Sporting Ennistymon F.C have been deducted points and fined following the decision to penalise the club after fielding a Ukranian refugee. Photo credit - Natasha Barton Photography

In less than an hour, the UEFA Nations League game between the Republic of Ireland and Ukraine will kick-off. It has been announced in recent weeks that the Football Association of Ireland (FAI) are to make a limited number of free tickets to the game available to Ukrainian refugees. However, when it comes to allowing amateur refugee players to play with local clubs within the country there is no support or guidance offered by the association.

Sporting Ennistymon F.C would like to highlight the lack of information and shortcomings of the FAI regarding the registration of refugee players in order to play amateur football here. Our club welcomed a Ukrainian refugee who had been relocated to the North Clare area in early March of this year. Sporting Ennistymon F.C has done our very best to assist in integrating refugees moving to the local area. We have nearly exhausted all avenues in relation to welcoming some adult Ukrainian refugees to our club, but issues arose after registering one of the players in March due to various reasons including:

  • A lack of guidelines and instructions from the FAI.
  • The registration software, FAInet, is not fit for purpose and stating incorrect information regarding residents from Ukraine.
  • A lack of clarification of FIFA Annexe 7 temporary rule changes to refugee player status from Ukraine and Russia.
  • The international protection of refugees.

The net result of all of this is that we have been penalised by the local league, the CDSL, resulting in points deductions and a fine. The club acted in good faith within the rules that were available to us at the time of registering our new player in this instance. We feel this is grossly unfair and that it sets a precedent which would be very difficult for governing bodies to follow going forward.

Players of Sporting Ennistymon F.C celebrate a goal. Photo Credit - Natasha Barton Photography
Players of Sporting Ennistymon F.C celebrate a goal. Photo Credit - Natasha Barton Photography

The clubs received an email from the FAI President on April the 12th, “Government Appeal re Ukraine“, asking for clubs to do their bit to help with the situation regarding refugees. Up to 800 refugees were re-located to accommodation in Lisdoonvarna, about 15km from us. Several adult refugees contacted our club regarding playing football which we welcomed. We advised and helped the newcomers put together CVs; we supplied bicycles so they could cycle to work, and we travelled out of our way to pick them up and bring them to training and matches. Even when no bicycles were available, members of the squad started a GoFundMe and raised over €200 that was used to purchase an additional bike. However, when it came to registering the player, we have been let down by the “system”.

Annexe 7 of the March 2022 edition of the Regulations on the Status and Transfer of Players published by FIFA clearly states that “a player whose previous registration was in the UAF or the FUR, has the right to be registered by an association outside a registration period, provided that such registration occurs before or on the 7th of April 2022 and only mentioned International Transfer Certs (ITCs) for professionals”. Representatives of Sporting Ennistymon F.C interpreted this as most probably would and understood that Ukrainian refugee players could be signed without an International Transfer Certificate (ITC) from Ukraine as it stated on FAInet that “no transfer rules applied” to residents from Ukraine. That’s the statement on the online registration platform. It turns out this is totally incorrect and still has not been acknowledged by the FAI. Our Ukrainian player was signed on the 25th of March 2022, and an ITC was completed for his country of birth. Sporting Ennistymon F.C personnel believed that the player was signed in line with the correct procedures.

However, fast forward six weeks, and other members within the organisation declared that the player was ineligible, producing an additional document, “Interpretative Note to Annexe 7 of the Regulations on the Status and Transfer of Players” which declared that an ITC was needed to be completed within Ukraine. It is important to note that this document was never communicated to grassroots clubs and played a massive role in clarifying that the player did need an ITC from Ukraine. So why did FAI personnel not think to relay this document to the grassroots club? Why was there no foresight on the association’s behalf to send out information on the process to correctly sign and successfully attain an ITC? The association quickly acknowledged the large numbers of Ukrainian refugees entering the country, yet little was done to ensure that these players could get back to playing the beautiful game.

Paragraph 6 of Annexe 7 of the March edition of FIFA’s Regulations on the Status and Transfer of Players – p.96
Paragraph 6 of Annexe 7 of the March edition of FIFA’s Regulations on the Status and Transfer of Players – p.96

Our club or the local league, CDSL, never received any communications other than the statement from FIFA on how to sign Ukrainian refugee minors despite the FAI knowing full well that the country was to welcome thousands of refugees, including some adult amateur players. Providing a document of this nature would have alleviated any fears that a refugee might have about distributing personal data and that their location would not be compromised.

The FAI aims to develop “ a collaborative and inclusive culture” as per their newly launched 2022-2025 strategy. The problems highlighted above demonstrate that the values outlined in the strategy document are not transpiring in the real world. These refugees have been forced to leave their country, and spend most of their day inside in accommodation and the one sport that most of them play is football. The FAI’s ethical and moral values should be questioned if they believe it is correct to punish a club for offering Ukraninan refugees a sporting and social outlet.

A screenshot of the FAI’s 2022-2025 strategy. Pay particular focus to the values listed in the bottom right.
A screenshot of the FAI’s 2022-2025 strategy. Pay particular focus to the values listed in the bottom right.

The only refugee that wanted to register and play football here in Clare has been let down by poorly designed software, instructions that were available but not forwarded to the clubs, no documentation or direction from the FAI regarding refugees and most importantly, no guarantee of protection of their personal data.

The outcome of the protest lodged regarding the ITC sees our club deducted points, fined, and the club’s integrity has been diminished. This is a very high price to pay given the circumstances that, in the spirit of the game, we were giving this young man who left Ukraine under duress a game of competitive football. The club acted in good faith within the rules available to us at the time of registration.

Through the hours of research conducted over the past number of weeks, it was uncovered that the process of registering refugees is not in line with FIFA’s circular number 1635, which was distributed on the 8th of June 2018.

Below are some of the questions we would like answered by FAI personnel.

  • Is there anywhere on the registration form to indicate that the player is a refugee or not?
  • Is there anywhere to enter the refugee’s ID number?
  • Were guidelines issued to clubs regarding the registration of amateur refugee players?
  • Is there any reference to the protection of the data for refugees?
  • The FAI Handbook has nearly 300 pages, is there any reference to refugees in it?
  • Has the FAINet been updated to allow the registration process and provide security, for example, password protect the documents?
  • Is there any reference to refugees on the FAInet online help?
  • Is there anything on the FAI website?

Suppose the answer to these questions is no, then what authority has the FAI to adjudicate on an issue that you have no reference to in your whole organisation?

A screenshot of the English FA’s document distributed to grassroots club. A type of document that should be made available by the FAI.
A screenshot of the English FA’s document distributed to grassroots club. A type of document that should be made available by the FAI.

The FAI have decided that this refugee player was ineligible because of an administrative error on a form that was not designed for the purpose of registering a refugee player. The online registration system, FAInet, declared that no transfer rule applied to players whose last residency was in Ukraine.

The fault in this whole debacle lies in the hands of the FAI. the process to register refugees on their system is incompetent and deficient. As a result of the callous ruling enforced by FAI personnel, the young player has become devastated and hasn’t come to our matches or training since because he’s ashamed. The player feels that the penalising of the club is his fault. As a club, we won’t stand by and do nothing. So we are fighting on his behalf to have the FAI issue guidelines and processes, update their software, and issue a specific registration form for refugees.

On the 12th of April of this year, the club received an email from Gerry McAnaney (FAI President), asking clubs to do all they can to integrate the refugees into the community. Upon reflection, our club and its members could not have done much more, and we will aim to continue welcoming people of all genders, races and sexual orientations. In the interest of fair play, the decision by the FAI that this refugee player was ineligible should be reversed as they did not provide the proper tools to register the player yet provided an abundance of misleading information.

Furthermore, we appealed the decision to the FAI as it was FAI personnel who deemed the player was ineligible. The local league, CDSL, only carried out the rule once the FAI informed them of their decision. Following an attempt to appeal the decision, the F.A.I returned our appeal and advised that it be forwarded Munster Football Association (MFA) first. However, the MFA declared that they would not hear the appeal as the contents related mainly to the FAI’s registration system. This was one of the many times, issues around miscommunication between the FAI and other stakeholder’s emerged and made it virtually impossible to submit any appeal.

The staff and personnel within the F.A.I drastically failed to prepare for the arrival of some 40,000 Ukrainian refugees. Meanwhile, a volunteer club is left guessing how to attain an ITC successfully or if it is even possible to sign a refugee. Sporting Ennistymon F.C worked within the constraints made available to us; however, those who were supposed to be ensuring that each individual had an equal chance of playing football deemed our attempt insufficient. The highest people within the organisation got notice of this some four/five weeks ago, we are a week into the new football registration season now and nothing has been done.

Sporting Ennistymon F.C is committed to seeing that all individuals interested in partaking in the beautiful game inclusive of refugees take to the pitch. As the saying goes “true greatness is doing what you believe in the face of adversity”.

We welcomed the player and his friends into our club and now he is made feel as if he should never have joined.