Is this the end for footballs own brand of slavery?

Is this the end for footballs own brand of slavery?

Slavery is one of the most emotive words in the English language, the subjection of one person to another and the erosion of personal freedom. This very freedom is one of the great pillars of western democracy, and it is why the term continues to carry such powerful connotations to this day. Modern slavery is distinct from that of previous centuries, used to describe a partial impingement of ones freedom as opposed to the total oppression of the past.

Yet even with this in mind, the decision by UEFA President Michel Platini to use the term will have shocked a number of people. Platini used the word “slavery” when describing the existence of ‘third party ownership’ (TPO) in European football. Responding to a question from PSG boss Laurent Blanc during an interview with football figures and fans this month he made the following comments:

“Today it is shameful to see some players with one of their arms belonging to one person, a leg belonging to a pension fund located who knows where and a third person owning his foot.” 

“So it’s about time the world of football wakes up and that the money coming into football remains in football and doesn’t disappear right or left or I don’t know where.” 

TPO in football is the ownership of players’ economic rights by third party sources, such as agents, sports management groups and investors. This practice is commonplace in South American football where clubs are often financially limited to the point where outside agents are required to part fund transfers and player development, with the agreement that they will receive a cut of any future fee. This has become increasingly prominent in the European game due to players regularly making the crossing from South America to countries like Portugal where TPO remains legal.

The defendants of TPO would argue that it allows for a degree of risk sharing, giving young players the opportunity to progress whilst ensuring that the burden is shared between interested parties. Unlike traditional forms of ownership, the player has a choice over his economic rights and is also in a position to benefit financially should he wish to cede his ownership to a third party.

The view in England is profoundly different, with most following Platini’s line of argument in rendering TPO a shameful example of human exploitation in the modern world. TPO was outlawed in the Premier League back in 2008, largely due to the controversy that was borne out of the transfers of Javier Mascherano and Carlos Tevez to West Ham United in 2006. Both players were part owned by the infamous Kia Joorabchian who brokered deals to bring the pair to the Premier League, deals which his various companies had a great deal of interest in securing. West Ham were fined a record £5.5m for contractual irregularities, and largely set in motion efforts to ban TPO in the Premier League officially.

Despite England’s lead, TPO remains in parts of Europe and has continually complicated deals to bring in players from the continent. Ramires’ transfer to Chelsea from Benfica back in 2010 again meant securing the stake Joorabchian owned in the player in order to comply with the leagues rules. TPO again proved a snag for Tottenham Hotspur in their pursuit of midfield creator Joao Moutinho; initially agree a deal with Porto but failing to negotiate a further deal with the player’s investors.

Platini is keen to put an end to the controversies, with FIFA keenly supporting the gradual discontinuation of the practice. The draft outlines of a potential ban are as follows:

-Existing TPO contracts can continue until they expire

-New TPO deals can be agreed until April, but must not last any longer than a year

-Draft proposals by a FIFA working group are due to be presented to delegates in May, with final decisions to be made in Congress that same month

-FIFA continues to signal its determination to eradicate TPO in the world game

Whether you view the practice as immoral or as an economic necessity, TPO remains problematic when there is no clear universal agreement on its legality. This is why FIFA’s decision to act is so significant, a rare example of action that could well benefit the global footballing community as a whole.