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Women’s football — closing the loophole on free transfers for academy players

AuthorsHuzaifa Moosa

6 min read


Womens football closing the loophole on free transfers for academy players

A new compensation regime has been introduced for WSL and Championship clubs to prevent young players from being poached by other clubs for free.

Here, trainee solicitor and member of our sport sector team Huzaifa Moosa explores what the new rules mean for clubs*.

Poaching young players — unfair and disincentivising

Although women’s football has grown exponentially in recent years, some of its regulations have lagged far behind the men’s game.

At present, under WSL (Women’s Super League) and Championship (Women’s Championship) rules, female players under the age of 18 are unable to sign professional contracts. This means that they are liable to be 'poached', with their club not receiving any compensation if the player chooses to leave before signing a professional contract.

This is unfair and disincentivising to clubs that invest significant time, money and resource into developing young players, who may well command significant transfer fees in the future.

How does compensation differ from the men’s game?

The men’s game has two primary means of compensation for clubs when they lose their academy and youth players, depending on whether the transfer has a domestic or international element (this article focuses solely on the domestic regime).

Youth football at a domestic level is governed by the Premier League and Football League Youth Development Rules. These rules were introduced following the implementation of the Elite Player Performance Plan (‘EPPP’) by The FA in 2012. The EPPP is a framework for youth development in English football and governs how clubs can recruit and train young players.

Under the EPPP, clubs are categorised into four categories based on factors such as the quality of their facilities, coaching, education and welfare provisions. Each category has different requirements, and clubs are audited to ensure that they meet the requisite standards.

In terms of player transfers, the EPPP established a fixed compensation system that clubs must pay when signing a young player from another club’s academy. In short, the compensation fee depends on two main factors:

1. The amount of time the player has spent in their old club’s academy (from ‘under 9s’ to ‘under 16s’).

2. The category of the academy where the player has been trained (higher ranked academies receive larger compensation).

The framework is in place to ensure that clubs are compensated for investing into developing young talent — even if that player eventually leaves to join another club.

If the player was offered a Scholarship Agreement or was in his U17 year or above at the time of the transfer, then the fixed compensation system is superseded. It is then for the two clubs to agree the amount of compensation payable or — in default thereof — it is set by the Professional Football Compensation Committee.

The new compensation rules for women’s football

The new framework for women’s football operates in a similar way to the fixed compensation regime, with clubs receiving a ‘recognition fee’ for each year a player has been part of their academy if they decide to move.

Unlike the men’s game, the framework isn’t structured into categories. Instead, it’s dependent on which league each of the clubs is playing in at the time.

These rules only apply when the club that a player is leaving and the club that a player is joining are in one of these two leagues. Currently, there is no compensation payable under this regime where either club is amateur or foreign, though other mechanisms (such as the FIFA Regulations on the Status and Transfer of Players) may apply.

There is also a requirement that both the former club and the new club hold a Professional Game Academy (PGA) licence with The FA. This does exclude some large clubs like West Ham, Crystal Palace and Watford.

The player can be aged 21 or under, so long as they aren’t under a professional contract. The standard transfer rules apply for any players under professional contract.

The recognition fee is also payable if the club that a player is joining is offering a first professional contract to a player who has until then been under PGA registration at a different club. The FA has announced that fees will not be backdated and that the regime will start from the date of the announcement.

Compensation rules — more changes incoming?

The FA intends to keep this new framework under constant review. Undoubtedly, as the women’s game grows, there will be additional calls for a more subjective framework — but for now, this new fixed compensation regime is a huge step in the right direction for women’s professional football.

It is understood that similar plans are on the agenda across Europe, with FIFA’s Professional Women’s Football Task Force reported to be evaluating the current rules.

Former England player Karen Carney MBE recently published a report as part of her independent review into the future of women’s football. In it, she notes that in some cases the compensation could be as low as £500 (where a player is being transferred between Championship clubs) and encourages The FA to go further than this.

Carney further sets out that in order to incentivise player development, The FA must price-in the cost of a new pathway and framework similar to the men’s game — particularly if it wants to ensure the ongoing success of the Lionesses.

Experts in employment and contract law

To talk about how these new rules could affect your club or playing career, our specialist sports sector team is here to help. 

With experts in employment and contract law, we are proud to work with a number of Premier League and WSL clubs, managers, coaches and players, as well as international sports agencies.

*Please note: this article focuses only on the new rules and their application to under 18 players. Issues relating to a club’s entitlement to compensation for the training and developing of adult ‘under 24 players’ (those between 18 and 24) are outside the scope of this article.

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