FIFA's Transfer Matching System a good step toward accountability
Editor's note: This article was originally published on Jan. 23, 2015. We re-present it now as the David De Gea transfer saga stalled at the last minute while the teams sent paperwork to the Transfer Matching System (TMS).
It's one of those ideas that, once implemented, leaves you wondering why it took so long.
Before FIFA's Transfer Matching System (TMS) went live in October 2010, moving players across national borders was a laborious, and sometimes haphazard, task. Two clubs would agree a deal, the player would sign a contract and then you would wait for something called the "International Transfer Certificate" (ITC).
To get it, you would send the relevant documentation to FIFA, who would check it and then send it on to the national association of the buying club. They would then request the player's registration from the association of the selling club and once this was done, FIFA would be notified and issue the ITC.
The problem was when we say "send," we mean old-school send: faxes and couriers. And with a perennially overstretched FIFA processing the paperwork, there was room for all sorts of shenanigans. Like a discrepancy in the transfer price, which would sometimes lead to clubs blaming each other and FIFA being dragged in to sort out the mess. Or, better yet, transferring imaginary players around as a means of moving funds across borders for money-laundering purposes.
And then the proverbial light bulb went off. Why not use technology to supervise and manage international transfers? It's cheaper, quicker and more efficient. And, with the benefit of hindsight, so very obvious; so much so that FIFA's Congress approved the introduction of the system by a vote of 199 to 3.
"[Clubs] have to provide compulsory data, upload mandatory documents and declare all payments involved in a transfer," says Mark Goddard, general manager of FIFA TMS and the man charged with leading the group that got the whole thing off the ground. While in the past, once a deal was agreed, obtaining your ITC could take days and sometimes weeks, now, according to Goddard, "if all parties are organized, it takes between seven and 10 minutes."
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The key here is that the numbers and information have to match. The two clubs input the data separately and if the two sets of data aren't the same, the transfer is blocked. It's a bit like when you try to log in to your email and you get one of those error messages: "We're sorry, this password doesn't match our records."
That's important because it puts the onus of sorting out the discrepancy back on the clubs rather than FIFA, who in the past would have had to mediate and figure out the error.
More important still is the data that is logged. There now exists a record of every transfer fee and agent commission in the FIFA TMS database. And that sort of metadata can be very valuable when it comes to investigate possible fraud or malfeasance. The system also records the identity of the players and the agents involved, as well as proofs of payment, which further cuts down sharply on fraud and abuse.
"Whoever is in the contract must be reflected in the system," says Goddard. "The idea to get full transparency."
We're not quite at "full transparency" yet. Goddard himself concedes that there are ways to try to game the system. For example, TMS notes the identity of the intermediaries representing the two clubs might be and what their compensation was. But if an intermediary then takes his commission and shares it with the manager or director of football of the buying club (a classic "bung" or "bribe"), it's beyond FIFA TMS's radar.
What's more, the "full transparency" only extends to FIFA. Individual TMS data is not made public, though if a national association or a confederation (like, say, UEFA when auditing a club for financial fair play purposes) requests access, it is provided. Goddard says this is because of data protection laws and clubs not wanting to release what could be business-sensitive information.
It's a fair enough argument, though if football were a fully transparent industry and every transaction were public, nobody would enjoy a competitive advantage (or disadvantage).
Finally, FIFA TMS only covers cross-border transfers because they're the only ones under FIFA jurisdiction. Domestic deals are the domain of national associations and here the situation varies wildly; some countries have fairly sophisticated systems, others are still in the snail mail-and-fax era.
In a perfect world, everybody would be on FIFA TMS or a TMS-compatible system. Not coincidentally, FIFA are pushing FIFA TMS among member associations, and last year they got their first client, the Dutch FA, who now use a version of FIFA TMS for all internal transfers. (It's not quite "plug-and-play" because the software needs to be tweaked and tailored to local transfer regulations, Goddard explains.)
"Not many member associations can answer the question of how many transfers were done in their country last year. How much was paid in commission to agents and intermediaries. How much was spent on salaries. How much was spent on transfers," Goddard says. "So we're pushing it out among as many associations as are interested."
The potential here evidently isn't lost on Goddard. Beyond the oversight and regulatory efficiency of the system, there are further potential applications: the metadata that can be analyzed, the licensing potential and something they're already rolling out: GPX, the Global Player Exchange. Think of it as a kind of secure online forum where clubs can communicate with each other, negotiate and engage in trading players, all on the FIFA TMS platform.
All this sounds a bit like a video game, and given the way transfers still get done, it's unlikely clubs will ditch cell phones, backrooms and "friendly agents" for an online chat room anytime soon. But the scope is there.
The transfer market remains inefficient and opaque. Ideally, every association in the world would be on some FIFA TMS-like publically consultable database. Analysts would have access to fee and contract data and we could actually figure out which clubs and players are overachieving and which ones are wasting the owners' (and, ultimately, the fans') money. There would be standard contracts and collective bargaining and crowd-sourced oversight to keep the crooks and leeches out. In short, folks would be held accountable.
We're not there yet. And we may never be. But FIFA TMS is a step in that direction.
Gabriele Marcotti is a senior writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.