Who said it was goodbye to the big buys?

Summer boom hints that the new system will not herald a slump in transfer fees
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It is supposed to be almost dead, but football's international transfer system could not be in ruder health. Real Madrid have smashed the world transfer record by paying almost £46m to Juventus for Zinedine Zidane. A further seven players (including Juan Sebastian Veron) have moved within Europe this summer for £20m or more each. There have been 23 close-season deals costing £10m or more (up from 21 last year). And there have been dozens of "smaller" transfers (of between £5m and £10m) in each of Europe's major footballing countries. The last week alone in Britain has seen Laurent Robert move to Newcastle for £9.5m, Boudewjin Zenden move to Chelsea for £7.5m and John Hartson to Celtic for £6.5m.

Either Europe's clubs are not aware of the radical shake-up around the corner that could see their investments deemed risky (which is unlikely), or the much-touted new football transfer system (a result of months of protracted, complicated and fundamentally dull proceedings involving the European Commission and football's world and European governing bodies, Fifa and Uefa, remember?) will not exactly herald the revolution it once threatened. The smart money is on the latter.

To recap: several years ago the European Commission told Fifa and Uefa that football's transfer system, if not exactly akin to the slave trade, probably broke EU laws on freedom of movement because transfer fees were deemed a barrier to that freedom of movement. Fifa and Uefa argued that football is a special industry that needs contract stability for its workers (the players) so clubs can plan for the future.

A new system was drawn up, which was accepted by the EC in the Spring. It will come into force on 1 September and all contracts are expected to be subject to its workings. The bare bones are: clubs will be compensated for the loss of players under 23. The amount of compensation will be calculated by formula (depending on "development" costs). Players over 23 will sign contracts of between one year and five years and honour those contracts. Transfer fees for older players will also be calculated by fixed criteria, though the fine detail has not been worked out yet.

Players will only be able to break their contracts if a) they, their club and a "buying" club all agree on a move and a fee, or b) the "protected period" on a contract has expired. This protected period lasts three years for players up to the age of 28 and two years for older players. If there is any time left on the contract, a fee is still payable, worked out by the formula that has not been set yet.

Players may unilaterally break their contracts if they are played in less than 10 per cent of their side's games or are not paid. Any player who breaks his contract under any other circumstances will be subject to "sporting sanctions" and banned from playing for up to four months.

In theory, the system will bring transfer fees down, because those fees will be set by fixed criteria (not arbitrary markets). In practice, say experts, nothing much has changed, and nothing much will. Transfer fees will continue to rise, as will wages for the top players. As for freedom of movement, it will be protected, but only within strictly defined limits.

"In all practical senses there will be no great changes to the system," Parul Patel, a sports lawyer with the country's only dedicated sports law firm, Hammond, Suddards, Edge, said. "Players will, at later stages of their contracts, have the power to terminate those contracts but all that will mean is clubs starting to renegotiate contracts earlier. Contracts will be renegotiated every year or two." The result will be continually re-negotiated (and increased) salaries for the top players.

And transfer fees? "In theory the new system should see them fall because there will be a new arbitration system [to calculate, by formula, the fees]," Patel says. "But whether clubs actually use it remains to be seen. Clubs are cautious about submitting to uncertainty and won't want to use a system where they don't know what they'll be receiving for a player."

In other words, as long as two clubs and a player all agree on a move, it will still happen for an arbitrary fee. The only time the arbitration panel will become involved is when a player breaks his contract unilaterally. In that case, the arbitration system will decide how much club X must pay club Y and whether the player and the "buying" club must face any disciplinary action.

Confused yet? So is Theo van Seggelen, the secretary of the international players' union, Fifpro. "I'm unconvinced that the new system will be much different from the old one or that it will work," he says, before highlighting three areas where he says the new system is unworkable. The first is that, although bans have been agreed as punishment for breaches by the EC, they will not be recognised by some nations' legal systems, notably in the Netherlands, Spain and Portugal. Secondly, the fixed criteria for compensation have not been set yet and they may not stand up to scrutiny across Europe. Thirdly, players under 23 could claim that their freedom of movement is being restricted by their clubs demanding fees for them.