Release of players for association teams: The Joel Matip Dispute

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FIFA finally made a decision today in the dispute concerning Joel Matip and his eligibility to play in domestic fixtures, during the Africa Cup of Nations, after refusing to play following being named in Cameroon's preliminary squad.

The governing body has concluded that Matip did not breach any of its rules and is thus eligible to play for Liverpool FC in domestic matches that are being played during the running of the Africa Cup of Nations.

The background to the dispute

In December 2016, reports revealed that Liverpool FC's Joel Matip, and Cameroon national, told the Cameroon team that he did not want to play in the Africa Cup of Nations, which began on January 14th, following a bad experience with Cameroon coaching staff. [1

Despite Matip stating on more than one occasion that he has retired from international football (quitting in 2015), Cameroon still included the player in their preliminary squad for the Africa Cup of Nations and threatened to take action. This left Liverpool manager, Jurgen Klopp, with the dilemma of whether his player was eligible to play in domestic games or not, given the defender's circumstances. As a result, Matip was left out of Liverpool's squad for last week's game against rivals, Manchester United as well as their FA Cup tie with Plymouth, with Klopp stating that he needed clarification from FIFA...and quickly!

Significant confusion had also arisen because of the fact that although Matip was included in Cameroon's preliminary squad, he was not included in the final line-up. Following legal advice, Liverpool were advised not to field the player until a decision was made by FIFA as to whether sanctions would follow if Matip were to be selected for domestic fixtures by his club. 

The rules

The rules governing the release of players to association teams can be found under Annexe 1 of the FIFA Regulations on the Status and Transfer of Players. Under those rules, clubs are obliged to release their 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 the player and a club to the contrary is prohibited (Article 1).

Generally speaking, players are expected, under Article 3(1), to respond affirmatively when called up by the association he is eligible to represent. However on page 91 of FIFA's commentary on the Regulations, the governing body states that should a player wish not to be called up for a certain match or matches or for a period of time, he must inform the association of which he is a national, in writing, of his intention before he is called-up. The commentary continues to confirm that only the player is entitled to renounce representing his national team.

Given FIFA's decision that Matip is eligible to play, it is probably safe to presume that the player had informed Cameroon, in writing, of his wish not to be called-up prior to him being called up for the Africa Cup of Nations.

The uncertainty and dilemma about fielding Matip arose as a result of Article 5 of the Regulations which states that a player who has been called up by his association for one of its representative teams is, unless otherwise agreed by the relevant association, not entitled to play for the club with which he is registered during the period for which he has been released or should have been released, plus an additional five days. Ultimately, depending on how well Cameroon do in the tournament, this could have resulted in Matip being absent from the Liverpool squad until early February.

It was important for Liverpool to clarify whether Matip was eligible to play in domestic fixtures or not because if FIFA was to rule that there had been a violation, the body's Disciplinary Committee could punish the club under Article 6 which provides the power to declare any match in which Matip took part to have been lost by Liverpool. Further to that, the Disciplinary Committee also has the power to deduct points and in relation to Cup games, regard any contested match as having been won by the other team. Such action could have thus proven detrimental to the club's Premier League and FA Cup campaigns if they had chosen to field Matip, without obtaining clarification from FIFA, and any subsequent disciplinary decision, thereafter,  went against the club.

IMPORTANT: This post is not intended to be a legal briefing, it is not intended to be a statement of the law and no action should be taken in reliance on it without specific legal advice.

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