Football Transfers Explained: A Really Simple Guide to How Players Move Between Teams

Romelo Lukaku

Romelo LukakuIn 2021, Romelo Lukaku returned to Chelsea in a £97.5 million transfer deal (Image Credit: canno7, Bigstockphoto)

Football matches are ultimately won and lost on the pitch but there is no denying that off-field decisions have a huge impact on the success a team can ultimately enjoy. The right moves in the transfer market, for example, can end up sparking drastic improvements while a handful of poor signings can see a team head the wrong way down the table. Football transfers play such a pivotal part in footballing success that every summer, at least, there is usually a debate as to who ‘won the window’.

Given the amount of focus on transfers, there is always a lot of pressure on clubs to pick up the right players… and at the right price. All season long you will find stories of clubs being interested in certain players, some with substance, others not so much. Among all the many stories, you are likely to stumble across a lot of terms and phrases that tend to crop up when talking about completed or potential transfers.

Although the world of transfers can, therefore, be confusing to someone relatively new to football, this comprehensive guide will take you through everything there is to know, from free transfers to agent fees.

A Simple Overview of Transfers

Harry KaneHarry Kane (Image Credit: Cosmin Iftode, Bigstockphoto)

Before we head into looking at some of the transfer-related terminology, it is worth going over what a standard transfer entails. To give you an example, let us say Manchester United want to sign Harry Kane from Tottenham. Kane has two years left on his contract with the Londoners so there is no possibility of United grabbing him on a free transfer (which we discuss later). Due to this, the Red Devils must agree on a fee with Spurs in order to acquire the striker. If they cannot agree on a fee, no deal can take place.

‘Tapping Up’

Officially speaking, a fee needs to be agreed upon before United can start offering what is known as ‘personal terms’ to Kane. This will include things such as a salary, a signing-on fee, performance-related bonuses and so on. In reality, clubs are not so patient and in most cases, they will be in contact with a player via their agent to discuss personal terms prior to any price being agreed upon. Technically, this is known as ‘tapping up’ but it is something that almost always occurs without punishment.

Players Do Not Receive a Cut

Back to the Harry Kane transfer though and let us say that after weeks of negotiations Spurs and United agree on a £90m fee for the forward. United may agree to hand over this £90m in one large payment but in most cases transfer fees, especially larger ones, are paid in instalments. One possible arrangement could be that United pay £30m upfront followed by two more £30m payments over the next two seasons. No matter the payment structure, the money is always paid by the buying club and is sent to the selling club. Players themselves do not receive a cut of the transfer fee.

Negotiating a Payment Plan

Assuming the two clubs successfully negotiate a payment plan, the deal can proceed provided the player is still keen. It is usually the case that the player in question is indeed keen on the move, as buying clubs have a good sense if a player is interested before transfer negotiations take place. That said, a player is perfectly entitled to decide whether they want to stay put and not move clubs. If this happens, there is nothing the selling club can do as any transfer requires signing off by the player in question. This is why it can be hard for clubs to sell players on very expensive contracts as there may be no interested buyers willing to match the player’s current salary. Some players are willing to sacrifice pay for more playing time but some are not.

Types of Transfer

Giovani Lo CelsoGiovani Lo Celso (Image Credit: Cosmin Iftode, Bigstockphoto)

Many transfers work like in the example above, where the selling and buying clubs agree on a price for a player still under contract. In most cases, the player would switch teams as soon as the paperwork is complete, although in some cases transfers will be postponed to the following summer. This is not the only way to sign a player, however, as you will find out below.

Loan with Obligation to Buy

In a standard loan move, a player will move to another team on a temporary basis, either for a few months or a full season. There may be an optional buy fee placed into the arrangement but if no deal is struck the player will simply return to their parent club when the loan agreement expires. A loan with an obligation to buy, however, is effectively the same as a transfer, only that it delays the payment by a season and can reduce the actual transfer fee paid.

This is a common way of exchanging players in Italian football and it has its advantages. For one, the transfer fee only becomes payable at the end of the loan deal, effectively delaying the first payment by a year. This can be useful for a club’s accounting if they want to delay the outgoing, perhaps to comply with FFP (Financial Fair Play) regulations. Also, in some deals clubs will pay a loan fee covering the first season, and this will be deducted from the actual transfer fee. Rather than a £40m upfront transfer, the buying club might pay a £4m season-long loan fee and have a £36m requirement to buy. The benefit of this is mainly for the selling club, if there is a sell-on bonus present, it reduces the amount they need to pay the player’s former club.

Tottenham’s signature of Giovani Lo Celso from Real Betis was a clear attempt to reduce the money owed to PSG, who had a 25% sell-on clause with the Spanish side. Spurs initially paid a vastly inflated £15m loan fee for the Argentine followed by a £27.3m transfer fee later on. This meant PSG getting 25% of £27.3m rather than the £42.3m transfer fee. Naturally, the Parisians objected to this trickery and took it to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, but no verdict has been made at the time of writing.

It should be noted that some loan deals with an obligation to buy only become obligations if certain criteria are met. One fairly standard example would be there is an obligation to buy if the player makes 20 appearances for a club during the loan move. If they meet this threshold then a transfer, at a pre-agreed price, will take place.

Free Transfer

Robert LewandowskiRobert Lewandowski (Image Credit: Cosmin Iftode, Bigstockphoto)

A free transfer is rarely truly free given the other costs involved but it does mean there is no transfer fee payable. Usually this occurs when a player has run down their contract with their current club and then signs for a new side. Given they are no longer under contract, there is no club to pay a transfer fee to. This is why teams often become nervous when a big star has one year left on their current deal. If they do not end up signing a new contract, a potentially valuable player will be able to leave for free at the end of the season.

When a player is planning on running down their contract, interested clubs do not have to wait for the expiration date to make the player an offer. When a player, aged 23 or older, has less than six months left on their existing contract, they are free to negotiate deals with other teams. Should they strike a deal, they will then move clubs when their current agreement is up. There have been many big free transfers over the years, Robert Lewandowski to Bayern, Paul Pogba to Juventus and Sol Campbell to Arsenal being some of the most prolific examples.

Say a player runs down their contract but has been unable to agree to a deal with a new side, they become what is known as a ‘free agent’ or ‘unattached’. Free agents can negotiate a deal with any team they like, at any time of the season. It gives them plenty of freedom as they cannot be held hostage by a club demanding a huge transfer fee in order to sell.

Release Clause

Rather than negotiating a transfer fee, if a player has a release clause in their contract, the buying club can simply agree to pay this fee and that removes the need for all negotiation. The fact that Man City signed Haaland for a relatively low transfer fee was because the Norwegian had a £51.1m release clause in his contract. With City agreeing to pay this, this means that Dortmund were contractually obliged to accept the bid and allow their striker to negotiate terms with City.

Release clauses are a common part of player contracts across the globe but in Spain they are compulsory. This has led to some astronomical figures though, such as the reported €1bn release clause Real Madrid put in Vinicius Junior’s contract. It follows the rules but the fee is so high it ensures the clause will never actually be triggered.

Swap Deals

Swap deals are rumoured to be in the pipeline far more than they actually happen but you do see them occur now and again. A basic swap deal will see two players permanently swap clubs with no money exchanged. More often though the player valuations are different so one side will send over money in addition to their player. Perhaps the most famous example of this is when Barcelona swapped Samiel Eto’o and €46m for Zlatan Ibrahimovic of Inter Milan.

Typically, swap deals will involve one player from each club but it is possible that the deal involves three or more players instead. Although this is rare, in 2009 Inter picked up both Diego Milito and Thiago Motto from Genoa who, in return, sent four players (Robert Acquafresca, Francesco Bolzoni, Riccardo Meggiorini and Ivan Fatic) the opposite way. Nobody quite does transfers like the Italians.

Fees & Bonuses

Timo Werner, ChelseaTimo Werner, Chelsea (Image Credit: Voffka, Bigstockphoto)

Although the transfer fee paid is always the headline story, there are other costs and financial clauses involved in many transfers.

Agent Fees

Being a football agent can be a very lucrative job if you have the right clients. In 2021, fees paid to agents totalled $500.8m and this was despite a reduction in overall transfer spending. Typically, it is the buying club that will find itself responsible for giving the agent their owed fee for brokering the deal. This can come in the form of a fixed price amount, or the commission payment can be a percentage of the transfer fee and/or player contract.

In most transfers, agents are only taking a relatively small chunk, say 10% of the transfer fee. In many of the big headline moves though, they can end up earning a lot more than this, making deals seem far more expensive than they initially appear. In the summer of 2022 when Man City paid £51.1m to sign Haaland from Dortmund, for such a hot prospect this appeared to be a relative bargain. In addition to this though City paid an agent fee payment of £34m that was split between the head of Haaland’s agency, Rafaela Pimenta, and his father.

Sell On Fee

When one club sells a player to another, it is common they will negotiate what is known as a sell-on clause, sometimes at the expense of lowering the overall transfer fee. To give you a real-life example, when Liverpool sold Taiwo Awoniyi to Union Berlin, they negotiated a 10% sell-on clause. This meant, if and when Union sold on the striker, Liverpool would receive 10% of the transfer fee. So, when the Nigerian international signed for Nottingham Forest in the summer of 2022 in a £17m deal, Liverpool received £1.7m of the transfer. This fee is owed by the selling club and is not an additional fee the buying club has to pay.

Sell-on bonuses can be particularly huge for less financially mighty clubs who have a hot prospect pinched from them. When Willem II sold Frankie de Jong to Ajax, they did so for a symbolic €1 fee but far more importantly a 10% sell-on bonus. So, when the midfielder later secured a move to Barcelona, this meant €7.5m went to them. Bearing in mind the club has never spent more than €2m on a player before, this was a huge sum to receive.

Performance Related Bonuses

A transfer fee often does not simply involve a flat fee paid upfront and that is it. In many cases, you may have a sell-on clause, mentioned above, or a variety of bonuses or ‘add-ons’. Transfer fee add-ons have the potential to increase the fee that the buying club has to pay, but only if certain criteria are met. When a transfer fee is reported in the press, the headline price will typically include the maximum value of the deal, so the guaranteed transfer price plus all potential add-ons, regardless of how realistic they may be.

If you click on the story though you will typically see a breakdown of the deal. In the case of Darwin Nunez’s move to Liverpool in 2022, the ‘£85m deal’ actually included a £64.1m guaranteed fee with the remaining £21m linked to performance-related add-ons. Reports stated that one of the add-ons would be triggered when Nunez made 10 appearances for the Merseyside club, so a very easy one to meet.

While it is common for some add-ons to have a low bar like this, that will be met 99% of the time, other add-ons can be much harder to fulfil and some are never met. There could be a much larger appearance requirement or for an attacking player there may be several goal milestones they need to hit. Add-ons can also be linked to team rather than player performance, so a sum of £x could be payable should the buying club gain promotion within the next two years (providing the player is still at the club).

Signing On Fee

When a player signs for a new club, not only might they end up getting a more lucrative contract with a bigger weekly salary and greater bonuses, but often they will receive a signing-on fee. This is a one-off payment paid directly to the player, by the buying club, upon completion of the transfer. Sought-after players that sign for a new club on a free transfer are in a particularly good position to negotiate a big signing-on fee, due to the absence of a transfer fee.

When a transfer fee has been paid, the signing-on fee will tend to be a much smaller figure but this does not mean it is simply spare change. When Chelsea signed Timo Werner in 2020 in a £53m deal, they paid the German striker a £10m signing-on bonus, making it a considerably more expensive transfer than it initially seemed.

Undisclosed Fee

With some transfers, the fee paid is not revealed to the public and you will simply see ‘undisclosed fee’ instead. This happens when the two clubs involved in the exchange simply agree for the figure to remain private. The main motivation for pushing for this secrecy is that either the buying club are worried they will be criticised for over-paying or the selling club will be accused of selling too low/making a big loss. Journalists will typically do some digging around in such cases though and sometimes they will get wind of what the actual figure was, or was close to.