Liverpool will run the risk of being thrown out of the FA Cup if they opt to field Joel Matip in Wednesday night's (18 January) third-round replay against Plymouth Argyle before he has received the necessary international clearance.
Although fit again following an ankle injury, Matip was withdrawn from contention for the recent 1-1 Premier League draw with Manchester United at Old Trafford after the club struggled to obtain the necessary clarity from Fifa regarding his eligibility. Despite considering himself retired from international football and having not represented his country since September 2015, the influential centre-back was included in Cameroon's 35-man provisional squad for the latest Africa Cup of Nations tournament.
Matip, who was not included in the final travelling party for Gabon, was one of seven Indomitable Lions players to indicate that they did not want to participate. Head coach Hugo Broos subsequently fumed that "these players have put personal interest above those of the national team and the federation reserves the right to take action against the players in accordance with Fifa regulations".
Fifa's Regulations on the Status and Transfer of Players state that every player registered to a club is "obliged to respond affirmatively" to international call-ups and that a player subjected to a call-up, unless otherwise agreed by the relevant association, is not entitled to play for their club during the period for which they were released or should have been released. Such a restriction can be further prolonged by five days, essentially meaning that, if Cameroon reached the Afcon final in Libreville on 5 February, Matip could potentially be unavailable for Liverpool's next six matches.
A Fifa spokesperson, when questioned regarding any possible sanctions for Liverpool amid speculation the club was considering risking Matip against Plymouth, told IBTimes UK that "any potential violation of the applicable provisions would need to be investigated" by their disciplinary committee.
Richard Berry, senior associate in the Sports Business Group at law firm Lewis Silkin, one of the UK's leading sports practices that specialises in negotiating global sponsorship deals and advising on player, manager and backroom staff employment issues, claimed that any cup match featuring an absconding player can be ruled a defeat regardless of the final result.
"Under these circumstances, Liverpool's decision not to play Matip is understandable," he said. "Fifa can, in theory, take disciplinary measures which would see any points won in league matches an absconding player took part in deducted, and any cup games contested counted as losses – no matter the scoreline."
On the Matip situation, he said: "The rules in this instance are on the one hand clear, and on the other decidedly not. Fifa's regulations explicitly state that clubs are obliged to release their registered players for international duty if they are called up, and that, as a general rule, every player must respond affirmatively when called upon. What's more, any agreement made between a player and a club that is to the contrary is strictly prohibited.
"If a player is called up by his country then, put simply, he is not entitled to play for his club during the period for which he has been called upon – for instance, the duration of an international competition. What's more, if a player refuses to comply then that duration is extended by a further five days.
"However, there is a real tension in these rules whereby a national association and a player can come to an amiable agreement which would allow him to bow out of international duty. In Joel Matip's case, the ball is firmly in the Cameroonian FA's court to either recognise an agreement with the player which would allow him to return to domestic football, or to call on Fifa to take action to enforce his international selection. We've seen several similar cases crop up in the recent past, but the full reach of the potential sanctions haven't been fully tested."
Alfonso Valero, sports law expert at Nottingham Law School, described those potential sanctions as "plausible" and pointed to the fact that there is no specific reference in Fifa's disciplinary code.
Jurgen Klopp is likely to be questioned regarding Matip's availability against Plymouth in a pre-match press conference that is due to be held at Melwood later on Tuesday. Liverpool declined to make further public comment on the matter but did refer IBTimes UK to a statement released before that United draw.
"Liverpool Football Club can confirm Joel Matip has been withdrawn from selection for today's Premier League fixture at Manchester United as the club continues to seek clarity from Fifa as to the player's eligibility," it read. "Matip, who was not included in Cameroon's final squad for the Africa Cup of Nations tournament, has previously communicated his withdrawal from consideration for international selection, with his last appearance for Cameroon occurring in September 2015.
The statement added: "The Cameroon Football Federation have failed to confirm that Matip can therefore play club football during the period of the Africa Cup of Nations. Liverpool have subsequently repeatedly sought, as a matter of urgency, clarity from Fifa in this regard. This includes assurances the player was called up for the tournament in accordance with the world governing body's regulations. It is Liverpool's view that the player should be available for club football during the period of the competition and will continue to work for a speedy and unambiguous resolution."