The legendary Dutch coach Rinus Michels has often had the blunt sentiment: “Football is war” incorrectly assigned to him.
What the former Ajax and Netherlands manager actually said was closer to: “Football is something like war. Whoever behaves too properly is lost.”
In the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022, FIFA has been tasked with setting the guidelines for proper behaviour in the relatively inconsequential realm of football amid the conflict.
However, Ukrainian clubs – spearheaded by reigning champions Shakhtar Donetsk – have felt persecuted by FIFA’s regulations. Shakhtar even took world football’s governing body to court in search of “reparations”.
With the summer transfer window in full swing, here’s everything you need to know about FIFA’s stance on players and managers at Ukrainian clubs and how it could affect the market.
In an uncharacteristic demonstration of speed, FIFA released a set of “temporary rules
addressing the exceptional situation deriving from the war in Ukraine” within a fortnight of Russian troops entering Kharkiv in 2022.
Under the new measures, foreign players and coaches could unilaterally suspend their contracts with clubs from the football federations of Ukraine or Russia for the rest of the 2021/22 season. FIFA outlined the aim of this ruling was “to protect foreign players and coaches who have left the territory of Ukraine or Russia due to the conflict and who do not wish to currently return in view of the circumstances”.
After stretching the measures through the 2022/23 campaign, FIFA revealed that the ruling would be extended again on Monday 22 May 2023. Much to the disgust of clubs from Ukraine and Russia, foreign players and coaches can suspend their contracts in both countries until 30 June 2024 – as long as they let the club know, in writing, by 1 July 2023, per Annexe 7 of FIFA’s Regulations on the Status and Transfer of Players (RSTP).
However, players and coaches can only suspend their contract if they did not extend their existing deal after the ruling was first put in place on 7 March 2022. As FIFA explained in a statement released alongside the updated rules: “Foreign players and coaches who have, despite the war in Ukraine, decided to arrive in, return to, or not leave the territory of Ukraine or Russia, cannot rely on the revised Annexe 7 to the RSTP to suspend an ongoing contract.”
According to Annexe 7, players who have had their contracts extended “would not be able, during the period of suspension, to be subject to a transfer (whether permanent or on loan) against payment” – i.e. a player who has suspended their contract with a Ukrainian club cannot be transferred for a fee during their suspension.
That particular wrinkle is why so many foreign players have either departed on free transfers or moved on an initial loan deal.
Shakhtar Donetsk’s CEO Sergei Palkin has launched a public assault on FIFA’s stance since the amendments were released.
With a prolific youth system and revered Brazilian scouting network, Shakhtar have routinely commanded large sums from player sales in the transfer market, generating millions of euros from the likes of Fernandinho, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Fred over the years.
The reigning Ukrainian champions took FIFA to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) in 2022 demanding at least €40m in reparations of transfer fees they believe they would have earned had it not been for FIFA’s ruling. CAS dismissed the case, judging that the regulations “were not grossly disproportionate” but Shakhtar filed a complaint before the European Union Commission in March.
In the wake of yet another extension, Palkin claimed that Shakhtar are willing to legally challenge any team trying to extract their assets for free. “I would like to send a message to those clubs who are trying to sign our players without paying a transfer fee,” Palkin told ESPN. “Shakhtar will file claims for unjust enrichment against players or clubs who have enriched themselves and benefitted by obtaining a financial advantage.
“We believe these clubs who enrich themselves at Shakhtar’s expense will be obliged to pay restitutions. Those clubs should understand what they do when they decide to sign our players.”
Manor Solomon is the most high-profile player currently under contract at a Ukrainian club. The Israel international spent last season on loan from Shakhtar at Fulham, scoring in five consecutive appearances as February bled into March.
Tottenham have agreed terms with the forward but he is still under contract at Shakhtar until the end of the calendar year. As Solomon is a foreign player, has not extended his deal with the club and has not returned to the war zone, Annexe 7 should allow him to unilaterally suspend his Shakhtar contract as long as he told the club by 1 July 2023. However, Palkin warned: “If you go to Tottenham, we will deal with Tottenham in court in this case.”
The Brazilian winger Tete enjoyed less success in the Premier League. Despite scoring on his debut for Leicester, the 23-year-old couldn’t help the Foxes avoid relegation. Much like Solomon, Tete also has six months left on his Shakhtar contract.
Shakhtar’s right-back Vinicius Tobias spent 18 months on loan with Real Madrid’s B team Castilla, helping Raul’s side to the promotion play-off final (which they lost) after the new measures came in. Los Blancos have made it clear that he will not arrive in the Spanish capital on a permanent deal this summer. Vinicius still has three more years left on his deal.