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Rooney could leave Man Utd this summer for free

This is a story from the FSF archive – the FSF and SD merged to become the FSA in 2019.

Wayne Rooney could leave Old Trafford as early as summer 2011 should he choose to invoke the so-called “Webster ruling” – and Manchester United wouldn’t receive anywhere near his perceived market value.

The FSF can reveal the widely-held assumption that Europe’s club elite would not exploit the Webster ruling is incorrect. The European Club Association (ECA) confirmed with us today that no such gentleman’s agreement exists.

Most papers and pundits estimate the striker’s value as being around the £40m mark. However this overlooks the possibility of Rooney invoking the Webster ruling which would allow him to buy out the last year of his contract. With Rooney on around £100,000 per week this equates to a £5m payment to the Red Devils plus an indeterminate amount in compensation.

After that payment Rooney would be free to join any club on a free transfer who could then, in theory at least, pay him a £10m signing on fee. The England striker could then bank the £5m difference before negotiating a contract with his new club; whoever they might be. The advantage for the “buying” club – Chelsea, Manchester City and Real Madrid have all been linked – is obvious as Rooney’s signing on fee would presumably be far smaller than a transfer fee to Manchester United.

The Webster ruling takes its name from a case involving Andy Webster, a defender then with Hearts. In 2006 Webster walked out on the Scottish club and signed for Wigan Athletic having invoked Article 17 of FIFA’s Regulations for the Status and Transfer of Players which came into effect in July 2005.

Article 17 states that any player who signs a contract before the age of 28 can buy themselves out of that contract three years after it was signed, so long as they pay up the remaining wages in full. Players over the age of 28 can do so after only two years.

Hearts took Webster’s transfer to FIFA’s arbitration tribunal with football’s governing body ruling that Hearts were due £625,000. The amount was based on the player’s wages, long-term potential and legal costs incurred.

While this figure was in itself far lower than Hearts multi-million pound valuation of Webster the club received a further blow in 2008. The Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) overruled FIFA and reduced the compensation payable by Webster to £150,000 which was based on the amount outstanding on his contract with Hearts.

Despite this precedent Rooney still needs to tread carefully if he wishes to follow in Webster’s footsteps. Last year the CAS ruled that Spanish side Real Zaragoza had to pay €11.9m (£10.5m) to Shakhtar Donetsk after Brazilian player Matuzalem walked out on the Ukrainian side.

Although the larger compensatory figure was partly driven by Matuzalem’s wages, which were far higher than Webster’s, other factors were taken into account too. Notably the CAS also took into account the value of the player to his former club and the difficulty created by the timing of his departure. How this was measured isn’t clear.

The decision came as a massive relief to Europe’s biggest clubs who feared their players could walk out en masse. Following the Matuzalem case clubs could at least expect to get a decent amount in compensation – even if it wasn’t as much as they’d hope to receive in a transfer fee. “Contracts are here to be respected and this CAS decision is a very strong statement ensuring they will be in the future” said ECA Chairman Karl-Heinz-Rummenigge.

However, the ECA maintained that the pendulum had swung too far and was being used as a tool to renegotiate existing contracts after only a couple of years. They also argued that greater clarity was required in setting levels of compensation – something which players would surely agree with too. Post-Matuzalem no one knows the exact amount a player would be expected to pay to buy out his contract.

As yet no megastar of the world game has transferred “on a Webster” sparking speculation that the ECA – an organisation made up of Europe’s elite clubs – has an inter-club gentleman’s agreement not to sign players who have invoked the ruling. The Times’ Football Correspondent Oliver Kay reports as much and it’s an assertion oft-repeated across the blogosphere. However, the FSF contacted the ECA to ask if such an agreement exists and was told it did not.

So the big question is no longer can Europe’s top clubs stand the temptation and stay true to a gentleman’s agreement; it’s now which player will jump first?

It could yet be Rooney.

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