Law: Shirting the main issue

The World Cup is one thing. Now the sponsors and deal-makers must do some neat footwork.
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The Independent Culture
Manchester United's decision to pull out of the FA Cup so it can play its part on the world championship football stage will have serious implications for both players and their legal advisers.

Footballers such as David Beckham, whose financial worth is already sky- high, will be catapulted into a new world super-league. Football lawyers believe the emergence of the World Club Championships next year will place further pressure on a legal framework for negotiating players' fees and rights, already in need of an overhaul.

David Beckham, like every other footballer, will find his basic rights in a standard player's contract. However the current version of the contract dates back more than 10 years, before the football boom, and is now at the centre of a power struggle between players and clubs that is going on behind the scenes of the national game.

The standard contract is just a page and a half of closely typed clauses which fail to reflect the reality of football today. The contract makes virtually no mention of image rights, for example, while players are obliged to give two hours a week for "marketing and community" work. One of the most disputed clauses allows clubs to terminate the contract after a certain period of time if the player has a long-term injury. The wranglings that often mark transfer talks mainly concern additional clauses that either side wants to include.

Leading the negotiations over the revision for the clubs is the Premier League legal working party, a group of four solicitors: Peter McCormick, a director of Leeds United; Manchester United director Maurice Watkins; Michael Jepson, a Coventry City director; and Trevor Nichols, a former director of the First Division side Norwich City, whose expertise was retained after Norwich was relegated. On the other side, for the Professional Footballers' Association, is the Manchester solicitor John Hewison.

The revised contract has been under negotiation for several months with the aim of finalising it in time for the 1999/2000 season. But with players beginning pre-season training this week and the transfer market heating up, this is not going to happen before the season starts in a month's time.

The two sides, according to Hewison, remain far apart. He says there are two major hurdles. First, there is "the bigger-than-ever gulf" between the needs of the Premier League and impoverished lower league clubs. For example, if a player picks up an injury that does not stop him performing, such as having teeth knocked out, a third division club, unlike a Premier League team, might not pay for a player's treatment. The PFA wants all players equally protected.

The second hurdle, Hewison says, is commercial and image rights, an issue far more important at the top. The PFA agrees that players should accede to reasonable requests to do work for clubs' main sponsors, and should not take on personal commercial work that conflicts (such as if Michael Owen promoted Fosters while Liverpool is sponsored by Carlsberg). Football boots and goalkeeping gloves are exempted because of their personal nature.

But the PFA is opposed to obliging players to help minor sponsors, and also believes that where a club exploits a player's image for purely commercial, rather than promotional, reasons, such as a David Beckham jigsaw, the player should receive a cut of the profits. Top players such as Alan Shearer already give far more than two hours a week to community work, Hewison adds, and do not need to have a figure specified in their contracts.

For the clubs, McCormick, who in his personal capacity acts for several current and former Leeds stars such as Nigel Martyn, Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, Gordon Strachan and Howard Wilkinson, is more optimistic about the negotiations.

He argues that players enjoy "a pretty fair deal" under the current contract. If you are being paid pounds 500,000 a year, "you should have to do more than two hours" of community work. He says that the new contract is a case of protecting the clubs and ensuring a fair balance between club and player.

Gary Blumberg, a South African sports lawyer based in London, says that there is a middle ground. Blumberg, who acts for many top South African footballers such as Leeds's Lucas Radebe and Bolton's Mark Fish, says he encourages joint marketing and brand building between player and club.

"Beckham wouldn't be so appealing if he was with Aston Villa. Players and their agents have to understand that," he says.

Acting for non-European Union players introduces another complication in transfers - work permits. The Government recently sprung a surprise by announcing plans to ease the work permit restrictions on such players, prompting fears of a new flood of foreign footballers. But while some privately share these concerns, football lawyers have largely welcomed the proposals. Maurice Watkins, who recently worked on the Mark Bosnich transfer, points to Fifa's regulations, which say that the validity of a transfer is not subject to obtaining a work permit or satisfactory medical. "Just think of the complications that can cause," he says.

Transfers can be difficult in any case. They involve two contracts - between the clubs, and between the buying club and the player. They must comply with the rules of organisations such as Fifa, Uefa, the Football Association, the Premier League or the Football League.

This increasing complexity of transfers and players' commercial activities has fuelled the growth of lawyer agents. While Hewison says solicitors by nature often do not have the entrepreneurial spirit to make good agents, those in the business believe that their professional qualification is an advantage. Most charge hourly rates, which work out far cheaper than the percentage a normal agent takes.

Mel Goldberg, a London solicitor who has listed Paul Merson, Stan Collymore and Dennis Wise as clients at one time or another, has 50 players on his books, some of whom he says were attracted by his hourly fee. He says that being a fan is not enough - agents need to have an intimate knowledge of the industry, such as which clubs offer what benefits. Blumberg adds that, with foreign players, agents also need to take social considerations into account

There is nothing special about football transfers contracts legally. "Merger and acquisition lawyers may say it's an easy contract, but that's no reason to be complacent," argues Blumberg. In McCormick's experience, transfer negotiations come down to one thing: money.

He says: "First there's the salary, then the bonus, the signing-on fee, the car, the moving expenses, the length of contract and finally the agent's commission."