The Sports Law & Policy Centre | The ‘club versus country’ debate in football and cricket
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The ‘club versus country’ debate in football and cricket

By Nandan Kamath

Introduction

‘Club versus country’ has been a subject of intense debate for many years in football. Now with the advent of domestic cricket events, especially in the form of domestic Twenty20 tournaments inviting foreign participation, the debate has recently entered the cricketing arena. A survey conducted by the Federation of International Cricketers’ Association (‘FICA’) among 45 foreign/non-Indian cricketers produced some startling results – 32% of the cricketers surveyed said they would retire prematurely from international cricket to play in T20 leagues; 40% confessed they envisaged a day when they would put playing for T20 leagues ahead of playing for their countries. The verdict was clear – a large number of cricketers were willing to sacrifice playing for their nation for the instant gain and fame offered by T20 leagues.

As the international governing body for the sport of cricket, the International Cricket Council (‘ICC’) had to intervene to curb this trend. On 1 June 2009, the ICC introduced certain amendments to the ICC Operating Manual with a view to discourage premature retirement of players from international cricket and to “recognize and protect the primacy of international cricket as the pinnacle of the game, by introducing a mechanism that permits member boards to determine when players who are qualified to play international cricket for them may participate in other members’ domestic events.”

While a similar concern exists in football, there is a fundamental distinction in the manner in which the FIFA and the ICC have framed their regulations. While the annual football calendar is dominated by league fixtures, cricket thrives largely on one day internationals, Test matches and Twenty20 matches played between nations. Therefore, while a footballer spends more time playing for his club than his country, an international cricketer dedicates more time to his national side. As a result, in cricket, the ICC Regulations require the national association to release a player (from international duty) to play in a domestic league, and in football, the FIFA Regulations lay down the various situations in which a club must compulsorily release a player to enable participation in an international match.

Further, according to FIFA rules and regulations, clubs are required to release players to represent their nations only for tournaments listed in the FIFA International Match Calendar and for the matches for which a duty to release players exists on the basis of a special decision of the FIFA Executive Committee, whereas in cricket, member boards enjoy complete discretion in determining whether or not to permit a player to participate in a domestic event. So a comparison between the two clearly shows that the provisions of the ICC Operating Manual are vague and uncertain in comparison to the defined rules contained in the FIFA regulations.

FIFA Regulations

FIFA Regulations on Status and Transfer of Players (‘FIFA Regulations’) mandate the release of players by clubs on dates listed in the FIFA International Match Calendar and for all matches for which a duty to release players exists on the basis of a special decision of the FIFA Executive Committee. However, it is not mandatory to release players for matches scheduled on dates not listed in the Coordinated International Match Calendar. The period of release also includes a preparation period, which ranges from 48 hours prior to the match (for a friendly match) to 14 days preceding the first match of an international tournament (for confederation, FIFA or Olympic football tournaments). While these Regulations establish the minimum period for which players shall be released, national associations and clubs often agree on extended periods of release allowing national teams more practice prior to important international tournaments.

No entitlement to compensation during release period

The club releasing the player is not entitled to any financial compensation from the national association for the period of the release. Further, it is the responsibility of the club to obtain adequate insurance cover for any injury sustained while on national duty.

Injured players

If a player maintains that he is unable to comply with a call-up for national duty owing to any injury or illness, the national association calling such player is entitled to organize a medical examination conducted by a doctor of its choice to establish the player’s state of health. On the player’s request, the national association will be required to conduct the medical examination in the city in which the club that the player represents, is registered.

Restrictions during period of release

During the period a player is called up for national duty, he is not permitted to participate in club matches. This restriction applies even if the club fails to accede to the call-up or the player is unable or unwilling to comply with the call-up. In fact, in the event of a player’s non-compliance, the period of restriction is extended by five days.

Penalties for non-compliance

If a club refuses to release a player who has been correctly called-up for national duty, as a sanction, any match in which the player participated during the designated release period may be declared to have been lost by the club.

Controversies – I-Leagues and the 2008 Beijing Olympics

The Beijing Olympics proved to be a testing ground for the FIFA Regulations with Barcelona Football Club and the Argentinean Football Association battling over inclusion of star forward Lionel Messi in the national side for the Olympics. The inclusion impacted Barcelona FC as it meant that Messi would miss a crucial Champions League qualifier.

In March 2008, the FIFA Executive Committee held a meeting, and according to the minutes, agreed to “appeal for goodwill from clubs in releasing players aged over 23 to take part in the 2008 Men’s Olympic Football Tournament although there was no obligation for the clubs to do so”. Closer to the start of the Olympics, FIFA President Mr. Joseph Blatter issued a letter to all clubs in which he stated that there was “a certain amount of confusion as to whether players have to be released for the Men’s Olympic Football Tournament Beijing 2008”. Thus, FIFA wished to clarify that “the release of players below the age of 23 (…) has always been mandatory for all clubs” and this principle would apply to the Olympic Games. Finally, a FIFA Emergency Committee meeting was held which clarified that an “obligation for clubs to release their players for the Olympic football Tournament exists”. A FIFA Single Judge upheld this obligation citing that it was a longstanding and undisputed practice, entrenched in customary law.

Barcelona, along with football clubs Werder Bremen and Schalke, appealed to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (‘CAS’) against the ruling of the Single Judge. The CAS held that the FIFA Regulations did not expressly include release of player for participation in the Olympic Games. It only mandated release under two circumstances – (a) for matches included in the international match calendar (which did not include the Olympic Games) or (b) in case of a special decision taken by the FIFA Executive Committee. Since neither criterion was met, there was no obligation on the clubs to release their players. The CAS also appealed to FIFA and the clubs to find a reasonable solution with regard to players who wish to represent their country in the Olympic Games. Ultimately, despite the ruling, Messi stayed on in Beijing, leading the Argentinian campaign in the 2008 Olympic Games. However, this was not before Barcelona managed to convince Argentina to take out an insurance policy ensuring that they were adequately compensated in the event Messi was injured during the event.

More recently, in India, there was a tussle between the All India Football Federation (‘AIFF’) and the I-League clubs over the issue of release of players for an exposure series in the Caribbean. Five I-League clubs, namely, East Bengal, Mohun Bagan, Dempo, Salgaocar and Pune FC initially refused to release players citing pre-season preparations for the Federation Cup and I-League. The clubs contended that they were not obliged to release the players as the series did not feature in the FIFA international match calendar. In doing so, they completely disregarded the provisions of the AIFF Constitution and Player Status Regulations which require clubs playing amateur or professional footballers to release players to play for India, if such player is selected for one of its representative teams, irrespective of age. The issue was finally resolved after the teams, led by Dempo, eventually agreed to release their players.

ICC Regulations

With domestic Twenty20 tournaments creating a new revolution in the sport of cricket many players are forgoing national duties to play for a league. In an effort to curb such instances and to uphold the supremacy of international cricket, the ICC introduced an amendment in Section 32 of the ICC Operating Manual. The amendment makes it mandatory for foreign players to obtain No-Objection Certificates (‘NOCs’) from their respective boards allowing them to take part in a domestic league. The onus is on the board conducting the league to ensure that all its foreign participants have valid NOCs, failing which they shall not be allowed to participate in the league. NOCs may also be granted for playing part of a league. To illustrate, the member board may provide an NOC permitting its player to participate on certain dates, requesting that the player be sent back subsequently to fulfill his national duties or for any other reason.

These regulations apply to all players – whether retired or active. This is to ensure that players don’t retire prematurely to pursue league cricket, which provides an easier and quicker way to reap financial rewards in comparison to playing the longer versions of the game for the country.

Recently, there was discord between Pakistani cricketer Shahid Afridi and the Pakistan Cricket Board (‘PCB’) over certain statements made by the cricketer against his team and management in breach of certain provisions of his player contract. Afridi was summoned by the Disciplinary Committee of the PCB and soon after, he announced his retirement from international cricket. After a detailed hearing where Afridi pleaded guilty of certain indiscretions, a fine of Rupees 4.5 Million was imposed for breach of various clauses of the Central Contract and Code of Conduct and it was recommended that Afridi be provided an NOC to play for Hampshire. While he was cleared to play for Hampshire, it was alleged that as a result of this discord, the PCB refused to grant Afridi an NOC to play in the Sri Lankan Premier League. This too was later resolved and Afridi was cleared to participate in the inaugural edition of the Sri Lankan Premier League.

Power hitter Chris Gayle was also the subject of controversy after the West Indies Cricket Board reluctantly granted him an NOC to participate in the 2011 edition of the IPL, after he was roped in by the Royal Challengers Bangalore as a replacement for injured Australian cricketer Dirk Nannes.

Currently, as per the ICC Regulations, players may be denied an NOC on the ground that they are required to represent their country in any of the following events – ICC Cricket World Cup matches, ICC Champions Trophy matches, ICC World Twenty20 matches, ICC U19 Cricket World Cup matches, ICC World Cup Qualifiers, ICC World Twenty20 Qualifiers, ICC U19 Cricket World Cup Qualifiers, all one day internationals and Twenty20 internationals against members of the ICC. However, the dispute is often with regard to players who have not been selected to play for their national team. For such cases, the ICC Regulations merely provide certain guiding principles to boards to help them in determining whether or not to grant an NOC. These include, (a) whether the player has been, or is likely to be, selected to play for the national team at or around the same time as the league event (b) whether the player’s form, fitness and/or upcoming commitments towards his national team may be compromised by his participation in the league event (c) whether the player has announced his retirement from playing for the national team during the two years preceding the league event or (d) whether participation by the player will compromise his ability to comply with any contractual obligations owed to his board. While these factors may be considered, the matter ultimately is decided by the member board. The Regulations only urge the member boards to act in accordance with their obligations as custodians of the sport while delivering a decision.

Conclusion

From a comparison of the FIFA and ICC rules, while the FIFA Regulations establish well defined and enforceable guidelines on when a player shall be released by a club and/or a national team, the ICC Regulations vest a fair amount of discretionary power in the member boards in allowing/disallowing a player from participating in a domestic club event of another ICC member without providing criteria based on which release is mandatory. This discretionary power may give rise to several opportunities for non- released players to allege that the member board’s actions in denying them an NOC were mala fide.

As the club vs. country dynamics in cricket mature, the rules governing freedom of movement of players are likely to gain greater clarity. As this clarity emerges, it is important the decision makers keep sight of legal principles relating to restraint of trade and freedom of movement of cricketers. Enforceable guidelines that balance the needs of national bodies, leagues and players will bring transparency and clarity to all parties and will give professional cricketers the opportunity to plan their careers with greater certainty.

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