Wayne Rooney can terminate his contract next summer under Fifa transfer regulations that would see Manchester United receive only £5m in return, The Independent can reveal.
Under the Webster ruling – named after the former Hearts player Andy Webster, who set the precedent – Rooney can buy out the final year of his contract for his current annual salary of £5m plus a relatively small compensation figure.
As dictated by Article 17 of Fifa's transfer rules, it would dramatically reduce his current market value, which is closer to £45m.
The Spain based law firm Ruiz Huerta y Crespo has been involved in every major Article 17 case to date and are the world's leading authority on the subject. The firm is not involved in the Rooney case but has confirmed to The Independent Rooney could leave United under Article 17 as long as he met compensation requirements applicable to him.
Rooney last entered into a new United contract in November 2006, when he agreed an extension to his existing deal to keep him at the club until the summer of 2012.
Under the ruling a player can walk away from his contract after what Fifa describes in its rules as the "protected period" of that deal has expired. The protected period varies according to a player's age. If a player is under the age of 28 when signing the deal in question – as Rooney was – the protected period is three years of the contract.
Rooney was 21 in November 2006 when he signed his latest deal, meaning that the protected period on his contract ran out in November 2009. In the summer of this year he had the option to walk away in exchange for two years' salary. He could do the same next summer for one year's salary. The Webster ruling can only be activated in the summer and only after the provision of 15 days' notice in writing.
If United sell Rooney in January, the club would still be able to realise something close to his full value.
United's star player has already rejected an offer of a new contract on around £150,000 a week and holds the whip hand over a club who cannot afford to let him leave for free when his current deal expires in June 2012.
At a press conference for the club's charity partner Unicef yesterday, the United chief executive, David Gill, refused to take questions on the subject of Rooney's departure. "We will say something at an appropriate time and now is not an appropriate time," Gill said. "I have nothing more to say." Privately, even senior figures at the club accept that Rooney is unlikely to sign a new deal.
The 24-year-old's key frustration with United is their failure to give him a deal that offers him parity with the highest-paid players in the Premier League, such as Manchester City's Yaya Touré, whose wages will rise to £221,000 a week in April. He is also concerned that the financial restrictions placed on the club by the Glazer family's debt is preventing United from replacing their golden generation of Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes.
Yesterday the Chelsea manager Carlo Ancelotti said reporters would have to ask owner Roman Abramovich "directly" if they wanted to know whether his club were in the market for Rooney. Real Madrid's sporting director, Jorge Valdano, said that his club did not have room among all their strikers and coach Jose Mourinho said he believed the player would not leave United.
The nightmare scenario for United is that Rooney goes to their neighbours City who, under the ownership of the Abu Dhabi prince Sheikh Mansour, are well capable of making him the highest-paid player in the Premier League. Even worse for United would be to lose their greatest asset for significantly less than his market value. The complicating issue in Article 17 moves is the precise calculation of the compensation. The first player to invoke Article 17 was the Scotland defender Webster, who left Hearts for Wigan in 2006 after falling out with the Edinburgh club's chairman.
A legal battle ensued, first with Fifa and then in the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), where a ruling set the precedent that a player could break a contract. The ruling effectively set the amount of compensation to be paid as equal to the total amount of wages left on the player's contract when he walked out, plus a proportion of his original transfer fee, if still applicable.
Cases since then have led to modifications in the law, notably the Brazilian player Matuzalem, who unilaterally breached his contract with Shakhtar Donetsk in 2007 to move to Real Zaragoza in Spain.
The CAS ruled in the Matuzalem case that the compensation figure should be calculated not just on owed wages, but that figure plus or minus a variable amount, depending on release clauses and potentially a player's special value to, or burden upon, a club.