When millionaires strike: the oddity of a footballer’s wage picket

By Sipho Hlongwane 24 August 2011

The Association of Spanish Football is on strike over a wage deal impasse with the Professional Football League; football matches are already being delayed. Are the players right to demand wage guarantees in an age of cuts and austerity? They certainly think that they are entitled. Then again, perhaps even the likes of Lionel Messi are replaceable. By SIPHO HLONGWANE.

Football players are grotesque proof of the rule of supply and demand. There are only a handful of really good ones. And there are billions of people around the globe willing to pay to watch them ply their trade. Hence, as back-of-the-cigarette-box economics go, the exorbitant salaries.

But even the highly-sort after young men of the Spanish football leagues are discovering that their employer sometimes rethinks the economics of paying them – or just downright can’t. Spain is in a recession you see, and everyone is feeling the pinch. Even football clubs.

The Association of Spanish Footballers (AFE) says that its players are owed a collective amount of R515 million due to the financial struggles of the clubs. They want a wage guarantee and the right for a player to break their contract if they are not paid for three consecutive months.

Understandably, the Professional Football League (LFP), which represents the clubs, told the players to sod off. The contract between player and club is an inviolable bond of modern football – mostly because clubs charge each other millions to release players who are still within contract.

In response, the players have withheld their services. The opening weekend of the Spanish season, in both the Primera and Segunda División, was postponed for the first time in 27 years as a result, and there is likelihood that the second weekend could see a number of matches postponed or even cancelled outright.

Six clubs in the La Liga (the oft-used nickname for the Spanish League’s top-flight division) are in bankruptcy protection, according to the BBC, but AFE is still not happy. “The problem is not solved. I would be more optimistic, but I cannot,” said Luis Gil, director of the AFE.

He continued to say that there could possibly be another strike this coming weekend if talks on Tuesday broke down like they did over the last weekend. “I understand that people want to watch football, but we must think about the players who are suffering,” Gil said. “Presently, I can only speak of a strike for the second round of matches. And it will remain in place if we cannot find agreement on all points. We made another proposal and now must see if an agreement can be reached.”

Real Madrid and FC Barcelona, two Spanish clubs, are both currently top the Deloitte Football Money League, an informal ranking for football clubs based on revenue. Real Madrid sits at the top with R4,5 billion in revenue for the 2009-2010 season, and Barcelona was second at an intake of R4,12 billion. This is after they paid their players.

But it isn’t every club that rakes in the billions. Real Madrid, Barcelona, Atletico Madrid, Sevilla and Valencia can afford to give their players wage guarantees – but what of the others? The AFE want guarantees for all its members. If they have their way, this won’t be over till the poorest club can guarantee pay to its players and give them the right to walk away if it fails to fulfil its end of the bargain.

So should the clubs just bite the bullet and loosen the contractual obligations they put on players? There could be an advantage to being a club that agrees to do this. For instance, players that aren’t good enough to move abroad would probably rather move to a lesser side within Spain that is willing to let them go if it can’t pay, than stick with a better club that will hold on to them when the coffers run dry. This could very well see players switching clubs based on lax contracts, more than weekly wages.

Or maybe the clubs could make a compelling case to the Spanish government and get them to underwrite player salaries. If they got some boffins together in a room to show how much the football matches contributed to the economy, they might make a case to say that La Liga is vital to Spain’s economic recovery, and thus the league’s most valuable asset must be taken care of. If football is as big a deal in Spain as they say it is, surely the players have the upper hand in this one?

But it is never that simple in the world of sport. In 1994, baseball players went on strike in the US, resulting in that deathly period, spoken of in whispers as the 1994-1995 Major League Baseball Strike that saw the cancellation of some 940 games, including the entire 1994 post-season and the World Series.

The players eventually won. A US District Court judge ruled in their favour in on 29 March 1995. The people who reacted most angrily about this were the fans.

The Spanish footballers would do well to fit that possibility into their plans. If angry fans stopped attending matches and stopped watching the televised matches after the strikes, that situation has the potential to bankrupt the very clubs that the players are trying to get their wages out of.

Or the clubs could keep the fans watching by ditching their old players with their huge salaries in favour of unknowns, and keep the fans happy by selling them the old Disney story: young nobody swoops in, conquers great odds and gets the princess.

This may be resolved by whoever convincingly answers the question of just how replaceable top footballers are. DM

Read more:

  • Spanish players’ strike could continue after talks in BBC News;
  • Spanish strike to continue in Sky Sport.



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