What is a Transfer in Soccer?

A transfer in soccer is the name given to the transaction when a player moves from one club to another, usually for an agreed fee.

But there are a number of different transactions which might be involved in such a move, and in this article, we will explain them all.

How Do Transfers Work In Soccer?

Most often, the term is used when a player moves while they are still under contract to their old club and, in effect, their new club will buy out their contract in the form of a transfer fee to their former club.

In some cases, players will move between clubs when their contract at their former club has ended, and thanks to a ruling won by an otherwise generally unheralded Dutch midfielder Jean-Marc Bosman in the European Court in 1995, judges decided that, once a player’s contract had ended, and provided there was no new agreement in place, either with their current team, or a new team, the player became a free agent, and could move wherever they wished, without their former team receiving a transfer fee. 

Thus, the ruling applied a general principle of freedom of movement, and the ability of an individual to live and work anywhere within the European Union, which applies under the E.U. constitution, to the game of soccer.

black and white soccer ball

This judgment, known widely in the game as the Bosman ruling, heralded a major change in soccer. Previously, players would be bound by a contract to their team for a certain length of time, and as that contract came close to ending, they would either begin negotiations with their current team to extend that contract, or would ask to leave – or be transferred – to another club.

But the Bosman ruling had an even more serious consequence for soccer’s transfer market. It deemed that, if a player and his team could not agree on an extended contract once their existing deal had ended, the player was entitled to leave on a free transfer – meaning that the club to which they had previously been contracted would not receive any fee from the movement of that player to another team.

The business of soccer transfers has been made even more complex by the implementation in many countries of a transfer window system. This means that, after a certain stage of each league season, players are not allowed to move to another club, except when a team has many players unavailable through injuries or suspensions, and can ask for permission to sign players on an emergency loan.

These windows are intended to prevent the richest teams exercising even more of their financial power, and spending heavily in the later stages of a season to bring in new players to help their efforts to win major trophies.

Why Might a Player Be Transferred From Their Existing Club?

There could be many reasons. Below is a list of some which have been given, which is by no means exhaustive – for why a player might ask to be transferred to another club:

  • They (or their agent) believe that they can earn higher wages at another club
  • They may believe that they will have more chance of winning major honours at another club – anything from a domestic competition such as the F.A. Cup, right up to a tournament as prestigious as the U.E.F.A. Champions’ League
  • They might not be playing every game for a club’s first team, and believe that they stand a better chance of starting at the top level elsewhere
  • They, or their family, might not be happy where they are living, so might want to move to another town or city
  • They could believe that another club will offer them other benefits as part of a new contract
  • They might have friends who have moved to another club, and have heard that they are doing well there, or are happier there.

In truth, while a player is under contract to a team, they owe it to their managers and team-mates to settle as well as they can, both as a member of a team’s squad, and personally with their families.

But it can happen that either the player themselves, or a member of their family, is simply not happy where they are living while playing for their current team, and mght want to move somewhere seemingly more glamorous, or for family or social reasons.

What Do Transfers Mean For A Player?

The fact that a player can ask to move to another club while still under contract to their current team gives them a lot of power in deciding where they play.

That’s especially true if/when a player has become particularly well known and has played well for one team, but realises that they are not truly happy at that club, and they might earn more money playing elsewhere.

While they have a contract with their current team, another team can ask to buy them, and at the same time possibly offer the player an improved contract, i.e. with a higher salary. Their current club could also ask for, and receive, a high transfer fee for the player, depending on how valuable they are believed to be for their current team, and how much they are wanted by the team trying to buy them.

In some cases, a team may decide that a player does not suit their style of play, or they cannot afford to pay their wages – or the manager and/or their staff might simply not get on with the player on a personal level.

In any of these instances the player’s agent might be asked to try to negotiate a transfer to another club where they might be considered more suitable, or the player and/or their family might be happier.

Because a player can only command a transfer fee while they are under contract to their current team, their agent has a great deal of power over negotiating where they play, and where they might move to, either while they are still under contract but they are playing well enough to attract interest from other clubs, or as their contract becomes due for renewal. 

What Is A Free Transfer?

Free transfers have been a feature of soccer for many years, but until recently were most often agreed between two clubs when a player’s former club wanted to move them on quickly, and another club felt the player could be useful to them.

In a lot of such cases, the buying team would not have to pay a transfer fee for the right to give a contract to that player – they would commonly simply have to make an offer of wages to the player with which they and their agent were happy.

But the Bosman ruling referred to earlier meant that, if a team had not persuaded a player to sign a new contract by the time that their previous one had expired, or another team had not made an offer to buy the player which had been agreed by both parties, the player became a free agent, and could move to another club anywhere in the European Union for no fee, a.k.a. A free transfer. This was intended to mirror the general principle of free movement between member countries which applies to all citizens of the E.U.

This has led to a major change in the game, with players and their representatives looking to gain a contract with improved terms for their current team, and using the threat that they could possibly leave without the owning team getting a transfer fee once the player’s current contract had expired. Or players (and agents) have tried to negotiate for a player to move to another team while they were still under a contract with their current club, with the possibility that they might earn higher wages, and/or have the chance of winning more honours elsewhere. 

Given the amount of money which television companies now pay for the rights to show live soccer games,  the world’s richest clubs know that, if they have a player who is considered very valuable, they can ask a very high fee from another club who might want to sign them.

They can do this to try to prevent the player from moving elsewhere, but this arrangement only works if the player is happy at their current club, and has a good contract. If they don’t think their contract is good enough, they can ask to be transferred away, and they might be offered more money at another club.

So it’s easy to see why the Bosman ruling has given players a huge amount of power over deciding where they want to play, and given clubs a major incentive to cash in on the value of a player while they still have them under contract.

From this, you can see that the huge sums of money which have flowed into soccer as a result of television companies paying massive amounts for the rights to show the matches have enabled clubs to pay massively inflated sums to sign particularly in-demand players – and the players have been able to make equally huge wage demands as part of any deal to transfer them to another club.

How Have Transfer Fees Grown Over Time?

The transfer fee has been a feature of soccer ever since the governing body of the game in England, the Football Association (F.A.), decided that players should be registered to play with a particular team, and could be paid for doing so, way back in 1885.

A few years later, the F.A. adopted a system designed to restrict the richest clubs from simply being able to register all the best players, even if they were already committed to playing for other teams.

It said that a player could only be registered to play for one team at any one time. Eventually, the clubs decided that, if a player wished to move elsewhere, or a team wished to dispose of their services, they would demand a transfer fee before allowing the player to play for another team.

Transfer fees have grown incrementally over many years, and the following are just some of the landmark fees paid by one club to another for a single player:

  • 1905, Alf Common, sold by Sheffield United to Sunderland for £1,000
  • 1928, David Jack, bought by Arsenal from Bolton Wanderers for £10,890
  • 1963, Angelo Sormani, transferred from Mantova to Roma for £250,000
  • 1979, Trevor Francis, moved from Birmingham City to Nottingham Forest for £1million
  • 1984, Diego Maradona, transferred from Barcelona to Napoli for £5million
  • 1992, Jean-Pierre Papin, sold by Marseille to A.C. Milan for £10million
  • 2009, Kaka, bought by Real Madrid from A.C. Milan for £56million
  • 2009, Cristiano Ronaldo, transferred from Manchester United to Real Madrid for £80million
  • 2017, Neymar, sold by Barcelona to Paris Saint-Germain for £198million

As these figures graphically show, soccer transfers now involve huge sums of money, of the kind that most supporters can barely imagine.

Instrumental in this hyper-inflation of soccer transfer fees has been the massive sums now being paid by T.V. companies around the world for the rights to broadcast games from the world’s most prestigious leagues, including the English Premier League, Italy’s Serie A and La Liga in Spain.

Many people regularly express alarm at the amount of money which is now involved in soccer in general, and specifically in the huge sums which teams pay in transfer fees as they chase the best players available. But few would argue that every team in all of the top leagues in Europe, if not around the world, have been able to attract many players who help these teams grow their fan bases still further, so helping secure the clubs’ long-term future.

In this way, the players – and especially the best ones – have come to be seen as a soccer club’s main asset. And the money now generated by soccer, and its continued growth, are helping feed the massive transfer fees now commanded by even players who might not be considered among the sport’s elite, and which the average fan might have once considered unthinkable, but which are now common.

But this has made soccer the ultimate example of a free market – with players considered commodities, if one club considers a player to be worth a huge amount of money, it pushes up the transfer fees of most other players – especially those capable of playing in the best leagues around the world.