So what is the Transfer Matching System?

The International transfer market is a multi-billion-dollar industry with around 12,000 cross-border transfers of professional male players taking place each year. The Transfer Matching System (TMS) is a FIFA subsidiary born out of the FIFA Congress in 2007 which has revolutionised the way transfers are conducted – providing the football community with state-of-the-art technology to keep pace with a high volume of transfers in today’s market and respond to the needs of the modern game. It is a digital platform where clubs are required to enter over 30 types of data, like agent information, contract details, banking details etc. along with supplementary documentary evidence. After the relevant documents and information is supplied to the system, an International Transfer Certificate (ITC) is issued by the member association of the parent club and delivered to the member association of the new club to which the player is being transferred. This procedure must necessarily be complied with otherwise the transfer will fail and the player would not be able to play for his new club. If the relevant documents are not supplied then the system will automatically block the issuance of an ITC. It must be mandatorily used in case of international transfer of players. If the transfer window expires, the system automatically stops processing transfers. The TMS continues to regulate the registration of international player transfers and has had a monumental impact on the operation of the football transfer market.

An Inherent Rigidity

TMS was introduced with the purpose of bringing more transparency and improving the flow of information about the transfer market. The football transfer market is rife with allegations of money laundering and corrupt practices. The TMS aimed to curb these activities by creating a transparent system by which investigative agencies will have much more data available to them. While TMS provides obvious benefits, it has had some unforeseen effects on the football transfer market and the primary stakeholders, i.e. players and football clubs.

The rigidity of TMS is a major problem to the footballing world. Numerous transfer windows have been plagued with failed transfers due to the procedural requirements of the system. The most well-known example is that of David De Gea’s failed transfer from Manchester United to Real Madrid in what would have been a dream move for the player. Madrid however were not able to gather the documents before the deadline, due to which they were ultimately 28 minutes late because of a dodgy fax machine which prevented the relevant paperwork being faxed from Manchester United to Madrid on time. Madrid were also informed by the Spanish Federation that it would not back them in case of an appeal to FIFA for an extension so that the transfer could be registered. The appeal was anyways unlikely to be successful because of FIFA’s typically strict adherence to the transfer window rules. These are problems which have arisen periodically within the transfer market due to the introduction of TMS. Another example is that of Pajtim Kasami’s transfer from Fulham to Pescara which fell through because of a failed internet connection. The player was supposed to move on deadline day. However, due to a failed Wi-Fi connection his international clearance papers were not uploaded on time. Such issues are recurrent and adversely affect the players and the clubs. The squad composition of the club directly affects its footballing ambitions and performance on the pitch. Football clubs often have detailed strategies and put in a lot of money and time in order to secure the transfer of players. Due to failed transfers because of procedural wrangles like the ones mentioned above, players are robbed of their dream move while clubs’ months of planning and effort are rendered futile.

Adrien Silva. 14 seconds that changed his life

FIFA has taken a very firm stance in its response to these kinds of transfer failures. It has refused to accommodate any requests for extensions and has not taken cognisance of the material circumstances at the ground level. For example, Adrien Silva’s deadline day move from Sporting Lisbon to Leicester City in the summer transfer window in 2017 did not go through because the paperwork was submitted a mere 14 seconds late. Leicester appealed to FIFA to ratify the move taking into account the extraordinary circumstances. However, the request was promptly denied by a single judge ruling of FIFA’s Players’ Status Committee. As a result of this, Leicester had to wait for the January transfer window to register the player and get him playing for the club. Leicester considered an appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) but opted against the move as there was no prospect of the appeal being heard before the next transfer window, considering the denial of their request for an expedited hearing. Thus, regardless of the outcome of their case, they still would be able to register Silva only in January. This formalist and rigid stance taken by FIFA which supposedly upholds the sanctity of the TMS affected the career of Silva as half a season was snatched away from his professional life as a footballer simply due to the fact that the documents were uploaded 14 seconds late. It also affected Leicester’s chances as they were prevented from fielding a key player.

The Deal Sheet

In light of such rigidity inherent in the TMS, the English Premier League – in a bid to introduce some flexibility in the system, came up with the concept of a “deal sheet”. I argue that this can afford a significant lesson to the footballing world as a whole if replicated on a global scale.

The deal sheet process enables a club to confirm that a transfer has taken place within the deadline while simultaneously obtaining some amount of extra time to complete the formalities. It is used in the final two hours of the transfer window when transfer negotiations have been completed. For example, in case the transfer window closes at 11 p.m., clubs can fill a deal sheet between 9 p.m. and 11 p.m. and get a two-hour extension until 1 a.m. to submit the relevant documents. The move of Darren Fletcher from Manchester United to West Bromwich Albion in the mid-season transfer window in 2015 is an example of a player transfer by means of a deal sheet. For international transfers, a one-hour extension is provided and clubs are required to submit the requisite paperwork by 12 a.m.

Clubs try to run down the clock in order to see which side gives in first…

I argue that mechanisms like the premier league deal sheet within the TMS are necessary to introduce some level of flexibility. The footballing world as a whole would benefit from such flexibility in the TMS. A lot of planning and effort goes into securing the transfer of a player including complex negotiations. A key tactical factor in these negotiations is the build up to the deadline. Clubs try to run down the clock in order to see which side gives in first. It is imperative that FIFA appreciates such ground level dynamics and realises that transfers agreed just minutes before the deadline are recurrent and commonplace. Thus, in order to adequately safeguard the interests of the player and the club, some sort of flexibility is needed in the TMS. Set transfer deadlines are absolutely essential in a transfer window system and their strict application is of course necessary, but there is also a need to avert disasters like the Adrien Silva transfer. The idea of having a transfer window with strict deadlines was introduced so that a fine balance could be struck between the free movement of players and the stability of their contracts with their parent clubs. This logic will not be compromised in a system with accommodative measures such as the deal sheet as clubs will still have an obligation to complete the transfer within the deadline. The only move away from the current system would be that the actual agreement will be separated from its formal execution. Thus, the introduction of a deal sheet within the TMS at a global level will be a welcome move without disrupting the spirit of the rules.

The Human Element

The challenges posed by TMS are no different to the challenges faced by any industry trying to move towards automation and increased technological control. The human element in the registration of transfers made it prone to corruption and created a hub of illegal activities like money laundering. The TMS is FIFA’s response to such illegal activities and is aimed at eliminating such activities by getting rid of the ‘human’ element in the registration process. The TMS has without a doubt provided more transparency to the transfer market and provided a pool of data on the basis of which further research can be conducted for the betterment of the game. It would be unwise to argue for its condemnation despite its automated nature and resultant rigidity. However, every system must adapt in order to stay relevant. The obvious benefits of the TMS can no longer be used to overshadow its numerous shortcomings. It is a system that is in dire need of more flexibility so that the interests of the players and the clubs are not impacted detrimentally.

Dhananjay Dhonchak

Dhananjay is pursuing an undergraduate law degree from The National Academy of Legal Studies And Research, Hyderabad, India. He is a sports law enthusiast and keeps himself abreast of the latest developments in sports such as football, basketball, cricket, badminton. He is also interested in technology law and intellectual property law. He regularly represents his college in badminton sporting events. He also regularly takes part in debating tournaments. 

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