A lot has been said about the three-year-minimum-contract rule being implemented in the Nigeria Professional Football League (NPFL). Some have argued against it, while others have argued in favour of it. Whereas the aim of the rule is to enhance contractual stability and welfare of players, there are those who feel that it ties players down to contracts which clubs often fail to implement. Strangely enough, among the antagonists of this rule is the Association of Professional Footballers of Nigeria (APFON), whose aim is the labour-unionist goal of protecting the interest of players. The Association argued in a recent petition, that the rule enslaves players and encourages the abuse of players’ rights by clubs. Perhaps, the problem that antagonists have with the rule is the lack of proper understanding of what it entails and it is hoped that this piece will go some way to remedy that.
What is the three-year-minimum-contract rule?
The rule simply states that a contract between a club and a player shall not be for a period less than three years (or three seasons), subject to the stated exceptions. The rule is contained in section B, article 9.40 of the Framework and Rules of the NPFL, which provides as follows:
Subject to the exceptions set out below, a contract between a Club and a Player shall not be for any period less than 3 calendar years provided that its expiry date is at the end of any season. The exceptions to this Rule are:
contracts with Players who have played professional football for a total of 10 years or more, who may be contracted to play for not less than 3 months at a time;
contracts with Contract Players under the age of 18 years which must not be capable of lasting for more than 2 years
So, unless a player has been a professional for up to ten years (who can sign a minimum of a three-month contract), or is below 18 years (who can sign a maximum of a two-year contract) a player contract in the NPFL must be for a minimum of three years.
The rule does not apply to loan deals neither does it prevent players from being signed on loan. The league rules allow players to be signed on loan; however, an academy or a lower league club cannot release a player to an NPFL club on loan and a loan agreement cannot be for more than one year.
Must the player remain at the club for three years?
This is perhaps one point that critics of the three-year rule fail to completely appreciate. It is important to note that the rule does not prevent a player from getting transferred to another club before the expiration of the three-year contract. A player may be transferred to another club after the first year of the contract (article B9.41). However, as is the common practice around the world, the club intending to sign the player must first negotiate with the club to which the player is contracted (article B9.27).
In addition, with some clubs being guilty of irregular payment of players’ salaries, the three-year rule does not tie a player down to a contract that is not adhered to by the club. The rule that permits a player to unilaterally terminate his contract for just cause is a global one and also applies in the NPFL. The league rules state that the terms of a contract must be strictly adhered to (article B9.45) and as has been the case in other leagues, where a player is not paid for up to three months, that is a ground for activating the ‘just cause’ rule.
The necessity of the rule
In the LMC’s response to criticism of the rule, the league organizers highlighted the situation that led to the implementation of the rule. Previously, it was common for players to be signed on one-year contracts and at the end of every season there would be a mass exodus of players. Players would automatically become jobless and were often only paid for the duration of the league season rather than throughout the calendar year. With clubs recruiting new sets of players every season, there was no focus on the development of players and this certainly has an adverse effect on club/player identity as well as branding.
The implementation of the three-year-minimum-contract rule thus serves the purpose of stabilizing the contract regime and giving players some level of job security. Also, the clubs would benefit from focusing on player development, which will not only provide a steady pool of players but also a source of revenue where players are transferred before the expiration of their contracts.
The current problems associated with player transfers and the disputes over player ownership are not as a result of the implementation of the three-year rule, rather they are as a result of non-compliance with standard procedure for transfer of players. Where a player desires to leave a club as a result of non-payment of salaries or some other dispute, it is not proper to simply switch camps and arm-twist the club into releasing him. If the club that intends to sign the player is not going to first negotiate with the player’s club and obtain prior written consent as required under the rules, the player must first take the steps to have his contract terminated.
Given the instability of player contracts and the lack of job security, the ever-changing squads and lack of club identity, the three-year-minimum-contract rule is certainly a step in the right direction. Interestingly, those that have criticized the rule have not proffered any alternative solution to the problems the rule was created to tackle.