Football transfers rumours never stop. The latest episode of this ever-growing saga has been the possible transfer of Leo Messi, F.C. Barcelona supernova, who was rumoured to be seeking to terminate his contract with Barça and look for new adventures. However, terminating such a contract has proved to be easier said than done.
Messi, one of the greatest football players ever, has been playing for F.C. Barcelona since the age of 13, has led the team to more than 30 trophies and won the Ballon d’Or 6 times. In the summer of 2020, rumours circulated that for reasons ranging from his sentence for tax fraud, to the struggles of the team on the pitch, he decided to take his talents elsewhere.
This story brings together on-field competition, commercial and diplomatic objectives of the parties involved, and legal issues. The three main clubs which have been reported to be interested in signing Messi are respectively owned by a Deputy Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates (Manchester City), the Emir of Qatar (Paris Saint Germain) and a former member of the National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, a Chinese senior governmental body (Inter Milan). Investing in the transfer of Messi would have therefore been motivated more by underlining commercial and diplomatic goals of the clubs’ owners, rather than a sporting objective.
One of the most interesting aspects of this story was the validity of a clause reportedly included in the contract between Messi and Barcelona, which would have allowed the player to terminate the contract without consequences. To enforce this clause, Messi was required to communicate to the club its intention before the 10th of June. Whether this date was simply a reference to the end of the season, traditionally the 30th of June, or should instead be interpreted as the exact date was of fundamental relevance. Indeed, due to the pandemic, the football season has terminated significantly later than the end of June, with the final of the Champions League played only on the 23rd of August. In this regard, in an attempt to offer clarity over the application of rules regarding players’ registration period during the pandemic, FIFA issued guidelines in April, effectively encouraging parties to extend their existing agreements beyond the traditional date of the 30th of June and until the new end of the season. Nevertheless, a reference to the 10th of June could have dissolved every doubt, avoiding confusion between that specific date and the traditional end of the season.
It is further reported that the contract between Messi and F.C. Barcelona subjects any dispute to the jurisdiction of ordinary Spanish courts, de facto excluding both La Liga and FIFA. This is a common occurrence in Spain, where disputes between players and clubs are referred to ordinary courts under the Real Decreto 1006/1985. In this scenario, FIFA would only be involved if the Spanish Federation would not issue a Transfer Certificate, and a club member of another national association would ask a Provisional Transfer Certificate. However, this would not affect any dispute ongoing before ordinary courts.
Messi could have also decided to unilaterally terminate the contract under Article 17 FIFA RSTP, provided it notified its intention within 15 days from the last match of the season. In his third year of the current contract, Messi would have not been subject to sporting sanctions, but he would have had to pay, jointly with the new club, compensation to Barcelona. This would be calculated on the basis of a number of criteria, including the positive interest of the club losing the player, possibly referring to his transfer value, and the specificity of sport, which could potentially refer to the importance of the player for the club and its fan base and its role in the team.
The challenges of bringing a court proceeding against the club, and the hefty compensation that could have been warranted by the ordinary Spanish Court, or by the FIFA DRC, were likely the reasons that pushed Messi to reconsider his intention to move.
Dr Andrea Cattaneo
Centre for Sports Law Research
Edge Hill University