Player Power: Bigger Than The Club?

by Alec Payne
13th Sep 2018

Player movement is as much a part of modern football as match day itself. However, it’s increasingly obvious that clubs don’t hold all of the cards anymore, particularly in arranging their squads and keeping hold of want away stars. ‘Player power’ is increasingly prevalent, an age where money and agents talk. But with the dust firmly settled on the European transfer market, just how big of an issue is player power, and is there anything clubs can realistically do to stop it?

Ever since the Bosman ruling (European Court of Justice, 1995) there has been an element of player power within football. Individuals are now able to run down their contracts and move onto a new club for free, with more and more players forcing transfers despite being tied into long-term contracts.

True, clubs will be desperate to retain their key players, but at the risk of one disruptive player unsettling the rest of the dressing room?

A standout example happened in the last transfer window. Chelsea’s first choice goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois simply refused to report for pre-season training following an extended break, having represented Belgium at the 2018 FIFA World Cup. For a long time, he’d openly said that he wanted to return to Madrid, the city where his young family live, and with his contract running into its final 12 months, suffice to say he had a lot of leverage to play with.

The decision was Chelsea’s, apparently.

As a club not in major need of financing from player sales, should they risk losing a prized asset for nothing in Summer 2019, or cash in and rush to find a replacement in what little time remained in the English transfer window (a window that was closing earlier than the rest of Europe)? They chose the latter, signing Kepa Arrizabalaga from Athletic Club for a goalkeeping world record fee; not only being held to ransom, but inadvertently setting a dangerous precedent for other players to follow in the future.

Deemed by many Blue’s fans as an act of betrayal, their opinion of Courtois has diminished drastically. But was this nothing more than a man trying to do what is best for his family, albeit at great expense to his employers? – Surely something he should have considered before he signed.

In my opinion, any contacted player should abide by his current club’s terms and get on with their job as a professional. However, clearly loyalty is increasingly hard to come by in a world of multi-million pound contracts, a lot of footballers becoming modern day mercenaries in search of their next big payday.

At the top end of football, vast amounts of money is constantly passed back and forth between clubs when players transfer – forget millionaire, we’re talking multi-billionaire to even make a dent! – but with so much capital in the game already, can clubs really say ‘no’ to selling a player who has his heart set on moving? The short answer: yes, but it is risky. Leicester City were so staunch in their desire to hold onto Riyad Mahrez that they ‘allowed’ him to strike for two weeks following January 2018’s transfer window, refusing to sell him and fining him two weeks wages. Ultimately, Mahrez got his wish and left for Manchester City this summer, so it could be argued that Leicester lost out either way, giving in to Mahrez’s demands. However, unlike Chelsea, they held out long enough to make a poignant statement to the rest of their squad: they will not sell unless the move is right for the club at that time.

Other high profile cases in The Club vs. Player battle include Dimitri Payet and Carlos Tevez, at West Ham and Man City respectively, with markedly differing outcomes. Payez was sold after refusing to play when in search of a transfer, whilst Man City, admittedly with a budget and squad permitting, happily sat Tevez in the reserves until his contract ended.

So, in reality, it seems to come down to a battle of wills between the player’s desires and the owning club’s needs, whether that be sporting or financial. In Payet’s case, West Ham were easily the big losers in both aspects, being forced to sell their prized asset for well below market value to avoid major destabilisation in the dressing room, whilst also suffering in match performance and results; he was that important to the team.

 

‘‘Prize money, pressure to win and qualify into the Champions League, TV rights and more mean clubs are dependent on their players. They need results. They need motivated, happy players… They offer money, freedom… but if that doesn’t work, isn’t it the players' responsibility to pick a club they want? And the clubs' not to ‘pursuade’ them to sign regardless. Problem solved.’’


The Solution

The problem is unlikely to disappear any time soon, with clubs of all levels being forced to contend with players’ complaining and gaining increasing influence over their employers – no doubt made worse by the rise in their social media profiles and influence with major brands and sponsors. Perhaps that’s why the bigger clubs try to gag and monitor as much of their player’s media and voices as possible. The less control, the less risk. 

Or so they think. They forget that by doing so, in a world of big money, big influence and different rules all-round, they further enclose the ‘bubble’ surrounding the players, their expectations and behaviour to get their own way in a world where many idolise them…. A bubble that may ultimately burst onto the club.




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