You may not find your heart bleeding for a multi-millionaire footballer in his quest to force a transfer from the club at which he is contracted to one he would prefer to represent.
And this summer has brought an unusual number of high-profile cases in which players have made it known that they are no longer interested in playing for their present employers.
Chelsea 7/1 to win Premier League
Many football fans can only see these circumstances through the prism of what is best for their teams. You’ll often hear it said that “no player is bigger than the club” – in that the will of the club as a company supersedes that of the worker as the individual.
It’s been asked, for example, that if Virgil van Dijk was so desperate to leave Southampton, then why did he sign a six-year contract last year? Well, the same reason you or I would sign a big contract – stability and protection.
Famous Premier League players earn a lot of money but that shouldn’t preclude them from having the same employment rights as the rest of us. Van Dijk might feel he should have the right that most workers take for granted – the right to change jobs.
Diego Costa is currently at home in Lagarto, Brazil, preparing to take any necessary action to make Chelsea sell him to Atletico Madrid.
Costa alleges that his manager, Antonio Conte, communicated that his services would no longer be required for the season ahead. In any reasonable workplace that counts as notice being served. But this is football.
Costa may no longer be any use to Chelsea as a person or a footballer but he is still expected to make them a lot of money. How? They want him to come to work with no intention of ever playing him, bust his ass in training to make sure Chelsea get top dollar from Atletico in the market.
But where else would an employee be informed that he is no longer part of the plans only to be forced to turn up to work?
No everyday person being honest with themselves would ever deny having looked for a better job even while still working in their existing one. It’s how the world works.
How many Liverpool fans sit on the Kop lamenting Philippe Coutinho’s behaviour in the full knowledge that they may well have done the same thing to their own employers?
Coutinho would prefer to be in Barcelona for many reasons but the restrictions in football’s labour conditions are denying him that chance. His dream move to Barcelona might only come this once and he’s entitled to grasp it.
In every other walk of life, people stand up for the little man but when it comes to football fans take the corporation’s side every time.
FIFPro – the football players’ union – filed legal action against Fifa in 2015 with the European Commission. It challenged the transfer market system as “anti-competitive, unjustified and illegal”.
The transfer system, FIFPro alleged, placed restrictions on the mobility of workers and traded their labour as a commodity. It declared that the current system could no longer be justified or protected by “the specificity of sport”.
Players, in other words, should have the same rights as other workers. If they want to go, they should be able to go.
The union identified Article 17 of Fifa’s Regulations on the Status and Transfer of Players as permitting a club “to exploit players who are under contract”.
FIFPro looks at around 4,000 cases a year – not many of them the profile of Van Dijk or Coutinho – which deal with non-payment of wages or an unjust termination of contract.
Players are having to wait years for resolutions through the courts with their playing status undefined. Ninety percent of the time, FIFPro states, the matter is decided in favour of the player.
FIFPro claimed it was confronting a reality in which contracts were only respected by clubs when it was in their own interests. Otherwise, players were herded like cattle.
A manager looking for buyers for players no longer in his plans, a manager reacting to being linked with a player from another club – these little matters could constitute a club failing to respect the contract signed with a player. But somehow it’s acceptable for clubs to threaten contract breaches in this manner. Only when a player wishes to breach that contract himself are clubs speaking their outrage.
There are many ways in which clubs attempt to exert pressure on their workers who might not want to stay with them any longer. They are banished to train alone or with youth teams as has been seen with Van Dijk. Players can be demoted or told to stay away altogether. Players can be fined, as is alleged by Costa in the case of Chelsea.
But when a player takes the matter into his own hands and breaks the contract – even after the designated protection period of three years – the full force is brought upon them.
The sanctions are so high for players – and indeed for the clubs they end up at – that the likes of Coutinho or Van Dijk daren’t do anything drastic or else face huge punishments along with their hopeful destination clubs of Barcelona and Liverpool. But that – and not high wages or huge transfer fees – is the biggest betrayal of football as the worker’s game.
Power is so heavily concentrated in the hands of the clubs that players have been left with no right to decide their own futures.
It is not necessarily the Coutinhos and the Van Dijks that come off the worst. More often it’s the player at a struggling club in one of Europe’s lesser leagues who has to put up with up to three months of late wages, low pay when it does come and conditions that are less than hospitable to work in. The bigger players are just the tip of the iceberg and the ones in the headlines.
Perhaps it will take one of those to open the floodgates and allow the exploited their fair share and free movement. Players want the same things as the rest of us: freedom and security.