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Player Eligibility Rules in Football: The Second Leg


Shortly before Christmas Lydia Banerjee and Joseph Bryan penned an article for LawInSport on the rules around fielding ineligible players.

The piece commented on the Barnsley FC and Forest Green Rovers cases.

It seems that the lessons highlighted in that article were timely as on 24 January 2024 Aston Villa became the latest club to trigger an investigation into an alleged breach of the relevant competition rules (the “Rules”).

This time the relevant rules are in the Women’s League Cup.  Noelle Maritz played in Aston Villa’s 7-0 win over Sunderland.  The difficulty for Aston Villa is that Noelle had played for Arsenal in the earlier rounds before moving to Villa.

The relevant rule (rule 8.19) states “No Player may play for more than one Club in the Cup Competition in a Playing Season.”

The punishments are set out in rule 8.14 and can include:

  • Overturning the match result
  • Or any other such order as the independent commission may decide.

In 2014 Reading were removed from the competition for a breach of rule 8.19.

It is worth noting that “The Independent Tribunal may determine not to order that the cup match be awarded to the opposition club only in circumstances where the ineligibility is due to the failure to obtain an International Transfer Certificate or where the ineligibility is related to the player’s status” (rule 8.14.3).

On 29 January 2024, at the conclusion of the investigation, it was announced that the sanction imposed would be the reversal of the match result, meaning that the Sunderland would be awarded the win. This outcome was bittersweet: although sanctioned, Villa nonetheless progress in the competition, albeit as runners-up rather than winners of their group. The consequences of this decision for other clubs have reportedly already caused such clubs to take legal advice.

The suggestions made in the longer piece on LawInSport bear repeating.  To avoid this issue Clubs should:

  • Ensure that all key stakeholders within the club are familiar with the provisions of the Rules, whether by way of dissemination of the Rules or (even better) by way of internal trainings or briefings.
  • Maintain regular and effective channels of communication between club officials responsible for recruitment and administrative matters on the one hand and for matchday team selection on the other.
  • Schedule formal internal reviews of individual player eligibility on a rolling basis throughout the season.
  • Exercise special scrutiny in respect of the eligibility of loanees and in the case of replays, postponements or abandonments.
  • At the start of the competition ensure that the governing rules on eligibility are converted to a checklist which is applied without fail to every player before the final team selection is made. For example, a flow diagram and/or bullet point summary can be created providing clarity to those who are responsible for ensuring compliance and peace of mind to selectors and administrators.
  • In an ideal world the assessment of eligibility would be subject to a secondary check to avoid matters being missed by virtue of oversight.

While these steps may seem tedious or administrative, they are vital as the consequences of getting it wrong are severe.

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Joseph Bryan Lydia Banerjee
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