With the 2022 FIFA Men’s World Cup looming on the horizon, clubs around the world are faced with the anxiety-inducing reality of sending their players competing in the tournament to their respective national teams in the middle of the season. To assuage the concerns of club executives over international tournaments, FIFA typically schedules them during June and July so that players are competing for their nations during the offseason. Nevertheless, the FIFA-sponsored continental tournament of Africa - the African Cup of Nations (AFCON) – is the lone outlier amongst the primary group of international competitions, held in January and February. For club executives in countries whose leagues do not mandate a winter break, releasing their African players to play in AFCON may hold a detrimental effect on the club’s overall success during the season. It is certainly not uncommon for executives to voice their displeasure over the timing of the tournament, but rarely has this displeasure resulted in the issuing of an ultimatum before a player has even signed for their prospective club. Until now.
Last week, Aurelio De Laurentiis – club president of S.S.C. Napoli in the Italian Serie A, indicated during a streamed event on Wall Street Italia that his club will not be signing any more African players unless they agree to forfeit the opportunity to represent their countries at AFCON by signing a waiver which mandates as such. In explaining his perspective, De Laurentiis deemed it unfair for European clubs to continue paying salaries to their African players whilst said players are offering their services elsewhere. Such a statement holds interesting ramifications for Napoli as a club, as the Italian outfit has always employed the services of top-class African players as part of their quest toward sustained legitimacy in Italian football. Currently, the crop of African players employed by Napoli includes Victor Osimhen of Nigeria, Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa of Cameroon, and Adam Ounas of Algeria. While this current crop of players has not released a statement at the time of writing, Napoli’s former captain – Senegalese defender Kalidou Koulibaly – issued an impassioned response to De Laurentiis’ ultimatum. According to Koulibaly, De Laurentiis is not affording African players and national sides the same respect as that of their European counterparts – a mentality that has no place in a sport that supposedly champions equality and diversity.
Koulibaly was not the only stakeholder in African football to respond to De Laurentiis’ words. The Confederation of African Football (CAF) issued a statement condemning the “irresponsible and unacceptable” nature of De Laurentiis’ remarks. CAF even posited that, by publicly mandating African players to sign a waiver denouncing future AFCON participation as a condition for employment, De Laurentiis’ ultimatum may fall subject to Article 14 of the UEFA Disciplinary Regulations - an article concerning discriminatory conduct. Consequently, De Laurentiis’ ultimatum for African players interested in playing for Napoli has certainly elicited a negative response amongst the football space, but could his intentions be enforced with legal justification as per FIFA guidelines?
It does not seem so. To understand the answer to this question, I spoke with Álvaro Gómez de la Vega Jiménez, the Sports Legal Manager for Spanish Club RCD Espanyol de Barcelona S.A.D. According to Jiménez, De Laurentiis’ ultimatum would violate the provision outlined in Annexe 1, Article 1 of FIFA’s Regulation on the Status and Transfer of Players. Said Article establishes the following:
“Clubs are obliged to release their registered players to the representative teams of the country for which the player is eligible to play on the basis of his nationality if they are called up by the association concerned. Any agreement between a player and a club to the contrary is prohibited.”
Article 2 of Annexe 1 goes on to state that said release is mandatory for all championships of “A” representative teams of the confederations – under which AFCON would be classified as the championship of the African confederation. As such, De Laurentiis would likely be prohibited from authorizing African players to sign a waiver forfeiting their eligibility to be called up for AFCON participation as a condition necessary for their signature. If De Laurentiis is concerned over the persistent absence of African players whose salaries constitute a large percentage of the wage bill, he’s well within his rights not to sign more. But De Laurentiis’ threat to force an ultimatum upon African players whom he’s keen to bring to Napoli can only be that – a threat. Anything more and his words will most certainly have consequences.
Special thanks to Álvaro Gómez de la Vega Jiménez for his contributions to the article. He can be found on LinkedIn at Álvaro Gómez de la Vega Jiménez.
Bryce Goodwyn is an incoming 1L at Regent University School of Law. While at Regent, he will be a member of the Honors Program and will work as a Dean’s Fellow during his 1L year completing research and administrative work. He also formed part of the recently established National Sports Legal and Business Society as the Regent University Chair. He can be found on Twitter @BryceGoodwyn and on LinkedIn as Bryce Goodwyn.