When Manchester United are on TV, it isn’t long before talk turns to Paul Pogba, and then to the size of his transfer fee. He’s not unique in this, rarely a day goes by without some talk about a player and a transfer fee. Players are held to account against the number paid for them, others are defined by them – ‘the 100 million pound man’.
Speculation about potential fees for potential future transfers is constant. They’re one of football’s oldest traditions, going back to 1893 when Jack Southworth was transferred from Blackburn Rovers to Everton for £400.
But there are few, if any, other walks of life where the company you work for demands a big, rather arbitrary fee, to release your registration with that company, so you can negotiate another contract of employment elsewhere. You’d be outraged if you worked for Sainsbury’s and they had the right to deny you the chance to take a job at Tesco and demanded a fee from Tesco in order to let you go. You want the right to quit one job and get another whenever you want to, don’t you? This is a right denied to footballers.
Yet we all take the very concept of transfer fees for granted. Familiarity prevents us even questioning what they are and why they exist, but when you do, they stand no scrutiny at all. Think about it, you hear that some player has cost £43m and, if you’re like me, you wonder why it was 43 and not 40 or 48. But no-one can tell you why because the fact is human talent cannot be defined in this way. So it is just basically made-up bullsh*t.
Kepa Arrizabalaga cost Chelsea £71m to trigger a release clause and transfer him from Athletic Bilbao. Alisson cost Liverpool £56m. No-one can point at a part of the Chelsea man’s body and tell us it’s worth £15m more than the Liverpool man. Is he 27% better? How would you even go about proving someone is 27% better? You can’t. There is simply nothing tangible that either justifies the difference between the two fees, or the level of the fees in the first place.
But for some reason, everyone pretends it isn’t all made-up nonsense and talks about fees like they make sense (eg “We need a £50m striker”), as though they’re based on some international agreed metric which has some core logic. They don’t. In fact, they’re so ludicrous, they bring the whole game into some sort of disrepute, because nobody is ‘worth’ the money that is paid for players and everybody knows that.
And where is it going to end? As fees spiral ever upwards, unless a player has scored five goals, saved someone’s life and knitted a pair of socks by the end of the game, you feel they’re not really worth the money and I don’t want to think ‘he’s not worth the money’ but I do all the time, I’m sure we all do. It is a disturbing and uncomfortable cognitive dissonance between the weird football financial world and the normal world in which we live.
FIFPro general secretary Theo van Seggelen claimed in a recent statement that escalating transfer fees have “helped to destroy competitive balance” and that “football is ever more the domain of a select group of rich, mostly European-based clubs” which is another reason why I’d like to see an end to the very principle of a transfer fee. However, that can’t happen until we revolutionise the nature of player contracts, which are every bit as arcane and odd as the transfer fees are ludicrous.
In the real world, you agree to a contract of pay and conditions, but it is unlikely the company will deny you the autonomy to go and work for another company unless a fee is paid to them. It doesn’t even sound legal. But this is the case in football.
You simply can’t be a freelance footballer selling your services to a club. This leads to players having to find ways to extract themselves from a club that doesn’t want to sell, as Thibaut Courtois did by going AWOL. All a player should have to do is serve a pre-agreed notice to quit period, the same as any of us. The duration of that period would be set in your contract of employment.
It’s not as if the status quo especially suits clubs. A player can sit out their contract for years, picking up big wages, refusing to move on, often annoying fans in doing so, even when the manager doesn’t rate the player. That sometimes happens when a new manager comes in mid-season. If football wasn’t set up in such a strange way, the club could offload players as easily as players could move clubs.
All of the wrangling over Aaron Ramsey’s situation at Arsenal doesn’t suit either party and has led to the new head of football Raul Sanllehi saying a player’s contract “should never go the last year, as a policy”. So that means that a five-year contract is in reality four years, or extended to six or longer. But all this fuss and bother is wholly unnecessary.
If all players were simply self-employed on rolling contracts which could be easily ended and the player’s registration surrendered, simply by giving a 30-day notice, it would be a flexible solution for all parties. It would end transfer fees and ridiculously inflated valuations of players and it would stop players being defined by those fees. Yes, rich clubs would likely dominate still by paying the biggest wages, but the important thing is that everyone on all sides would have more freedom and life would be much more simple and transparent. The whole business of ‘running down’ contracts, transfer windows opening and slamming shut, Jim White, the colour yellow, or the endless negotiation of contract extensions, would all be removed in one fell swoop.
As neither club nor player really benefits from how things currently are, then why not bin the whole thing and start again with a more modern, more sensible, more typical, more balanced employer/employee relationship? After all, the footballers are workers and the clubs are businesses. Football shouldn’t be different from any other profession and I’m sure we’d all welcome more focus on football and less on money.