used throughout most leagues, but I believe it is currently the best option to move the A-League’s recruitment and transfer system forward. Clubs are being taken advantage of by players ignoring the responsibilities of the contracts they signed and this is a way to curb that trend.
As long as there are footballers there will be some unhappy ones, but this is a way to develop the competition and benefit clubs and players alike. The A-League and the FFA need to reform the transfer process to ensure clubs are in a better position to recruit and retain players than they currently are.