As clubs across Europe move to reduce or defer their footballers’ salaries, one thing is crystal clear. There will be no comfortable, one size fits all solution to an issue that faces almost everyone: the need to save money during the coronavirus crisis in an industry that, taking the continent as a whole, pays out 64% of its revenue in wages.
That figure, Uefa’s latest, is accurate up to 2018 and will certainly have risen. It is no wonder that, with income streams compromised indefinitely, clubs at all levels are seeking new arrangements. Goodwill – and an understanding that no two situations are the same when dealing with governments, leagues, clubs and even individuals – is essential and the positive stories are offset by examples of clubs being, at best, ham-fisted in their attempts to force through cuts.
It is a precarious enough state of affairs to concern Fifpro, the global players’ union, although it is aware every league has its unique challenges and a particular level of recourse to state support. Two cases provide a glimpse into how fraught things may become without compromise.
At Sion, in Switzerland, nine players – including the former Arsenal pair Alex Song and Johan Djourou – were sacked last week after refusing a proposal that would, according to one source close to the squad, have seen the highest earners take a reduction of up to 80%. A raft of legal cases is inevitable. The club claim just cause but the players’ stance is that the deal involved a government support package for “partial unemployment” that had not been put into law for footballers at that point.
The players are believed to be happy to enter into individual negotiations. Sion have emphasised that the dismissed players were asked for their agreement in the event that the government’s deal, which subsequently came into force, was passed and that they were not fired for rejecting a wage cut per se.
The standoff at Dinamo Zagreb, whose players have refused the imposition of a six-month package that would see a third of their wages paid, a third deferred and a third cut entirely, risks becoming similarly drawn out. The Croatian footballers’ association said that, even though the squad want to help, it is too early for such decisions and that the measure seems drastic given the low matchday and TV revenues in the local league. It claims the players were not consulted. Dinamo are yet to respond to a request for comment.
Elsewhere, the Guardian has learned of clubs in Scandinavia that have told foreign players to take cuts of between 25% and 50% if they wish to spent the Covid-19 shutdown in their homelands. There is an acknowledgement at all levels below the very top that the issue is an existential one, but the balance between clubs’ financial needs and those of their players is highly delicate and may prove impossible to strike.
“We are concerned that a significant number of clubs are acting to unilaterally reduce the salaries of players,” the Fifpro general secretary, Jonas Baer-Hoffmann, told the Guardian. “We are aware of such situations in more than half a dozen countries. In one case, within days of the suspension of the national league, players had their salaries immediately and arbitrarily decreased by two-thirds for a period of six months. While we fully understand the economic pressure employers are facing, we cannot accept unilateral actions that are based neither on individual consent nor collective agreements. As is already happening in other countries, clubs and leagues with cashflow difficulties should meet with national player unions to discuss and negotiate fair and proportionate arrangements.”
The willingness of some clubs to take such firm action has led, in certain quarters, to a growing sense that the decks are being cleared for a universal termination of the 2019-20 campaign. But others are keener to bide their time before making demands of their players. The president of a club dominant in its nation’s top flight said he accepted “nothing will be like it was before” when coronavirus has subsided, expecting sponsorship deals to take a particularly punishing hit. But he did not want to rush into a decision about passing any costs on to his team, particularly when football’s legal status in the economy of that country remains unclear.
One agent describes wage cuts or deferrals as essentially a two-tier issue, with leading Premier League sides operating in a different sphere to everyone else. Top-flight clubs are understood to be monitoring the subject closely although, in many cases, requests to forego money would be viewed dimly unless they were with the express intention of assisting support staff. While the players and staff at Championship club Leeds have taken a wage deferral for that reason, it is pointed out that a second-tier player in the autumn of a time-limited career who has – for example – a year left on his contract is not as financially secure as most might assume. The implication from many in the game is that livelihoods may be severely damaged if cases are not viewed one by one, as grinding a process as that might be.
English chief executives will have noted the examples of Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund and Borussia Mönchengladbach, whose players have taken temporary cuts of varying degrees to help lower-paid employees. Barcelona’s situation, while caught up in a tangle of complex Spanish employment regulations and existing tensions between squad and board, will also not have escaped attention. Their players are yet to agree reductions of up to 70%. The problem with imposing a blanket decrease within a single club is highlighted by the fact that, as currently proposed, the Barcelona deal could see staff from lesser-remunerated areas – such as the women’s operation or handball team – take the same percentage cut as the likes of Lionel Messi and Luis Suárez.
The number of players across Europe whose contracts expire in June, or in some cases sooner, brings a further layer of difficulty. As another player representative puts it, most of those trying to pick a way through this situation feel completely in the dark. The worry is that, for all the attempts to meet in the middle, good intentions may not be enough for an industry that has never faced challenges like these.