Pitch Imperfect

By | March 1, 2016

The following story has been reposted with permission by the author. It previously appeared in Duke Political Review.


There’s more money in world football than ever before, but could discontent in soccer’s middle class change the sport as we know it?

Cristiano Ronaldo sprints down the left flank, followed closely by Filipe Luís, a defender from his crosstown rival club, Atlético Madrid. The duo tussle for possession. Ronaldo feints left, then swings right, shaking off his pursuer. He pulls back and unleashes. Within seconds, the ball nuzzles itself into the back corner of the net. Euphoria.

Ronaldo — a world-class athlete — is arguably the best player on the planet. But he’s more than that. He’s a number. A price.

In 2009, that price was $123.5 million, and the Portuguese superstar left Manchester United for greener pastures in Madrid. At the time, the bill was the most expensive in history (a record that would later be eclipsed by Ronaldo’s current teammate, Gareth Bale, whom Madrid purchased from London-based Tottenham for $131.7 million in 2013).

Transactions like these aren’t unusual in European football. Not unlike the New York Stock Exchange, or the NASDAQ, the soccer transfer market is an economic institution, funneling billions of dollars between parties each year. In this system, clubs can purchase players from other teams for lump sums, and then negotiate with players directly on wages. Though figures often aren’t so gaudy, teams commonly make a dozen or more changes over the course of a year during two pre-determined “transfer windows.” Players can also be loaned from one club to another for a short period to develop, and earn playing time, during which they play for one team, all while still “owned” by their original club.

In September, FIFPro (the sport’s player’s union) took a step toward ending the system as we know it.

A complaint filed by the organization to the European Commission called for the abolition of the transfer market, and a complete overhaul of the system as a whole. The grievance alleges players have less freedom of mobility than employees in different fields, and are restricted by the necessity for transfer fees. FIFPro also claims the loan system in place is monopolistic, and favors larger clubs, thus influencing the movement of players.

In the past, FIFPro took similar action to seek change, but never have they tried to do so on such a drastic level. A ruling in their favor could decimate the business model that clubs have followed for decades, and completely change the world’s biggest sport.

During transfer windows (there are two per year — one in the summer, and one in the winter), clubs are free to buy and sell as many players as they can afford. The result is a ledger with astronomical totals. During the 2015 summer transfer window, nearly $1.54 billion changed hands between English Premier League clubs alone.

Though the transfers can take place between any two teams in any leagues or levels in the world, most fans focus on the elite level of European footballing — the Premier League (England), La Liga (Spain), Ligue 1 (France), Serie A (Italy), and the Bundesliga (Germany). These five leagues have a combined valuation of nearly $14.7 billion, led by the Premier league, which is valued at nearly $4.6 billion.

The transfer window isn’t just a game of numbers, though. The buildup to deadline day leads to high drama, as clubs scramble to put together last-second deals to swing their fortunes. Networks give it round-the-clock coverage, and the suspense in closing hours reminds of a television thriller. Even in the spotlight, however, there are overlooked actors. Lost in the market haze are the key components of the deals — the players.

Unlike employees in nearly every other field, footballers lack the level of control that cans be expected when determining one’s working future. Players at the top like Ronaldo or Bale can dictate terms in regard to their movement between clubs, and their contracts later on, but that isn’t the case for the majority of the 65,000 professional soccer players worldwide.

In most cases, players live at the whims of their clubs, pawns in a cynical chess game with financial repercussions. Teams at the lower levels of world football frequently struggle to pay their players on time, often taking longer than three months to deliver checks.

These aren’t million-dollar bank stubs. They’re modest, middle class salaries going to normal people. Yes, some athletes have the luxury of screen time on Saturdays, but they’re working professionals. They have mortgages, and phone payments, and families to feed. So why are they treated differently than other employees?

Mo Money, Mo Problems

In the early 1990s, Jean-Marc Bosman was the most important man in world football. The Belgian was by no means world-class, or even a remotely memorable talent. The young midfielder was no different on the pitch than any other player. Off the pitch, however, he forever altered the fabric of European football.

In 1990, Bosman was finishing up the final year of his contract at Belgian Pro League club RFC de Liège. He asked his club for a transfer to French side USL Dunkerque, but after long negotiations, a deal couldn’t be reached. In any other situation, an employee with an expiring contract would be free to seek out deployment elsewhere, in a sort of free agency. This, however, was not the case.

After Dunkerque refused to meet Liège’s transfer demands, Liège had no choice but to keep him in Belgium. Because the club felt Bosman was no longer worthy of a first-team selection, they reduced his wages, and stashed him on the bench.

Infuriated by his lack of control of his own future, and declining salary (Liège wanted to cut his pay by 70%), Bosman filed suit with the European Court of Justice.

In 1995, the courts ruled that Bosman had a right to free movement at the end of his contract, and that his club had no authority to hold him for a transfer fee. This effectively created the free agent market, and allowed players to sign pre-contracts with clubs before the end of their terms.

In addition, because teams no longer had to worry about transfer fees for free agents, they could often offer players more money than they previously would have been able to. Rather than seeing headlines with gaudy transfer prices, and mediocre contract terms, the players could finally capitalize on their success, and earn their fair wages. Since the ruling, dozens of big-name players took their talents elsewhere without transfer fees. The most recent of which, Robert Lewandowski, left his club Broussia Dortmund to their biggest rivals, Bayern Munich — a deal which likely would not have happened otherwise, as Dortmund would have little incentive to work with their foes.

Bosman struck a major blow to the system, but at his own personal cost. The Belgian couldn’t play professionally while his case was being heard, and by the time the ruling was handed down, he was in his 30s, and well past his physical prime. He retired without ever signing the lucrative deal he so desperately sought, and later submitted for welfare after a failed clothing line left him broke.

Though he never saw the fruits of his labor, his legacy was cemented. The position of power in negotiations shifted to the athletes. Clubs have to offer more to players out of fear that they would simply walk away at the end of their deals. Though the Bosman case only pertained to Europe, FIFA adopted the verdict as their international standard, and forced all participating teams to abide by its decision.

After the Bosman ruling, FIFA printed their Regulations on the Status and Transfer of Players (RTSP, for short). These act as a guideline to how the transfer market works, and how the relationship between players and clubs play out.

In the wake of the verdict, teams were nervous about the case’s implications. If the ruling meant players could simply resign and walk out on their teams (like any employee in any other field), the result would be anarchy. To safeguard from this doomsday scenario, RTSP rules were created.

The criteria set the standard for how the sport would be governed from the club levels, and aimed to ensure a competitive balance among clubs while still limiting the windows in which transfers could take place. The last thing clubs wanted were players having the ability to jump ship in between games because of managerial disputes. The rules also attempt to protect contracts so players wouldn’t have to live in fear of demotion over menial events or petty squabbles.

For more than a decade, these have been the governing rules of football, and in FIFPro’s eyes, the next domino to fall. The organization’s complaint claims these criteria have not been met, and as a result, RTSP has failed the players it was created to protect.

The Modern Age

As groundbreaking as the Bosman ruling was in the mid-90s, it wasn’t until the mid-2000s that it showed it’s true impact. In 1992, when the Bosman hearings were still taking place, the Premier League — then in its first season — signed a $295.5 million television deal for five years with England-based Sky TV. In 2007, Sky TV and Setanta signed a five-year contract worth nearly $7.9 billion for the rights to broadcast games, and in 2015 NBC struck a deal for an additional $1 billion for exclusive rights to broadcast in the United States for six years.

There’s more money in football than ever before, but that doesn’t mean everyone is living large. These flashy figures mean cartoon dollar signs appear in managers’ eyes when they’re given the green light to spend on players. They’re also misleading.

A main focus in FIFPro’s complaint is the unequal domination of the transfer market by larger clubs, which can be attributed to the wealth gap between them. UEFA (Union of European Football Associations) argues that the influx of money in the transfer market means that clubs from every division are getting in on the action, and players are moving to all corners of the globe. In theory, that might be true. In practice, however, it’s a different story.

Rather than teams from lower divisions or leagues playing a role in transfer discussions, it’s the bigger clubs — the footballing elites — who dictate terms on a grand scale. They can even bully each other, as was proven on deadline day of the summer window in 2015. Manchester United ignored Real Madrid’s pursuit of goalkeeper David de Gea until the last possible moment, at which point it was too late for transfer paperwork to be filed.

The influence these teams have on the window is unparalleled, and shuts players out of the equation. De Gea had been seeking a move to Madrid for months, but United’s game of chess meant he had no shot of a homecoming. The team effectively played its game of politics with no regard for its player’s wishes.

The current system is broken.

More damning than transfer fees, or movement restrictions, or even a metaphorical chess match is the truth that players aren’t being paid on time, and in full. A FIFPro survey of more than 3,000 footballers worldwide found that 42% of respondents weren’t compensated on time, and 14% said they’d waited longer than three months for their checks.

In a just world, the players could sue the clubs individually for their lost earnings. Unfortunately, that course of action is implausible. In a number of the countries where payments are delayed (looking at you, former Soviet republics), a fair legal system is nothing more than a pipe dream. Clubs are embedded into the political fabric of the state, and thus have an advantage when it comes to the courtroom. In the Russian Premier League, for example, teams are linked to a certain sector of government. Dynamo is considered the police, and KGB’s club. CSKA Moscow is the army’s club. Lokomotiv is the railroad companies’ club. As a result, it’s unlikely that a fair trial could be held without the influence of the groups affecting litigation.

Even if players could find a fair trial, they’d be putting themselves at risk. Like Bosman years before, footballers couldn’t compete while in litigation. It’s not likely that the club being sued would allow a player to take the pitch, and leaving for greener pastures would constitute a breach in the very contract the player was suing to uphold.

Assuming the European Commission upholds FIFPro’s complaint (which is far from a sure thing, though Bosman was also an unexpected ruling), the future has two potential outlooks.

The first (and less likely) scenario is total chaos. In this world, players are treated like any other employees in any other field, and are given the rights to move freely between clubs as frequently as they wish so long as they’re desired at their destinations. Teams are unstable due to their constantly rotating crop of outfielders, and the sport becomes an unrecognizable mess of all-star teams and walk-ons.

This anarchical society will never exit though, because the most likely scenario would closely resemble the free agent market found in most professional American sports leagues. Teams can sign players to contracts, and after a certain point, players or teams can activate their option to stay on, or retain players, or test free agency.

Contracts in this world, like their American counterparts, would be nearly impossible to break, and would bind both parties to their pre-ordained deals. This would ensure financial stability for both groups, while appeasing all parties. Agreements would be shorter — probably not longer than three years — to allow players to move freely, and clubs a chance to move on without a long-term commitment.

FIFPro Secretary-General Theo van Segglen summed it best when he announced the complaint.

“We need not fear a football world without the transfer system,” van Segglen said. “Through collective bargaining, better labor market rules can be established.”

If he has his way, they just might be.

None of us can say for certain what the future landscape of world football will look like a year from now when a verdict is reached. What is for certain, however, is this: one way or another, the world’s biggest sport is about to change.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *