War in Ukraine – what can football players from Ukrainian and Russian leagues do?

war in ukraine

24 February 2022. Russia launched a military invasion onto Ukrainian territory. Since then, Ukraine has been an area of constant hostilities, which – of course – make it impossible to play football.

Football players in the Ukrainian league have had to either leave the country or remain in hiding due to the constant threat to their lives and health. In turn, numerous sanctions have been imposed on Russia, including sports sanctions. Among other things, the Russian federation was suspended from FIFA membership, and the Russian national team lost the play-offs for the World Cup finals in Qatar.

This extraordinary situation raises many questions. Can players from Ukrainian leagues sign contracts with new clubs in other parts of the world? What is the issue of foreign footballers terminating their contracts in Russian clubs? Can Ukrainians in foreign leagues leave their clubs to help defending their country? These questions will be answered in the article. 

War in Ukraine – can players in Ukrainian clubs terminate their contracts?

The most difficult situation is currently faced by players from the Ukrainian league. Many of them were or still are in life-threatening situations. Most foreign players have already left the country and started looking for at least temporary replacement clubs. So far, it has not been entirely clear whether players in the Ukrainian leagues can terminate their contracts due to force majeure – although war is certainly such a circumstance, the football judiciary very rarely recognizes the existence of force majeure. There have even been cases where political unrest (including military action) in a player’s home country has not been considered force majeure if it was foreseeable and the player had not made a genuine attempt to resolve the issue before his contract was terminated[1].

Nor was global pandemic considered a force majeure – despite contradictory special regulations. It was therefore risky to terminate contracts on this basis. Although the war in Ukraine seemed to meet the conditions of force majeure, it was rather not decided to terminate contracts. This is now almost certainly impossible due to the new regulations adopted by FIFA, but it must be remembered that an individual analysis is always necessary in every single case regarding force majeure.

Temporary substitute clubs for players in the Ukrainian league – new FIFA regulations

FIFA has adopted special regulations according to which the contracts of players from Ukrainian clubs have been suspended by law – similar to the suspension of contracts for the duration of a player’s loan between clubs. However, this only applies to foreign players – that is, players from countries other than Ukraine. The suspension lasts until 30 June 2022, and the players are released from any obligations towards their clubs during this time. No remuneration is due to them for this period. However, they are free to sign contracts with clubs from other countries and take part in all official matches. The limits on registration and participation in matches per season have also been increased for these players. These players can be registered no later than 7th April 2022.

The changes do not apply to Ukrainians in Ukrainian clubs

The regulations introduced by FIFA explicitly exclude footballers from Ukraine from their scope. Although this should be considered more of a curiosity, as many of these players have joined the army, these players cannot be contracted by foreign clubs, despite the fact that in this case it would be difficult to deny the possibility of termination of the contract due to force majeure. However, it is precisely the obligation to join the army and defend the country that would be the reason that would invalidate the contract, which at the same time makes it impossible to conclude a contract with another club. In other words, if the players were not in the army, they would not be able to terminate their contracts. For the moment, however, it is not certain how FIFA and the Ukrainian federation will approach the contracts of Ukrainian footballers after the end of war.

UPDATE 25.03.2022: According to the updated official interpretation of the latest FIFA regulations and the national regulations introduced by the Ukrainian federation, Ukrainian players can be registered with foreign clubs outside the registration period, as long as they are eligible to leave their country. So for now this only applies to youth players, but there are also rumours about such possibility for national representatives in the future.

War in Ukraine – possibility of contract termination by a Ukrainian at a foreign club

Although the new rules do not regulate it, in our opinion the current situation entitles Ukrainian players at foreign clubs to terminate their contracts. The condition, however, would have to be that such a player would choose to terminate solely for the purpose of returning to his home country and participating in the defence of the country. Above all, however, it is advisable to negotiate with the current club in advance to terminate the contract – many clubs would probably agree to release a player from his obligations if the player really wanted to return to his home country.

War in Ukraine – what can foreign players in Russian clubs do?

Analogous to the situation of foreigners in Ukrainian clubs – foreigners in Russian clubs can also suspend their contracts. However, this is not done by law – you need a statement from the player that he wants to suspend his contract. The suspension can last until 30 June 2022. The player can then sign a contract with another club, and the whole legal structure will be similar to a loan. However, can athletes terminate the contract due to armed aggression by the club?

Currently, there is no legal basis for this, and an analysis of the case law of FIFA and CAS rather excludes this possibility. However, if the trend of further sanctions against Russia continues, it can be expected that the sports world will at least turn a blind eye to such actions, even if no clear regulations are adopted. At most, such players will no longer be allowed to play in the Russian league – disciplinary and financial penalties would certainly await them there.

The decision to terminate a contract should be well thought through and all the consequences analysed. FIFA is not taking any decisive steps against Russia at the moment, so there is no clear permission to terminate contracts. A temporary solution while waiting for FIFA to take action would be to unilaterally suspend the contract.

What do clubs have to bear in mind when acquiring players from the Ukrainian and Russian leagues?

The most important information for clubs interested in players temporarily leaving the Russian and Ukrainian leagues is that one club can acquire a maximum of two players under the new regulations. The permissible deadline for their registration is 7th April 2022. For these athletes only, however, the limit of registration with clubs in one season and matches played has been increased – to four and three respectively. The exceptional regulations also do not exempt the acquiring clubs from observing the detailed regulations on the protection of underage players.

Belarus is not affected either

Despite Belarus’ involvement in the conflict and the imposition of sanctions on the country similar to Russia, FIFA’s rule changes do not extend to the Belarusian league. Of course, if a player from Belarus is bound by a contract with a Ukrainian or Russian club, he will be able to suspend his contract – according to the rules described earlier.

War in Ukraine – summary

The situation is extraordinary and very dynamic. The introduced solutions are only temporary. As time goes by – probably closer to June – we can expect new regulations. Of course, the decisive factor in this matter will be the political and military situation on the Ukrainian front and in Russia. We look forward to the end of hostilities in Ukraine as soon as possible.