Anyone who has been watching Portugal at this year’s World Cup might be surprised to learn that three of their starring players — William Carvalho, Gelson Martins and Bruno Fernandes — are all unattached and available on a free transfer.
After all, Portugal have progressed to the last 16 after finishing second in Group B, who they gave a scare in a thrilling 3-3 draw. A casual observer could be forgiven for presuming that their players were all tied down to eye-watering contracts at top European clubs.
Indeed, that was the case until earlier this month when Carvalho, Fernandes, Martins and goalkeeper Rui Patricio took the extraordinary step of cancelling their contracts with domestic giants Sporting Lisbon. Patricio has since agreed to join recently-promoted Wolves in the Premier League.
The quartet were among nine Sporting players to terminate their contracts as a direct result of a flashpoint in May, which saw 50 hardcore fans attack members of the squad at the club’s training ground.
Star striker Bas Dost, another of those to leave the club, suffered a cut to the head during the assault from the masked ultras, which followed a number of inflammatory comments and threats about the club’s players from controversial president Bruno de Carvalho.
A month earlier, the players had felt compelled to issue a statement asking De Carvalho for more support after he had singled out players — including Martins — for criticism in a Facebook rant. De Carvalho’s response was to proclaim he would suspend 19 players — a threat never carried out — and label his players “spoiled children”.
These safety concerns are the “just cause” — a breach in the duty of care Sporting owed its players as their employer — cited by those who terminated their contracts.
For a contract cancellation to be effective, a player has to demonstrate to either their national football association or international governing body Fifa that they had just cause. If they do so, a national association or — in the case of an international transfer — Fifa will approve a player’s registration with a new club.
Yet despite there being plenty of examples of players threatening resignation having been frozen out of the side or believing they’ve received unjust treatment from their coach, “just cause” has predominantly been cited in issues of non-payment which is what makes the Sporting case so unusual – and so potentially significant for the future of player movements.
“The concept of just cause in the Fifa regulations is extraordinarily broad,” Andrew Osborne, partner at Lewis Silkin and a registered FA intermediary, told City A.M.
“Fifa don’t define it. In this example the argument would be that the club had a duty to protect them, it failed to protect them from fans and on that basis they’re entitled to walk out because they’re not safe. But it’s an unusual argument as most of the case law is around financial issues.”
De Carvalho – dubbed “the Donald Trump of football” – this week agreed to step down from Sporting after being voted out, though it remains to be seen if that has any impact on the players’ intent to leave.
Premier League clubs eyeing a potential bargain to be made from the legal grey area, however, should move ahead with caution and only do so with Fifa’s approval – or risk facing punishment.
“Fifa are very clear in their regulations that if a player breaks their contract and no justifiable reason for doing so is found then there are some potentially quite substantial sanctions it could issue,” says Osborne.
“A player could be banned from playing for a certain number of months, while the club could be seen as having induced a player to have broken his contract. That could make them liable to punishment.”
Those punishments could vary from a fine to a complete blockage on the club fielding their new player in any Fifa-sanctioned competition.
“I think this is something that Fifa and national football associations will get aerated about,” Martin Palmer, a barrister with Littleton Chambers who specialises in employment and sports law, told City A.M.
“What they won’t like is the potential lessening of their power to control the movement of players by relation to their registration.”
Indeed, should reported Everton target Carvalho, Martins, who is said to interest Arsenal, and Fernandes find Premier League suitors after a successful tournament it could carry significant implications for the future of the transfer market.
With a precedent set, future groups of players in less extreme but unsatisfactory circumstances could potentially follow their example and look to exit their contracts early.
“The outcome of the Bosman ruling changed football but until that decision was made no one really knew what it meant and I think this is the same sort of case,” says Osborne.
“If they all get a months-long ban then not many more players will be going down this path. But if they all get released and find great new clubs then you may find players do think more about it and tactically use a collective unhappiness to justify it. It really hinges on what happens.”