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What's a transfer? What about a "transfer window"?

Ahead of what promises to be a pretty crazy summer of player movement, we explain transfers and the transfer window.

Claudio Reyna is responsible for New York City's roster
Claudio Reyna is responsible for New York City's roster
Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

If you're new to soccer, you probably are asking yourself: what's this ‘transfer window' thing that people talk about?

That's a great question. But before we get into that, let's explain what a ‘transfer' is. Contrary to what you may think, it's not a fancy word for a trade.

This all goes to the fundamental difference between professional sports in North America versus professional sports in Europe. We'll save that discussion for another post, but what you need to know is that, contrary to sports in America, a player contract isn't administered or controlled by the league; it's controlled by the club and the national governing body.

This all got started in England in the 1880s. Before that, a player could agree to play one or more games for any football club. After the Football Association recognized professionalism in 1885, it sought to control professional players by introducing a player registration system. Players had to register with a club each season, even if he remained with the same club from the season before. A player was not allowed to play until he was registered for that season.

Once a player was registered with a club, he was not allowed to be registered with or play for another club during the same season without the permission of the FA and the club that held his registration. The players however, were free to join another club before the start of each season, even if their former club wished to retain them.

When the Football League was created, they realized that rich clubs had to be restrained from poaching players from smaller clubs; otherwise, the league would be dominated by just a few teams. So starting in 1893, once a player was registered with a Football League club, he could not be registered with any other club, even in subsequent seasons, without the permission of the club he was registered with. It applied even if the player's annual contract with the club holding his registration was not renewed after it expired. The club was not obliged to play him and, without a contract, the player was not entitled to receive a salary.

Nevertheless, if the club refused to release his registration, the player could not play for any other Football League club. Football League clubs soon came to realize that they could demand and earn a transfer fee from any other Football League club as consideration for agreeing to release or transfer the player's registration.

Hence, the term: ‘transfer'. This system was popularly known as ‘retain-and-transfer', and it worked like this:

  • The player could re-register for the same club at any time between April 1st and the first Saturday in May. In effect, the contract was simply renewed.
  • The club could retain the player on less favourable terms by serving a notice between 1st May and 1st June giving details of the terms it was offering. If the Football Association considered the offer to be too low it could refuse the retention, but if it felt the terms were reasonable, the player could not sign for any other club. Players were allowed to petition the Football Association with their reasons for wanting to move to another club, but if the Association refused to intervene, clubs could retain a player indefinitely.
  • The player could be placed on the transfer list at a fee fixed by the club.
  • If the club did not want to keep the player and did not seek a fee for him, it could release him and he would be free to conduct negotiations with other clubs at any time from the end of June.

As you can imagine, this helped keep player wages down. It also really kept players from jumping from team to team. If a player wasn't satisfied with their contract, or wanted to play for another team, they were stuck, unless their team acquiesced. About the only option they had was to simply stop playing soccer.

That's why, in 1963, the British High Court struck down the ‘retain' part of the system. This opened the door to players being able to move from team to team, but it still wasn't ‘free-agency'.

That would wait until 1995, when the Bosman Ruling took place. Jean-Marc Bosman was a player for RFC de Liège, a Belgian team. When his contract ran out, he wanted to play for a French team; but that team refused to play the transfer fee for his registration.

That left Bosman between a rock and a hard place; he lost 75% of his wages, thanks to him not playing. After a long court battle, the European Court of Justice ruled that ruled that players should legally be free to move when their contract expired. In the ruling, the court also struck down the limits on how many foreign players could play for a team. Before Bosman, clubs throughout Europe were limited to the number of foreign players they could employ, and could only play a maximum of three in European competition.

That's what led to the creation of the transfer window in 2002: a specific period of time where teams can transfer players from other countries into their playing staff. Such a transfer is completed by registering the player into the new club through FIFA. There's two of them in Europe: one running from the end of the league season through August 31st (the ‘pre-season' window), and then another for the whole month of January (the ‘mid-season' window).

For MLS, since we're on a different calendar, the pre-season window runs from February 18th to May 12th, and the mid-season window runs from July 8th to August 6th.