Offside, 9 June
'Tapping up' laws are outdated vestiges of soccer serfdom.
Was Ashley Cole more tapped up against than tapping? Not having been privy to the much-discussed meeting in the London hotel in question, I’m in no position to say. However, while Chelsea’s apparently insatiable desire to ‘tap up’ anything that moves is upsetting a lot of people in the game, I just can’t see what all the fuss is about.
Cole’s decision to challenge the legality of the Football Association’s rules against ‘tapping up’ has led to dire warnings of the end of football as we know it. ‘Do we want a society and a system where people respect rules or one where it is okay to drive through red lights?’, asked Arsenal chairman David Dein. ‘Ashley Cole is ready to lead football towards anarchy after insisting he will fight to scrap Premier League tapping-up rules’, wrote David Kidd in the Sun (1). The rules are there for a purpose, so runs the argument, and without them there would be chaos. But is that really the case?
In football there are some rules that are inviolable, as far as I’m concerned. If a player handles the ball it’s a foul. If an attacking player is fouled in the penalty area, a spot kick is awarded. At the final whistle the team that has scored the most goals wins the game. But there are other rules that are not part of soccer’s doctrinal canon. Before the recent furore over Chelsea’s tapupability most of us probably thought that K3 and K5 were mountains in the Himalayas. Now we know that K3 and K5 are in fact the FA rules that prevent direct approaches between a club and a player under contract at a rival club – otherwise known, in football’s dodgy geezerish parlance, as ‘tapping up’. Are these obscure rules essential to the survival of the game? I don’t think so.
Ashley Cole’s lawyer argues that the tapping up rules effectively amount to restraint of trade, and that he should be treated no differently to any other worker who is free to talk to a prospective employer. Advocates of rules outlawing tapping up counter that football is a special case and that some restraint is necessary for the stability of the game. ‘If clubs decide rules shouldn’t be there, we’d have a free-for-all. There’d be no stability in the game’, argues David Dein. The fear is that the removal of legislation against tapping up could lead to an orgy of club-swapping by promiscuous players.
The curious thing about the tapping up debate is that there is, on the one hand, widespread consensus – from the FA to the Professional Footballers’ Association – that rules outlawing tapping up are necessary to prevent transfer-market anarchy. And yet, on the other, there is equally widespread acknowledgement that tapping up is a fact of life. ‘It has been going on since the beginning of time. Everybody knows it is going on’, said Match of the Day analyst Alan Hansen. ‘On Wednesday the Premier League punished a couple of poor unfortunates for a crime that everyone commits’, wrote former Irish international Tony Cascarino in The Times (London). ‘No doubt even as the judgments were dispensed, someone somewhere was being tapped up.’ (2) If tapping up is really happening all the time then what’s the harm in legalising it?
Cascarino does not think that legalising tapping up would lead to chaos. ‘Clubs all have budgets and selection criteria. They won’t suddenly go crazy and sign dozens of players just because there are more available’, he argues. Similar apocalyptic predictions were made after the Bosman ruling, which permitted out-of-contract players to join another club without a transfer fee. The ruling did make it easier for players to move from one club to another, and greatly increased players’ bargaining power, but football has adapted and survived.
I can’t see any good reason for preserving the antediluvian strictures on tapping up. Clubs, agents, and players are already circumventing these rules anyway, albeit far more discreetly than Chelsea, so why not just legalise what is already happening covertly?
It’s time we stopped romanticising a mythical golden age when loyalty used to mean something in football. In the past footballers stuck with their club, not because they were more loyal, but because they had no choice. ‘Feudal’ is how Sir Stanley Matthews described footballers’ conditions of employment, and he was right – for decades footballers were treated like indentured serfs. The scrapping of the maximum wage and the Bosman ruling have loosened a player’s bond to his clubs.
Now finally, some of the last vestiges of soccer serfdom – the rules on tapping up – could also be swept away. The laws of the game were codified in 1863 but only now is football entering the modern age.
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