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What is 'tapping up' in football transfers & what are the most infamous examples?

14:00 GMT+3 02/08/2019
Griezmann Van Dijk Fabregas
Unofficial and unorthodox approaches to signing players happen more than one might think in the murky world of football deals

From the outside, the journey for a player signing for a club seems pretty straightforward. However, it's often anything but.

In reality, transfers involve a lot of discussions and behind-the-scenes movement, despite official ruling stating that transfers can only dealt with once clubs have official consent for the player to speak to other clubs.

Agents and players all play roles in what is termed 'tapping up' - the unofficial method for targeting players - and it is all a grey area in the football industry. But what exactly is tapping up, and how does it work? Goal takes a look.

What is tapping up?

In football, 'tapping up' describes the event when an attempt is made to persuade a player under contract with a team to join another team, without the official consent of the current team.

Typically, this kind of approach is made through a player's agent behind the scenes, but other methods of tapping up - such as coaches or players publicly expressing their admiration for the targeted in player through the media - are more common and a brazen method.

It's hard not to think that 'tapping up' happens more often than we truly realise.

For example, players playing for different clubs but the same national team could discuss potential transfer moves in an off-the-record capacity – with the most infamous example being Xavi's recruit of then-Spain national team-mate Cesc Fabregas from Arsenal to Barcelona.

It is forbidden to tap up players professionally, but it is not illegal.

What are the rules against tapping up?

The Premier League states the official definition is: "Subject to Rule T.7, a contract player, either by himself or by any person on his behalf, shall not either directly or indirectly make any such approach as is referred to in Rule T.5 without having obtained the prior written consent of his club."

In short, a player is only able to contact another club to try and agree a transfer if they have the written consent of their current club first.

As long as the player has the written consent of the club, they are able to agree personal terms, even if no official fee has yet been confirmed.

The rules are straightforward, but that doesn't stop them from being broken with almost no consequences in most cases. In fact, as one former agent - who goes unnamed - told the Mirror: “No transfer happens without an element of tapping-up.

“What usually happens is that an agent goes to the club, says his player wants to leave, asks how much it will take to get him out and then relays the information to the club that wants to buy him.

“What is much more unusual is for a manager or club to become quite so directly involved without some sort of sign or indication that a player might be available.

“There’s also a lot of tapping-up which goes on between players. A rumour appears in the press, the player asks if he’s up for it, they say yes and the deal is underway.”

Are there punishments for tapping up in football?

In 2017, Liverpool were found guilty of tapping up a young player who was registered with Stoke City, which led to a £100,000 fine and a two-year ban from signing academy players from English league clubs.

The month after, Man City received the same suspension as well as a £300,000 fine for similar actions.

There doesn't seem, however, to be a monetary punishment for senior clubs, nor a desire one. Stoke City chairman Peter Coates stated that it simply would be a waste of time if there were more hunger to get Premier League member clubs to implement harsher punishments with tapping up.

“I’m not sure there would be much traction because there are other things,” he told the Guardian. “It’s like me wanting to try to do a better job on regulating agents – and I don’t find that easy to get any traction. I wish we could regulate them better. And I don’t think we try hard enough.”

“And I’m not against people trying to do something about it. I’m just very cynical about it changing. I just think that’s how it is. And when it happens against us at senior level, I never complain because we know ‘everyone’s at it’ type of thing. You could almost say it’s part of the fabric [of the game].”

What are some of the most infamous examples of tapping up?

Barcelona are a side who have been accused of tapping up a number of their targets. Prior to Fabregas joining Barcelona in 2011, Xavi stated: "I spoke to Cesc in Ibiza and he said he was suffering, because he really wants to come. It’s what he most wants, he’s done everything he can to come and wants Arsenal to let him go."

The Catalan club also appeared to have tapped up Luis Suarez in 2014 while the Uruguay international was at Liverpool, with president Josep Maria Bartomeu saying: “When we approached Suarez, it was before the World Cup. We told him that he was the right age. He had the experience.

“He was playing incredibly well at Liverpool and it was the right time for him to come to our club, to Barcelona.

"And we have the advantage - his agent is Pep Guardiola’s brother. He’s from Barca in his heart, also, so everything was perfect and created the perfect atmosphere that Luis Suarez accepted.”

Liverpool approached Virgil van Dijk in the summer of 2017 without the consent of Southampton, which resulted in a very public fallout. In this case, however, the move didn’t go through for another year, and Liverpool apologised and weren’t punished.

Recently, one of the most high-profile cases of tapping up has involved Barcelona once again in their successful pursuit of Antoine Griezmann. Atletico Madrid hit out at Barcelona, expressing how they felt that the Spanish champions had spoken to Griezmann before they had official permission to do so.

They said: "Through this statement, Atletico Madrid wishes to express its strongest disapproval of the behaviour of both, especially FC Barcelona, for prompting the player to break his contractual relationship with Atletico Madrid at a time of the season when the club was involved in the Champions League tie against Juventus, as well as the league title race against Barcelona.

"This is something that we believe violates the protected periods of negotiation with players and alters the basic rules of integrity in any sporting competition, as well as causing enormous damage to our club and its millions of fans."