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Player contracts

Football player and club relationships are governed by the same principles as other employment relationships. A player contract is entered into between the player and a club. Football contracts, like other Employment contracts, will set out various different terms relating to the player’s employment. These include: 

Payment terms

A player’s contract will set out how much and when players will be paid.

Most football players tend to be paid on a monthly basis. However, the payment structure is entirely up to the club and the player.

Bonuses and incentives

In addition to their salary, players will often be paid a range of bonus fees. Exactly what bonuses players are entitled to depends on the club and what they negotiated with a player. Examples of types of incentives include:

  • promotion bonuses, linked to a club’s promotion

  • achievement bonuses related to a club’s league position or European qualification

  • clean-sheet bonuses for goalkeepers or defenders for not conceding goals

  • assist/goal payments for attacking players, especially those who contribute heavily to a match

  • matching highest earner clauses to guarantee players wages equal to any high-profile new signings

  • loyalty bonuses, often as one-off payments after a set number of years that a player remains with a club

Grounds for termination or reduction of fees

A well-contested section in player contracts is the grounds for termination or reduction of fees section. This is similar to a termination clause in a regular employment contract. 

The player will often argue that the grounds for a reduction in fees should be narrow (eg they may argue that being injured will not reduce pay). The club, on the other hand, will try to save money by having a wide range of instances where pay can be reduced.

Buy-out and release clauses

You may have heard of buy-out or release clauses mentioned in sports news, but what are these? And what’s the difference between the two?

A buy-out clause specifies the amount of money that a football player can pay in order to terminate their contract with the club. In other words, a player can buy themselves out of their own contract. These types of clauses are very common in Spanish football contracts and will usually set the buy-out fee at a very high level to indicate that the club has no intention to transfer the player and to increase loyalty from the player’s side.

A release clause is an obligation on the club to accept a bid if another club reaches the transfer fee stated in the release clause. In other words, a release clause will specify a fee that another club can pay in order to sign a player. If a new club pays that predetermined fee, the original club has to automatically accept an initial offer for the player. This means that, as soon as the fee is met, the player can enter into transfer negotiations. While the player doesn’t have to transfer, it means that their original club cannot stand in the way of the transfer. 

Image rights

Image rights are another big area of debate during football contract negotiations. 

Image rights relate to the personal attributes of a football player, which include their name, image, and signature. For example, a new ‘big name’ signing may want a share of the profits from shirt sales with their name on the back. The more well-known a player is, the more attention will be placed on this part of their contract.

For more information, read Image rights.

Work permits

You may have heard of international football players waiting for work permits before signing for a club, but what does this actually involve? Just like other international employees, international players signing for Premier League clubs need a work permit from the Home Office in order to work in the UK. 

To get a permit, the player must first get:

  • a Governing Body Endorsement (GBE) from the Football Association (FA), and

  • an International Sportsperson visa 

Governing Body Endorsements

GBEs are awarded based on the points-based endorsement criteria. Players need to score at least 15 points to secure an endorsement. Points can be gained across the following categories:

  • international appearances and FIFA ranking

  • domestic club appearances

  • continental club appearances

  • final league position of the player’s last club

  • continental progression of the player’s last club

  • league quality of the player’s last club

A player will automatically qualify for GBE if they have played a certain percentage of international games for their country - if their team is in the top 50 according to FIFA rankings.

To succeed via the points-based route, a player must score highly in the points-based system. A player is awarded points depending on certain footballing criteria (eg 3 points if the player has a high enough transfer fee). The total points are added together to determine whether the player qualifies for a GBE. 

If a player is unable to automatically qualify and unable to score 15 points, their club can make an appeal to an FA Exceptions Panel. This can only be done if:

  • the player scored between 10-14 points and the club can provide evidence of ‘exceptional circumstances’ that prevented the player from scoring 15 points, or

  • the player is a youth player and the club can provide evidence that the player shows ‘significant potential and is of sufficient quality’ to enhance the development of the game in England

If a player does not receive enough points, automatically qualify, or receive an exemption, they will not be given a GBE. If a player does have enough points, they may be given a GBE. The FA still has complete discretion over whether to give a GBE to a qualified footballer. If granted a GBE, the player can then apply for an International Sportsperson visa.

Elite Significant Contribution (ESC) players

From the 2023/2024 season onwards, English clubs can also sign certain players who fail to gain 15 points. These players are referred to as ‘Elite Significant Contribution (ESC) players’. A player can only be signed as an ESC player if they have played in at least:

  • 1 competitive youth or senior international for a nation ranked in the FIFA Top 50

  • 5 competitive youth or senior internationals for a nation ranked outside of the FIFA Top 50

  • 1 continental youth or senior competition match, or

  • 5 domestic youth or senior competition matches

Note that domestic competition requirements only refer apply to Band 1-5 leagues.  Band 6 leagues are excluded. 

In addition, the following limits are in place regarding the number of ESC players clubs can sign:

  • 4 ESC players - Premier League and Championship clubs

  • 2 ESC players - League One and League Two clubs

For more detailed information, see the FA’s guidance on the points system.

International Sportsperson visas

International Sportsperson visas allow elite sportspeople (players and coaches alike) to come to the UK in order to make a difference to their sport.

Anyone who applies for this visa must meet the eligibility criteria (eg having enough money to support themselves) and must be endorsed by their sport’s governing body (ie the FA for football). For more information on this immigration route and visa and the application process, read the government’s guidance on the International Sportsperson visa.

Read Work visas and employing overseas workers and Sponsoring employees to work in the UK to learn more about work visas in the UK in general.

The Financial Fair Play (FFP) rules

 Introduced by UEFA in 2010, FFP was designed to prevent clubs from spending more money than they should, in order to prevent the growing debts of many football clubs. This is now an important consideration for clubs wishing to loosen the purse strings during the transfer window. 

For Premier League teams, the rules state that a club cannot make a loss of more than £105 million over a 3-year period. If the club posts losses between £15 and £105 million, the owner(s) must guarantee that these losses can be paid off.

If these rules are breached, there are a number of different punishments that can be inflicted on a club, including:

  • fines

  • transfer bans

  • points deductions

  • withholding prize money

  • bans from European games

A legal challenge was made against FFP as critics stated that the rules breached competition law (ie the rules favoured the larger and more established clubs). However, this argument was rejected by the European Court of Justice.

There is a wealth of laws that football clubs must consider when signing a player - the above points have only scratched the surface of what is to be considered from a legal perspective. Perhaps after reading this, you will be able to sympathise slightly more with football clubs’ legal teams running around on transfer deadline day.

Rocket Lawyer Marketing Team
Rocket Lawyer Marketing Team
Rocket Lawyer UK

Rocket Lawyer UK's Marketing Team works to make the law simple and accessible with our legal insights.

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