Footballs Registration Rules: One For The Rich..?

by | Oct 7, 2019

As cynics may have suspected, current European Champions and English Premier League (EPL) leaders Liverpool avoided being slung out of the English Football League (EFL) Carabao Cup for breaching the competition’s international clearance registration regulations. This happened less than a month after the neither current European champions nor English Premier League leaders, Isthmian League Grays Athletic, were removed from the FA Cup for much the same thing.

It would, of course, be very simple to portray these superficially contradictory decisions as “one international clearance registration regulation for the rich, one international clearance registration regulation for the poor.” It is, of course, in football as in life, not THAT simple. In this case, however, graduates of the University of Life-is-Simple may have a point.

The EFL announced on 2nd October that Liverpool would be fined £200,000, with £100,000 suspended until the end of 2020/21, for fielding internationally uncleared ex-Spain under-17 international Pedro Chirivella in an experimental line-up’s 2-0 League Cup win over Milton Keynes Dons on 25th September. Chirivella signed for Brendan Rodgers’ Liverpool in 2013 from La Liga club Valencia. After two years in Liverpool’s academy, his first-team debut came as a sub in Liverpool’s Europa League match in Bordeaux, in September 2015, two-and-a-bit weeks before Rodgers was shown Anfield’s door.

The defensive midfielder played four times under Rodgers’ successor Jurgen Klopp, including one EPL start at Swansea in May 2016. He played on loan in the Dutch Eredivisie in 2017, for Go Ahead Eagles and Willem II Tilburg. And in July 2018 ‘Anfield Talk’ tweeted “£62m put on his arse by Chirivella” over footage of Chirivella…well…putting Manchester United’s Fred on his arse (an early metaphor for Fred’s Old Trafford career) in Liverpool’s 4-1 International Champions Cup win over United in Michigan.

A summer 2018 move to Norway’s Rosenborg Trondheim fell through. And on transfer deadline day this January, he returned to his native Spain for a loan spell with second-tier Extremadura Union Deportiva. But, in February, the fun began when Spain’s football federation (RFEF) announced that Chirivella was unable to play for their first team as the club had failed to register his “transfer documentation” in time. The by-now 22-year-old returned to Liverpool’s ‘first’ team, as a 63rd-minute substitute for Naby Keita at MK Dons. But it emerged after the game that he was not internationally cleared to return to English competitive football.

The EFL statement said Liverpool “had not received international clearance” for Chirivella “on expiry of his loan agreement” with Extremadura. They included him “on team sheets for Premier League Two matches, under Premier League Rules” (you DO remember that it’s the FA Premier League, don’t you?) and “one (EFL) Trophy match.” This, for reasons unexplained, “resulted in the breach not being identified until the Club reported the issue to the EFL and (EPL) following the MK Dons match.” But after “a comprehensive review of all the evidence” the EFL “determined that it wasn’t appropriate to expel” them from the Cup due to “a number of mitigating factors.”

So, Liverpool were “guilty of misconduct regarding the same breach for having fielded the player in the defeat to Oldham Athletic in the Trophy on 7th August, with the sanction incorporated into the financial penalty.” And they were ”liable for…£100,000, plus an additional sanction, if they were to again field an ineligible player in the Carabao Cup” this season or next.

As an EFL spokesman ‘explained,’ the “breach was in part due to the challenges” they “encountered with securing the correct international clearance” and their “subsequent ability to include the player on team sheets despite the lack of clearance.” Thus “the Board concluded the most appropriate sanction was a financial penalty.”

In a thorough 3rd October piece on the Littleton Sports Law Group website, group member and sports law expert Ashley Cukier asked, via headline, “How did Liverpool escape League Cup expulsion?” He also explained why Liverpool’s and Grays’ punishments (and Bury’s after a League One match in May 2016) were different, despite being ostensibly for the same offence.

At first glance, Cukier’s answer was simple. Different competitions, run by different bodies have different rules. Bury “engaged EFL rule 44.2, which expressly states that an EFL Disciplinary Commission “may” impose a three-point deduction on the infringing club.” And their non-registration issue was not international clearance. The Grays decision came from “an entirely different disciplinary panel, operating under separate rules.” And because the bodies have different discretionary powers, “the decisions, whilst perhaps divergent, are not inconsistent.”

Those powers ARE different. The EFL has “full power” to penalise League Cup rule breaches, via “reprimand, fine or other penalty (or any combination thereof)” as they “think fit.” FA Cup rule breaches mean removal from the Cup for registration rule breaches, with only specific circumstances in which “the club shall not be removed…but may still be subject to any other penalty.” But the use of those powers in the Liverpool and Grays cases was divergent AND inconsistent. And that hollow laughter you heard last week (if not linked to Boris bloody Johnson) emanated from Grays.

Grays were “removed” from this season’s FA Cup for fielding an internationally uncleared player, Frankie Hession-Harris, in the competition’s preliminary round. Grays were also denied the £7,390 prize money for their preliminary and first qualifying round wins. Yet they too “encountered challenges with securing the correct international clearance” for Hession-Harris, as he played when uncleared for two unsanctioned clubs last season, which logically suggested that Grays too had a “subsequent ability to include the player on team sheets despite the lack of clearance.”

And as for the financial penalties, Liverpool could recoup theirs by docking the wages of their back four for the 21 minutes’ playing time it took them to blow a three-goal lead against Red Bull Salzburg in the Champions League. Grays’ penalty blows a hole in their accounts which you could see from Salzburg. And Grays won’t get half their money back if they are good little boys next season.

The EFL’s full decision, if ever published, would surely reveal more of the facts of the matter. Because the EFL statement failed to put a dent in the net amount of unanswered questions. Especially why the EFL accounted for “mitigating factors” in Liverpool’s case, while the FA offered no evidence in what we know of their Grays judgment that they could even SPELL mitigating (this unexplained yet fundamental difference is, per se, an argument for the fullest possible transparency on such issues).

The statement states that Liverpool (and the FA) knew of the key issues with Chirivella’s registration in the summer. The “mitigating factor” it specifies (“in particular”) was Liverpool’s search for FA “assistance in securing the return of the International Clearance prior to the start of this season.” And this, by means unexplained, gave Liverpool a “subsequent ability to include the Player on team sheets despite the lack of clearance” (“not particularly illuminating,” Cukier understated considerably).

Cukier interprets this as “ostensibly citing the club’s breach as a reason for reduced punishment.” And he highlights “a tension between EFL rule 43.6” (“It shall be the responsibility of all clubs playing in any competition organised by the EFL to ensure that all players are [properly] registered. Failure to do so constitutes misconduct”) “and a disciplinary decision which appears on its face to give credit for the fact that, in its admitted ignorance of the breach, Liverpool was able to name Chirivella on several team sheets before realising its error.”

But they KNEW there was a problem. Did the FA’s assistance not run to warning Liverpool of a potential rule breach? Who told them they could pick Chirivella for EPL 2 and EFL Trophy games? And how did that leave the breach “unidentified” until they “reported the issue…after the MK Dons match”? There were seven weeks between Chirivella’s rule-busting EFL Trophy and EFL Cup appearances. What went on in that time regarding his registration? And if nothing, why nothing?

As Cukier puts it (better than me, natch) “Without the benefit of a published decision, the specifics of what Liverpool said in mitigation, and the nuances of the Board’s decision-making, remain inscrutable.” And as what Grays “said in mitigation” remained unconsidered, that inability to scrutinise might be just the way the football authorities like it. Because, if we could scrutinise, we might discover that the “nuances” were simply “one international clearance registration rule for the rich…”