On Thursday evening, news emerged that Sunderland had been fined by both the Premier League and the Football League for fielding an ineligible player in five games, across two competitions, at the start of the season.
The error was found, and the fine levied, back in December—with it taking nearly four months for the Daily Mail to uncover the story and make it public.
The Premier League (and Football League) cannot continue to keep these decisions private. It only creates suspicion of underhand discussions and back-room deal-striking (which, it must be stressed, almost certainly is not going on), and makes fans wonder what other big judgements have been kept from them.
The Sunderland case seems, from a distance at least, remarkably complicated, and perhaps that is why the bodies involved decided it would be best not to make the details, and decision, public.
First of all, the basic facts: At the end of the 2012-13 season, Sunderland loaned forward Ji Dong-Won to German side FC Augsburg for the remainder of the season. Ji then returned to the Stadium of Light for the start of the 2013-14 campaign, before again returning to Augsburg in January for the remainder of the term—after another Bundesliga side, Borussia Dortmund, had reached an agreement to sign him in the upcoming summer.
During the period between his two spells at Augsburg, Ji appeared in four Sunderland league games and one cup game—”helping” his side acquire one point (in a draw with Sunderland) during that spell, while they also knocked MK Dons out of the Capital One Cup.
However, it transpired that Ji had never actually received his international clearance upon returning from Augsburg, the official FIFA paperwork that he technically required in order for a professional to represent any new club.
Even though Ji was a Sunderland employee all along, the club needed to receive new clearance following his first Augsburg spell, something that was not done until he had already appeared in a number of games.
According to a report by Louise Taylor in The Guardian:
They did not realise they needed to seek international clearance for a second time when he returned to England. He should not have been involved in any matches before the club received written confirmation from the German Football Association.
The issue was only discovered and reported at the start of October—but in effect Ji was technically ineligible for every game he played in (mostly as a a substitute) during the early part of the season.
In a literal sense, at least, the club were in contravention of FIFA regulation B.14.5, which is covered in clause U.11 in the Premier League handbook:
An application to register a player who last played for a club affiliated to a national association other than the Football Association shall be accompanied by written confirmation from the Football Association that an international registration transfer certificate has been issued in respect of the player.
If that international registration transfer certificate has not been issued, and FA confirmation not received, then that leaves the offending party open to punishment under FA rule 6.9, “Fielding an Ineligible Player."
This clause dictates that clubs can be fined and deducted points for an infraction, although either (or both) can be waived when it is the International Transfer Certificate that is the issue:
Any club found to have played an ineligible player in a match shall have any points gained from that match deducted from its record and have levied upon it a fine.
The company may vary this decision in respect of the points gained 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 only.
The board may also order that such match be replayed on such terms as are decided by the board which may also levy penalty points against the club in default.
That seems to be the wrinkle that has allowed Sunderland to avoid a points deduction. Technically, Ji may have been ineligible when he took the field for Sunderland last year, but ultimately this was only due to an administrative oversight—in all other respects he was fully available for the club that pays his wages.
However, the fact that the person responsible for such paperwork, club secretary Liz Coley, left Sunderland after the error was discovered suggests that it was an oversight on their part, not Augsburg’s.
Then again, the BBC claims from “club sources” that Coley’s departure was not linked to the farrago.
Nevertheless, MK Dons were reportedly “furious” at the FA for not forcing Sunderland to replay their Capital One Cup tie, as has been the case in past instances of similar matters. But this is not really the same as the infamous incident involving West Ham and Emmanuel Omoyinmi, for example, who was cup-tied when he represented the Hammers in 1999.
Problematically, Sunderland had already beaten Peterborough in the next round by the time the error was discovered and reported, creating a huge headache if the Football League decided the tie needed to be repeated.
Would both MK Dons and Peterborough be reinstated until the two ties could be replayed? If so when would those games be scheduled? Or would Sunderland just be kicked out of the competition and the two lower-league sides allowed to play for their vacated spot in the next round?
Any decision to that effect would have required a public explanation—only the decision they ultimately chose (conveniently) avoided that examination.
It is hard to avoid the suspicion that, as well as it being the path of least resistance, that is why they ultimately went for it.
Nevertheless, the FA directors who made the final decision must have been sweating profusely as Sunderland went on to reach the final of the competition, and even go 1-0 up against Manchester City at Wembley.
Fortunately for them, City came back to claim the trophy. One can only speculate at the backlash had this story come out after the Black Cats lifted their first piece of silverware in 41 years.
Perhaps it is no coincidence that someone has leaked the story now, at the point where few now realistically expect Sunderland to stay in the Premier League. Had they been nearer the cut and thrust surrounding 17th place with six games to go, it is not difficult to predict the outcry we might have heard from those teams around them.
It would have been similar to the drama that followed West Ham’s use of Carlos Tevez and Javier Mascherano—a flouting of rules that ultimately left the clubs to pay a huge amount of compensation to Sheffield United, who went down in their place in 2007.
That was a very different situation. It must be stressed (again) that Sunderland’s mistake was a minor clerical one and had no tangible effect on sporting matters.
It's the equivalent of a golfer incorrectly signing his scorecard after a round.
Then again, some might justifiably point out that rules are there for a reason (golfers are disqualified for such mistakes)—and that any infraction should be punished, if nothing else as a reminder to other clubs that keeping their house in order is vitally important.
The issue, of course, is that we do not even know if other clubs have previously been punished for similar mistakes. If the Premier League and Football League agree to keep these decisions private, then we only discover the ones that are leaked to the press for one reason or another.
In light of everything, the Premier League and Football League's joint decision to only fine Sunderland is probably the correct one.
Ji might not have had the correct paperwork to represent Sunderland, but in every other respect he qualified to represent his employers in the games he played—the integrity of the competition was not influenced by his presence.
This was an administrative oversight, not a sporting infraction, and as such a fine fits the bill. But by keeping the decision silent, the FA created the impression that they were sweeping the issue under the carpet, or that they felt unable to explain it adequately to the wider public.
That was misguided. If we demand more transparency and democracy from FIFA over their governing of the world game, then we should expect the same from the Premier League and Football League.
Unless there are legal or ethical reasons, in future all such decisions should be made public the day they are enforced.