Premier League clubs realising that it pays to tap up

Resigned Arsenal fans will undoubtedly have foreseen the impending departure of talisman Cesc Fabregas, but the nature by which his forthcoming exit has been accelerated will surely leave a bitter taste in the mouth. The endless stream of sound bites emanating from the Camp Nou can be described as a campaign systematically designed to prise the 23-year-old away from the Emirates, unsurprisingly infuriating Arsene Wenger and all involved with the North London club. Despite the frowned-upon nature of such conduct indulged in by the all-conquering Catalan club, it seems as though they are set to go unpunished, with this omission of retribution compounded by the benefits of their almost-certain acquisition of Fabregas. We saw last summer how fierce rivals Real Madrid were also rewarded for three consecutive summers of tapping-up with the signing of Cristiano Ronaldo. Consequently, does it pay to tap up players?

The act of tapping-up is a prohibited offence as defined by the rules of the game’s various governing bodies. The rules of FIFA, the game’s global governing body, states that “any person subject to the FIFA Statutes and regulations (club officials, players’ agents, players, etc.) who acts in a manner designed to induce a breach of contract between a professional and a club in order to facilitate the transfer of the player shall be sanctioned.” In essence, this rule is in place to theoretically punish instances whereby an official or representative from one club induces a player from another club to leave that club and join theirs.

Now the above definition could be seen to cover a broad array of conduct, ranging from light praise directed from one manager to the player of another club to situations whereby a player from Club A meets with officials from Club B without the knowledge of Club A. Whilst we can assume that Fabregas has yet to meet with Barcelona officials without the knowledge of those at Arsenal, the barrage of unrelenting quotes from the Camp Nou praising the midfielder will surely have acted to turn the 23-year-old’s head.

Speaking to the club’s official website earlier this week, Barcelona Director of Football Txiki Begiristain responded to Fabregas’ claim that he wanted to join the Spanish side by stating that, “It’s great news that he wants to come here and I think that one day Cesc will have to come to Barca. But what matters is Arsenal and what their decision is. They think he is a very important player for them. We have to respect that. At times the wishes of players do not come true because they are under contract. That he says that he wants to come to Barca is a synonym that things are being done well here. I don’t know when but I have the impression that he is a Barca player and that he will enjoy it very much. I wish it was as soon as possible. But we have to respect Arsenal’s wishes and the contract he has.”

Despite the fact that Fabregas is still under contract at Arsenal, the Barcelona Director of Football has used the media to lavish praise upon the 23-year-midfielder, clearly contributing to any potential inducement of contract. The above quote is one in a long line of similar sentiments espoused by representatives of the La Liga champions. For example, earlier last season, Barcelona playmaker Xavi Hernandez, speaking of Fabregas, said “Yes, I’d love for him to join us, He’s a very close friend of mine and a footballer with Barcelona’s DNA.” Taken in isolation, comments such as this would amount to no more than a mere declaration of admiration, but the repeated and frequent nature of such assertions have clearly acted to unsettle the Arsenal skipper.

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Despite Gunners fans’ protestations at such behaviour, it seems to be the case that tapping up is just part and parcel of the game, and has been for a very long time. Speaking of the practice of tapping-up, former Liverpool defender Alan Hansen noted that “It has been going on since the beginning of time. Everybody knows it is going on.” Legendary Nottingham Forest manager Brian Clough famously stated that “we tapped more players in our time than the Severn Trent Water Authority.” It appears that a theoretically prohibited practice is rife throughout the game, so why do clubs continue to persist with such behaviour?

The paucity of deterrent retribution has certainly been a hugely contributory factor to the failure to rid the sport of tapping-up. Despite the emergence of several high-profile cases of tapping-up over the last ten years, the game’s relevant authorities have shown a reluctance to use the full-range of punishments at their disposal. Domestically, the most notable incidents have involved Chelsea. During the tapping-up probe involving the Stamford Bridge side in relation to their prohibited meetings with the then-Arsenal man Ashley Cole, the club received a nominal monetary fine (£300,000) and were given a suspended three-point deduction that wouldn’t take effect unless the club were found guilty of the same offence in the following season. Granted, the event garnered a great deal of negative press for the club, tarnishing their reputation, but the paltry fine for such a wealthy club would hardly have acted as a deterrent to such behaviour. In this instance, the risk was certainly worth the gain for Chelsea; whilst they had to pay a £300,000 fine, they managed to eventually acquire one of the world’s left-backs, which in turn contributed to domestic success.

Similar incidents of tapping-up have also been met with comparable lenience. Back in March 2002, Liverpool were fined a trivial sum of £20,000 for illegally approaching Middlesbrough defender Christian Ziege. Two years later, AS Roma were handed a two-window transfer embargo for illegally inducing Auxerre defender Philippe Mexès, but the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) reduced this ban to one transfer-window upon appeal.

The wealthy state of the UK and Europe’s top clubs means that financial punishments are becoming increasingly futile; when Chelsea are quite content to spend in excess of £20m on a player, how effective is a £300,000 fine going to be? Whilst CAS and the Premier League have at least attempted to regulate such behaviour, FIFA have amazingly managed to turn a blind eye to the conduct of Real Madrid and Barcelona over the last years. This failure to highlight their activities clearly sends a message to these clubs that this sort of behaviour is tolerable and will go unpunished. Who can blame the Spanish giants for exploiting FIFA’s leniency? It seems as though the gain far outweighs the risk of punishment in situations of tapping-up, so until this is addressed, it appears that it clearly pays to tap up players.

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