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25 August 2017

Why do we treat footballers as though they have no right to choose who they work for?

Footballers do not forego their right to work and live in a place of their choosing simply by earning well and doing something fun.

By Daniel harris

Almost every time a footballer asserts his right to work for whoever the hell he wants – a right our society generally grants unchallenged – people respond with indignance. This is because however silly it makes it us look, indignance is our default setting nowadays, all the more so where the sport of pig’s bladder chasing is concerned.

This is not to decry the attachment we feel to our pig’s bladder chasing clubs, not at all. They bring us identity and joy as the sole constant in our lives, so we are right to guard them jealously. But actual pig’s bladder chasers are transient, any relationship with them governed by the same rules which operate in real life. When one party abandons the deal, there is no deal. You can’t be happy wanting someone who doesn’t want you back and you can’t force someone to love you; it’s actually pretty weird to try.

That’s how things might work for fans, the moral club. How things should work for suits, the legal club, is very different. In the first instance they do not buy or develop players as an act of benevolence. Rather, they perceive a selfish benefit for which they seek to pay as little as possible, and when it expires look to get rid as soon as possible.

As such, they cannot claim moral high ground when a player decides to leave. Most likely, they did to the club from which he joined what the club he would now like to join are doing to them. Often, this process is initiated informally, known in football as “tapping up”, known in other contexts as “headhunting” or “having a conversation”.

Any road up, in order to cinch the deal, all or some of the following are then offered: a better contract, a better team, a better club, a better city, a better manager. These are all reasonable reasons to move job – not that a person should be obliged to supply them – and apply equally to footballers, who do not forego their inalienable right to work and live in a place of their choosing simply by earning well and doing something fun.

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On Tuesday, Barcelona announced their plan to sue Neymar, who recently left them to join Paris Saint-Germain for a world record €222m. Which, to return to the real-life relationship analogy, has them parked up outside their ex’s house wearing last week’s clothes and last night’s tea on their face, cry-wanking to “their” song.

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All this despite the fact that Barcelona, the self-styled “més que un club” – flush with the sovereign wealth of Qatar, their sponsor – recruited Neymar in the shadiest manner unimaginable. And yet that same “més que un club” has a problem with another club, flush with … the sovereign wealth of Qatar … simply paying Neymar’s release clause! Oh, the sheer effrontery of it!

Accordingly, Barcelona now nurse a bursting wallet and a bruised ego, all the more acute given the unparalleled success of their fiercest rivals. Last season, Real Madrid won their third Champions League in four seasons, in the process becoming the first club to retain the trophy – a feat which eluded Barcelona’s team of 2008-2011, perhaps the greatest of all-time, and came in spite of Barcelona’s forward line, perhaps the greatest of all-time. For good measure, Madrid also won the Spanish League, and last week easily beat Barcelona in the Spanish Super Cup.

Like every other simpleton, Barcelona plan to salve their heartbreak with a spot of retail therapy, offering an absurd, unjustifiable £138m for Liverpool’s Philippe Coutinho. Naturally, Coutinho is keen on the move. Like most Brazilians, he considers Spain the mecca of club football, while Liverpool, who have not won a league title in his lifetime, cannot supply a single valid reason for Coutinho to stay. But they are trying to make him do so all the same, deeming him not human, rather chattel.

Only last week, Steve McManaman – a local lad who ran down his contract, left Liverpool for free, and won the Champions League with Real Madrid – was on telly recommending that Coutinho hang on one more season, the same advice offered to Gareth Bale before he left Spurs for Real Madrid and promptly scored the winning goal in the Champions League final.

McManaman justified this position on the basis that Cristiano Ronaldo remained at Manchester United a season longer than he planned, but the two situations are not remotely similar. Alex Ferguson had punted on Ronaldo as a teenager, shepherded him through the loss of his father, and made him the best player in the best team in the world, good enough to leave for whoever, whenever. Coutinho, on the other hand, knows that his time is now. If he does not make the move this summer he might never make it at all, because as far as Barcelona are concerned, that €222m is getting spent.

Which is to say that cuddly old Liverpool may have a pathological aversion to solo perambulation, but they do not always treat their employees with candour. In July 2013, Arsenal offered them £1 more than Luís Suárez’s release clause, only for them to refuse the deal anyway. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, Steven Gerrard persuaded Suárez that when he left it ought to be for an opportunity he simply could not miss. A year later he joined … Barcelona.

Like Suárez, Coutinho has a contract, and though we are not privy to its terms, we do know that his circumstances have changed since he signed it. The Neymar deal was a shock to more or less everyone in football, but when we get to the crux of things, that really doesn’t matter. At stake now is Coutinho’s psychological wellbeing.

We all know how disappointment, frustration and powerlessness feel, we all know how they linger, and we all don’t know how they intensify given a short career experienced at the highest level. Liverpool do not have Coutinho’s best interests at heart, and they should not make him to sacrifice the chance of a lifetime to suit their needs.

Earlier this summer, Liverpool issued a statement apologising to Southampton, who accused them of making an illegal approach to Virgil van Dijk. Since then, Van Dijk has made clear his desire to move on. But Southampton refused him and though he has been training with the under-18 team, made clear their plan to retain him earlier this week. 

Now, Van Dijk recently signed a six-year contract, and again, we do not know its terms. But we can be certain that neither player nor club expected it to be fulfilled; such length simply ensures that when he leaves, both he and they are paid more. It is probable that his representative negotiated badly, but it is also probably that he assumed a major offer would secure Van Dijk’s release, because that is precisely Southampton’s business model – Liverpool’s squad alone contains four former Saints, all expensively acquired. Had Southampton always been so unyielding, perhaps Van Dijk would be happy to stay.

Finally, we have the case of Tottenham’s Danny Rose. In an interview far more candid and thoughtful than the norm, he explained his dissatisfaction with a club who pay far less and spend far less than their competitors, and who have won nothing since 2008. It is true that their current team is a fine one, but the reality remains that in two uplifting seasons playing at the tight, atmospheric White Hart Lane, they did not get near a trophy. And now they face a year at Wembley followed by their first year in a new ground, factors which make success significantly less likely.

At 27 years old and keen to move up north to be nearer his mum, Rose cannot wait for things to settle. He is good for one big move and one big contract, but only if he acts quickly, and given the notorious difficulty of dealing with Daniel Levy, his chairman, probably felt compelled to make his position untenable. On which point it is worth noting that while Spurs’ players are only the sixth highest-paid in English football, their directors finish third in the equivalent table.

This last point underscores a historical belief, in society as much as football, that working class types – working class types of colour in particular – should shut up and do what they’re told. We see this in the pernicious reporting of how players – players of colour in particular ­– spend the money that they earn, as though it does not belong to them. Their talent is begrudgingly accepted, but the terms of its exploitation are for others to set, a pattern we see across society in many different forms.

Football can solve these ills quickly and easily. If tapping-up were legal, no one could get butthurt about two people having a conversation, and if every contract was furnished with an agreed release clause, then the haggling, brinksmanship and obstructiveness would have to stop. But in the meantime, whatever our emotional connection to a player or club, however much money players earn and however envious we are of what they do, their comings and goings ought to governed by a single implacable, universal, moral principle: the primacy of labour over capital.