Transfer-free: We might just be better off

'What will Wenger and Houllier do, blockade Calais? This is not a problem that will be solved by hysteria. Football needs cool heads and calm looks'
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The Independent Online

Unless there'S a risk of running out of wheelbarrows for the players to take their wages home, I can't really accept that the future of big-time football is being put in jeopardy by the dismantling of the transfer market. I can understand the inconvenience that will be caused; I can recognise the distress etched deep into the faces of the big spenders and hear the bleats of the smaller clubs deprived of the occasional bounty; but I can't see a calamity.

Unless there'S a risk of running out of wheelbarrows for the players to take their wages home, I can't really accept that the future of big-time football is being put in jeopardy by the dismantling of the transfer market. I can understand the inconvenience that will be caused; I can recognise the distress etched deep into the faces of the big spenders and hear the bleats of the smaller clubs deprived of the occasional bounty; but I can't see a calamity.

Certainly, nothing of the disastrous scale that had Arsÿne Wenger, the Arsenal manager, calling for strike action yesterday. As one of the game's leading shopaholics, Wenger is bound to be upset; but, strike? Are he and Gérard Houllier going to blockade Calais? This is not a problem that is going to be solved by hysteria. It might be asking too much to expect cool heads from Arsenal but football needs enough of them to take a calm look at the European Commission's threat to outlaw transfer fees.

Given that the transfer system has its roots buried in the days when children were sent up chimneys or down coalmines, it is a wonder that it has lasted as long as it has. Instead of bemoaning the passing of the antiquated and unsatisfactory buying and selling of footballers, the game should be more enthusiastic about finding a new way of controlling the inevitable traffic between clubs.

Old habits will die hard, however, and even while football's governing bodies were gathered in Zurich last week to discuss the EU's demands, the bartering business was still being frantically conducted. It's in the blood, and managers who protest that the game won't work without it remind me of the multi-millionaire's wife whose claim that she wasn't extravagant was based on the fact that she only bought diamonds when she really needed them.

To welcome the impending demise of the system, however, must not be taken as an expression of total agreement with the EU's competition commissioner, Mario Monti, who appears to be trying to make a name for himself out of the issue. He can't be blamed for finding fault with transfers; people have been doing that in every decade during the last 100 years and even we who have spent a lifetime boggling at the rate by which fees have risen felt that the end was near when Real Madrid paid £37m for Luis Figo in July.

At least, Real have promised to pay that amount. As is customary these days, the convenience of hire purchase is much utilised, which indicates a severe slackness on behalf of the authorities. You shouldn't be able to play the market with money you don't possess. You can't do that in poker and you shouldn't be able to in football.

Although it was a transfer dispute between an Italian and a Belgian club that first led the EU to challenge the system, Monti would not have been dissuaded from his crusade by the Figo affair. Where he has gone hopelessly wrong is to make the ludicrous demand that European football should dispense with the market by the end of the year and give players the same freedom to change employers as every other worker.

It is impossible to effect such a fundamental change in the game's business dealings in such a short time. But to an EU bureaucrat nothing is impossible except common sense and Monti has leapt upon one of the many high horses that are hitched to the rail outside their Brussels headquarters.

Fortunately for football, we've got a good man on the case. The Fifa president, Sepp Blatter, is handling the negotiations personally and, whereas in the past we've had occasion to question Blatter's directional sense, there are few better at the diplomatic footwork necessary for this situation.

He has been criticised for too readily agreeing with Monti's demand for the end of the system, but he had no choice. It is indefensible, no matter how old and how deeply embedded in the game's fabric it is. Blatter concentrated instead on consultation with clubs and players' representatives in Zurich to put forward a compromise that will soften the impact on the game.

This involves allowing players over 24 years old to move freely between clubs but only during a narrow transfer "window" once a year. International transfers of players under 18 would be banned and when players under 24 are transferred there would be a compensation scheme to reward clubs who had played a part in theirdevelopment.

Blatter's suggestions are far from perfect but it is futile to make any further attempt to fight the EU. What is more important is that the game must retain the right to impose its own regulations. The final proposals must be put forward to the EU in just over two weeks, which is another ridiculous deadline, but Blatter is planning to gain further time to flesh out the plans and win a sensible timescale for the changes to take place.

Blatter is absolutely right in his approach. It should not be beyond the skill of the European football associations and the clubs to devise a form of contract that will protect both club and player and guard against the wholesale migration that many fear. The idea that our star players will turn into a herd of nomadic mercenaries and their agents, loyal to no one but their next paymaster, may be real enough when you take a closelook at some of them, but I don't believe such a horror will be the eventual result.

Wages will be a top priority, of course, but many other considerations will come into a player's choice of club; a choice he doesn't always have at the moment when he can be bought or sold at someone else's whim. The pendulum may have swung savagely in the players' direction since the days when they were exploited by clubs - the Sir Matt Busby television documentary on BBC 2 on Wednesday was a vivid reminder of that - but it remains essentially a team game and as such creates more temptations than mere money.

If football is to acquire the norms of working arrangements the rest of us take for granted then players may find that the freedom to move is accompanied by other freedoms including the one that allows you to decide where you want to work. Money is not always the over-ridding consideration in that decision.

Another major fear stems from small clubs who rely on selling players to survive. If fattening up young players for the market is the only role they see for themselves, perhaps they ought to question the value of their existence. The sort of economy that is based on finding the occasional Rembrandt in the attic is doomed anyway.

Most of us who support smaller clubs can cite instances where a promising team has been ruined by the haste to snatch the first big offer that comes along for their best players. Directors too often take the easy way out of financial problems by selling the very assets who could provide a more lasting solution.

Without transfer fees, clubs would find it easier to keep their best players longer in the hope of paying their way through progress. Their supporters wouldn't object to that and neither would attendances suffer.

There's far more to be considered during this so-called crisis than the panic of the few. No one cares to be frog-marched into the future but the existing system is so appallingly flawed that the game should take this opportunity to look positively at the benefits to be gained from a completereform.

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