FIFPro, the international players' union that now includes 55 national players' associations, is back after years of relative semi-dormancy. And they mean business. Or so they say.
On Tuesday, the body released a statement announcing a series of legal challenges aimed at reforming the global transfer system and "the current economic make-up" of the game.
"FIFPro will not stand by and watch from the sidelines as football players' rights around the world are systematically disrespected and the football industry dismantles itself," FIFPro President Phillippe Piat said in a statement.
Fighting words, sure. But what do they mean?
Before we get into what exactly FIFPro wants, it's worth noting that their return to the limelight can only be good for the game. For too long, they were the missing stakeholders from the power-brokers' table alongside FIFA, UEFA, major clubs and TV broadcasters.
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(To be fair, FIFPro were recognized by FIFA some time back. And they've had their moments. But too often they've been brushed aside, which is why when the average fan thinks of FIFPro -- assuming he or she ever does -- it's in the context of the cumbersomely named FIFA/FIFPro World XI, which has been part of the FIFA gala since 2009. It's voted on by the players, but because it comes in for so much public ridicule -- last year 10 of the 11 played for either Real Madrid or Barcelona -- most just use it as another stick with which to beat FIFA.)
Players are represented by unions at the national level, of course, and that may have been part of the reason FIFPro lacked punch in the past. Many of the more relevant issues were local, involving just the national league and FA.
Furthermore, the guys running the local players' unions in many major countries have been around for a long time. In England, Gordon Taylor became chief executive way back in 1981; he's still there. In Italy, Sergio Campana was among the founders in 1968 and only stepped down in 2011. And in Spain, before Luis Rubiales took over in 2010, his predecessor had been in charge since the 1980s.
These guys oversaw the transformation of the game as it went from spectator sport to what it is now: part entertainment, part business, part corporation, all global. But now the system is so intertwined you need to think globally.
The Premier League is close to the tipping point at which more than half of its TV revenue will come from international sales. The most lucrative sporting event in the world -- by some margin -- is the World Cup, which also accounts for virtually all of FIFA's revenues.
(And no ... in case you were wondering, I doubt they make too much from selling stuff like this fetching maroon FIFA T-shirt.)
All except for a dozen or so clubs worldwide are what we now call "selling clubs," meaning each of their players is walking around with a price tag, and the vast majority sell abroad.
Dealing with all this takes a concerted, coherent voice. And for too long, that of the players has been disproportionately softer than it could be or should be. After all, they are the ones who provide the spectacle. And they are as important as ever to the churning of money in the system.
It wasn't always like this. Back when the vast majority of fans were loyal to their club come what may, it was less of an issue. You would go watch, say, Manchester City in the third division because that was your club -- and there wasn't much else to do. It didn't matter if the captain was Vincent Kompany or Vincent Price.
But now those fans are a minority in the global system. Real Madrid may be a great brand, but among the viewers around the world who funnel money into their coffers, there's a sizable proportion who tune in because Cristiano Ronaldo is up front.
Make no mistake about it -- that's a massive change. The casual fan -- the neutral spectator -- has come into the equation and his (or her) money is just as green as that of the guy who follows the club everywhere home and away and has the logo tattooed on his neck.
This means that if they play their cards right, FIFPro have a level of leverage on a global scale that they did not have before. Call it an awakening; a realization that they can elbow their way to the big boys' table and not be fobbed off.
That alone is good for the game, because it means the decision-makers are going to be more representative of the stakeholders. (Maybe one day fans will get to sit at that table too ... don't hold your breath, though.)
Of course, it's good that FIFPro are there, but it will be even better if they campaign for stuff that is desirable. A global revamp of the transfer system sounds like a good idea. The fact that, as FIFPro point out, 28 percent of the $2.5 billion (some $750 million) spent last year in international transfers has gone to agents and middlemen is probably not good for the game. Especially if a chunk of it then worms its way back into the pockets of chairmen and directors of football in the form of kickbacks, bungs or offshore tax haven deposits.
But that's something everyone can agree on; where they'll agree less is how to police it.
It's the same with clubs who don't pay players on time or at all. If you have a contract, you should get paid; nobody is going to argue with that. The question is how you ensure that happens. And thus far they've been a bit light on the specifics.
They also want to address the competitive imbalance -- essentially, the gap between rich and poor -- which is rife in virtually all major domestic leagues. And that, more than any other issue, is a question of how you do it. Most, even some of those who support the biggest clubs, would likely welcome it. But it has to be done in a way that's fair, avoids "free rider problems" and can be accepted by the powers that be. Most of all, you need to do it without reducing the size of the overall pie.
Some of their other concerns include third-party ownership (obviously, they're against it) and freedom of movement issues linked to the now near-forgotten FIFA Article 17.
(For those who don't remember, here’s a brief summary. A European court found that transfer regulations violated European Union principles on "freedom of movement" because it was virtually impossible for a player to break his contract unilaterally, making him different from other EU workers. After some legal wrangling -- and to avoid a raft of endless lawsuits -- FIFA compromised and adjusted Article 17, leaving a provision whereby a player could buy out the remainder of his contract if he met certain stipulations. The problem is that it was written in such a way -- basically, you had to sue to apply it -- that after an initial flurry, few players invoked it successfully.)
On these issues, FIFPro is likely to find a bit less sympathy. Third-party ownership is banned in some countries but in others the system would probably collapse without it. The challenge is to come up with an alternative solution before you simply ban it outright everywhere.
As for "freedom of movement," they'll need to persuade public opinion that it doesn't just mean "freedom to walk out on a club with little or no compensation because you’re greedy." That won't be an easy task, and as such, they're bound to face resistance.
Ultimately, we're not in the realm of black and white here. We're in the realm of discussion. And it's essential and welcome that players are adding their voices to the mix. Tuesday's announcement was an opening salvo to evaluate what they want; now we need to see specific proposals, and in time, presumably they'll come.
In the meantime, as a first step, FIFPro may want to take a leaf from the book of one of their own members, the MLS Players' Union. In the name of transparency, they publish salary details of all their members. That's a start. Getting FIFA to make all the details of international transfers public as well -- they have all the info thanks to their Transfer Matching System -- would be a logical, and attainable, next step.
Then make the domestic leagues follow suit. It won't solve problems overnight, but at least we'll have more openness and, hopefully, more awareness of what really goes on in the transfer window.
Do that and you might have the basis for the kind of moral suasion a union needs to win support from the general public.