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Unraveling Frank Lampard's contract situation

The Premier League states categorically that Lampard is a Manchester City player. So why did New York City claim him as a signing?

New York City FC

I'm going to start out this story with a few quotes.

It's not the crime that gets's the cover up. -- Richard Nixon

Finally, today's Guardian article on Frank Lampard's contract situation:

A statement by the Premier League said: "Frank Lampard is registered as a Manchester City player until the end of the 2014-15 season.

"The Premier League has sought and received assurances from Manchester City that there is no agreement in place between the club or City Football Group with New York City FC relating to the player."

When I excoriated everyone for lying about Frank Lampard's contract situation, I made the point that fundamentally, liars assume that people are too stupid to follow the inconsistencies in their stories. Left unsaid, though, was why. Usually, it's not because of malice aforethought; it's because they want to avoid the temporary pain of fixing an error and admitting responsibility. But as the lies and inconsistencies mount, so does the scale of the crime. And on, and anon.

With that in mind, let's recap the story.

In the space of five months, we've gone from Frank Lampard

  • "signing" with New York City and being "loaned" to Manchester City for match fitness, to him
  • signing some kind of unspecified "agreement" with City Football Group that ostensibly compels him to play for New York City at some point this year, which then brings us to today, when
  • the Premier League stated flat out that Lampard is under contract with Manchester City, no ifs, ands, or buts, and that there's no agreement concerning the prospect of Lampard playing for New York City, which is how I (and several other people) are reading this statement.

In short: Lampard is playing for Manchester City now. Could he play for New York City in the future? Sure, but he could also stay here. We know nothing of what the future holds. Here, have a cookie.

You can't be mad at Mark Abbott for not being able to keep up with the story. I'm uncertain that City Football Group can keep up, and they're the ones spinning it. You can be angry at the lies, but to me the really interesting element is the why. That's the part that fascinates me, here. Why put yourself in this situation?

As I retrace and recap the story, these questions keep cropping up.

If the original intention was for Lampard to sign with Manchester City, then why not just sign him outright on a free transfer? If he doesn't work out, then you cut him loose and he's free to sign with any other team -- including New York City. Hell, that's precisely what Chelsea did when they refused to sign him to a new deal -- and he's a legend there.

"But why would they cut him? You just can't cut a star like Lampard like that!" Are we to believe that Manchester City is somehow more solicitous of his emotions than Chelsea? Come on.

Why go through all the rigmarole of trotting him out, not just as any old player, but as a designated player for New York City, and the face of the franchise?

If, in fact, the Premier League is right and Frank Lampard has been a Manchester City player all along, with no agreement to come play for New York City after the end of the season -- then how can Don Garber and Mark Abbott, not to mention the dozens of ticket sales reps working for New York City, say categorically that Lampard will be playing for the team in 2015? Presumably, they'd be competing for his signature like any other club.

Let's go back even further, though. If Lampard has been under contract all along with Manchester City, then how on earth could New York City -- and by extension, MLS, which as a single-entity holds all the player contracts -- announce that they'd signed him to a contract?

Lampard joins David Villa, Jeb Brovsky and Josh Saunders on the roster at the Club and has signed a two-year contract which starts August 1st. (July 24, 2014)

That explains why, contrary to Mark Abbott's assertions, everyone, including Manchester City, characterized it as a loan.

Lampard was unveiled as New York City FC’s new signing two weeks ago in Brooklyn. After meetings with Manuel Pellegrini at City’s New York headquarters it was decided that Frank will train and play with Manchester City ahead of teaming up with Jason Kreis’ New York City for the inaugural season. (August 6, 2014)

That wasn't the only time Lampard's contract was referred to that way. Sky Sports called it that, and damningly, so did Manchester City's Manuel Pellegrini, on numerous occasions:

"It's not so easy because Frank is a New York City player. He is only on loan until December 31, so we must respect the other people.

But according to the Premier League, he wasn't. Not then, not ever.

So, who's telling the truth? More to the point, why is there all this confusion? Why do we have this level of misdirection from City Football Group?

I don't know. I don't have an answer, and I'm not holding my breath that we'll see a copy of Lampard's contract any time soon, if ever. But I do have an inquiring mind. I'm able to look at all the evidence that we do have, and therefore read between the lines of that evidence.

Here's what I've come up with so far. Hang tight, it's going to get insanely complex.

We know that New York City FC isn't owned by Manchester City. Instead, it's owned by City Football Group, a holding company established to oversee the creation and administration of a network of linked clubs and other footballing operations under the aegis of Manchester City. CFG also owns Melbourne City, and has a minority stake in the Yokohama F-Marinos of Japan's J-League.

Regardless of the terminology used, it's clear that CFG revolves around Manchester City. What isn't clear is if CFG owns Manchester City too, or if it's just affiliated to it by virtue of being under the umbrella of the Abu Dhabi United Group, which is the company used by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan to facilitate his purchase of Manchester City in 2008.

That matters, because MLS' assertions that Lampard will play for New York City rest on the notion that Lampard's contract that compels him to play in MLS is with City Football Group.

But wait, I hear you asking. Isn't the fact that MLS is a "single-entity" league mean his contract would have to be with MLS, and not with an individual team? Yup. I'm entirely unclear why Mark Abbott would say that it's a "distinction without a difference". Here's what Alexi Lalas got from Mark Abbott today in response to the Premier League's assertions.

But if Lampard has signed a contract with CFG, and not MLS, then how is he compelled to play for New York City? This is how MLS squares that circle:

Here, by the way, is MLS’ official version of Lampard’s contract situation: Before he was announced by NYCFC last summer, Lampard entered into an agreement with the City Football Group to play under an MLS contract for 2015 and ’16 and to play for Man City until the end of 2014 under a Man City contract. Now that Lampard’s Man City contract has been extended to the end of this season, he will join NYCFC in July and play under an MLS contract.

If you parse that language, however, something becomes blazingly obvious. If Manchester City extended their contract once, what’s keeping them from signing Lampard again for the 2015-16 season? Are we to believe that if they win the Premier League with Lampard’s help — already instrumental — they’re going to turn around and ship him off? Especially if he expresses a continued desire to stay in England, as he reportedly has?

Surely, surely, MLS isn’t that naive? Take that, and combine it with Abbott’s clarifications today, and you certainly get that sense, though. Abbott’s basically saying that the only reason they have for categorically stating that Lampard will be a MLS player at any point this year is, essentially, a personal services contract that promises that he'll play for New York City.

That’s it.

Now, for their purposes, MLS is treating Lampard’s personal agreement with CFG as if it were a binding contract with a team. And, certainly, Lampard is now within the six-month window where he can sign a pre-contract with another team. But if he continues to play well, why would he leave England? Why would he sign that pre-contract?

What was bound can easily be unbound. That’s why you have lawyers. What’s more, Manchester City has already shown itself perfectly willing to compromise New York City if it benefits them. Why would they stop there?

There’s another reason why CFG wouldn’t treat that personal agreement the way MLS is treating it. The Premier League (PDF, p. 198) and the FA (PDF) forbid third party ownership of players. In effect, what that means is the ownership of a player's economic rights by third-party sources, such as soccer agents, sports-management agencies, or other investors. Now, that’s different from co-ownership in soccer; what that means is that the player's transfer rights are shared with another club.

The Premier League, especially, takes a dim view of this. Back in 2006, both Carlos Tevez and Javier Mascherano signed with West Ham. It subsequently emerged that neither player’s economic rights were owned by West Ham or their former club; they were, instead, owned by a third party (hence the name). Eventually, after much litigation and a massive fine, things got settled. But in the settling, Kia Joorabchian, the man responsible for the whole mess, said that several Premier League clubs engaged in the practice.

Anyway! The point is that the Premier League isn’t just treating CFG’s agreement with Lampard to "play" for New York City as a non-playing contract (and I’m greatly simplifying things here); it’s flat out saying it doesn’t exist. Read their statement again:

"The Premier League has sought and received assurances from Manchester City that there is no agreement in place between the club or City Football Group with New York City FC relating to the player."

If it doesn’t exist, then what in the hell is Mark Abbott talking about? And if it does exist, then Manchester City lied to the Premier League, which then exposes the club to sanctions.

So: we’re left with three conclusions, none of which are satisfying. I’ll rank them in order of likelihood.

One: Lampard actually signed a contract with New York City, and he did go on loan to Manchester City. This explains the fanfare, it explains why everyone referred to it as a signing, and so forth. But that’s it. Beyond that, it falls apart.

If Manchester City is telling the truth to the Premier League, then he also signed a contract with them, and that’s a major no-no. You simply can’t sign with two clubs at once. Manchester City would get slammed for fielding an ineligible player in competition. They’d be kicked out of the Champions League, would get docked points on the Premier League table and have to pay a fine, and so on.

So let’s just presume that this isn’t the case.

Two: Lampard never signed anything with New York City FC. He may or may not have signed some kind of agreement concerning marketing and promotion with respect to New York City, but nothing like a contract committing him to play for the club. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have been eligible to sign a contract and play for Manchester City, at any point, except on loan.

However, this doesn’t explain the fanfare, or why New York City and MLS would represent him as a signed designated player, which means that he signed a contract with MLS. There’s a huge difference between a contract with MLS and a contract with CFG binding him to play for New York City. Even if it’s the latter, its mere existence would presumably violate the Premier League’s ban on third party ownership. That would probably be why Manchester City said that there was no such agreement.

It also doesn’t explain why everyone referred to Lampard going on loan to Manchester City. I mean, why would you go on loan to a club that you already play for? The concept is non-sensical on its face.

Three: Lampard signed a fiendishly complicated agreement of some kind with City Football Group. That agreement states somewhere that he’ll sign a contract with MLS in order to play for New York City. Explaining the details to everyone other than the lawyers involved was so cumbersome, that CFG settled on New York City characterizing it as a contract with Lampard to play for them as a designated player.

That gave everyone the impression that he was signed for them.

Lampard then found himself with the opportunity to train at Manchester instead of Melbourne, like David Villa was doing. He smartly took advantage of that; why go to the ends of the earth, when you can just travel a few hundred miles north? In the process, he proved he still had what it took to play in the Premier League. More importantly, he became a desperately-needed component of the team.

With Lampard having signed a contract with Manchester City, CFG found themselves on the horns of a dilemma: everyone thinks he signed with New York City. Worse, Lampard’s play didn’t give CFG an opening to cut the deal short and send him to New York, so soon, everyone will know a modicum of the truth. But if the Premier League discovers Lampard’s agreement with CFG, that presumably violates the league’s ban on third party ownership.

There’s a "simple" fix for that: amend the agreement.

That is, amend the agreement so that there isn’t a reference to him having to sign with MLS down the road. If there are marketing provisos, that’s okay, because those can be spun as advancing City’s brand. Maybe he tails off in the second half of the season, so then he can have a dignified exit. But since the only people privy to the agreement are Lampard’s agents and CFG, no one has to know whom they don’t want to know. Neither are beholden to MLS; they’re only beholden to themselves and each other.

There’s just one little problem with that arrangement. What happens if Lampard continues to defy age and play at a high level?

It’s not like he’s accumulating minutes. He’s not traveling across a whole continent. There’s nothing to indicate that his play will tail off in a way that would give CFG an opening to move him on. If he wants to stay in England, and Pellegrini wants to keep him, what is the impetus to move him on?

Because MLS wants him? What is MLS to CFG, other than one of many vehicles for them to exploit?

Here’s the question that hasn’t been answered yet, and that CFG is hoping will never be answered: what is MLS going to do about it?

That’s also a question that MLS is pondering.

If City can get away with not delivering Lampard at all, then that exposes a number of different things, none of them good for the league. For one, a fault line between one owner and the other 19, in terms of treatment. For another, it shows MLS as a powerless league. It would make a mockery of Don Garber’s pretensions at MLS being a "top league" by 2022. Top leagues don’t get treated this way.

Far from being a settled matter, today’s news prove just how unsettled it all really is. All it takes is just one little push to make the whole thing crumble down. So who will push? And when?