The two best players at Arsenal—Alexis Sánchez and Mesut Ozil—are set to hit the market next summer. The club has either decided not to or isn’t able to sell its pair of stars, and the Premier League season has already begun with both of them playing on contracts that conclude at the end of it. “Look, let’s not be wrong,” manager Arsène Wenger said earlier this week, “it’s not an ideal situation on the financial side and it demands some sacrifice.”
Meanwhile, Virgil van Dijk, Naby Keita, Philippe Coutinho, and Ousmane Dembélé are all under contract until at least 2020, and they all want to leave their current teams. Southampton’s van Dijk and RB Leipzig’s Keita both reportedly want to go to Liverpool, where they would garner much higher salaries. Despite bids of more than £60 million for each player, their currents clubs have both refused. Liverpool, on the other hand, are feeling the first aftershocks of Neymar’s move to PSG, which sent more than £200 million of spending money to Barcelona. Coutinho now wants to leave Liverpool for Barcelona, one of the few clubs in the world with more financial might than the English side. But the Reds have turned down bids upward of reportedly £90 million. (Coutinho turned in a “transfer request,” but that’s nothing more than a public signal of intent.) Borussia Dortmund’s Dembélé also wants to leave for Barcelona, who have bid £90 million for him, and the German club has not only declined, they’ve suspended their star player.
So, why are they all on long-term deals they now so badly want to get out of?
“Players still hugely value the security of contracts, even when they have significant negotiating power,” said Omar Chaudhuri, head of football intelligence at the consulting firm 21st Club. “It's probably a loss-aversion thing, where the fear of getting a worse contract because of a slump in form outweighs the hope of an improved contract either at their current club or a new team after good performance.”
When players want to leave their current clubs, their pleas are often met with some form of the following comment: “Well, then you shouldn’t have signed a contract.”
In the future, maybe they won’t.
Technically, soccer free agency began on December 15, 1995.
Before then, clubs controlled players even after their contracts ran out. Up until the 1960s, the system was akin to, as The Telegraph put it, “slavery in football.” If a player’s contract expired, he couldn’t leave for a new club without the previous club’s approval. At the same time, the previous club also wasn’t obligated to sign the player to a new deal if they refused to let him leave. They didn’t have to pay him and they could prevent anyone else from paying him—the structure gave clubs the power to destroy a player’s career.
After a Newcastle midfielder named George Eastham successfully challenged the system in a British court in 1963, the balance of power shifted toward labor—but only slightly. If teams didn’t grant a player’s release, they were now required to sign him to a new contract. Players were at least guaranteed income, but they still had little say over where it came from.
Then came the Bosman ruling.
In 1990, Belgian midfielder Jean-Marc Bosman was playing for RFC Liege in his home country. Bosman was in the last year of his contract and wanted to leave for Dunkirk in France. However, the French club was unwilling to meet Liege’s asking price, so negotiations fell apart, and rather than letting Bosman go, Liege cut his wages by 75 percent, and refused to play him.
Instead of accepting these terms, Bosman hired a lawyer, Jean-Louis Dupont, and took the case to court. Initially, the pair was turned aside, but in 1995, the European Court of Justice ruled in Bosman’s favor, finally allowing players to change clubs without a transfer fee, once their contracts ran out.
At the time, European clubs worried that the ever-important revenue from transfer fees would dry up: If players could just run out their contracts and sign wherever they wanted, why wouldn’t they do that? Without transfer fees attached to their signing, more money would presumably go toward their salaries.
“There was definitely a concern post-Bosman about running down of contracts,” Chaudhuri said.
Of course, that hasn’t come close to happening: Premier League teams alone have already spent more than €1 billion this summer. Some high-profile players do run down their contracts: Michael Ballack, Andrea Pirlo, and Robert Lewandowski are three of the biggest names to do so in recent years. But more often than not, clubs will either sell off a player before he gets to the last year of his deal, or they’ll re-sign him to a new contract because the more years a player has on his deal, the more he’s eventually worth in the transfer market. And even when players do run out their deals, the rhetoric still gets couched in the club-first language of the market: The player isn’t signing with a new team; no, the team is acquiring him on a “Bosman” or on a “free.”
The Bosman ruling is one of the landmark moments in modern soccer.
“Once the European Court of Justice ruled that clubs no longer had to pay transfer fees after the expiration of a player's contract, all hell broke loose,” former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson wrote in his book, Leading. “Suddenly it was a free-for-all."
It’s no doubt led to higher salaries and improved labor power. But it still hasn’t created the same free-flowing movement that many expected—and some feared—over 20 years ago.
In practice, then, free agency in soccer still really hasn’t begun. However, if this summer is any indication, it could happen soon.
For top players today, the risks of signing a short-term contract aren’t what they once were.
With revenues rising throughout Europe’s top leagues thanks to billion-euro television deals, there’s more money to go around. Brazilian midfielder Paulinho, who had unsuccesful stints in Poland and at Tottenham before heading to China, just moved to Barcelona for a €40 million fee. Gylfi Sigurdsson, who also struggled at Tottenham before dropping down the Premier League standings to Swansea, was just purchased by Everton for €49 million. Paulinho is 29, and Sigurdsson is 27; the rising revenue has given players a much wider margin for error. Even if you have a couple tough seasons, someone will have enough money to give you a second or third or fourth chance.
Throw in the growing number of insurance companies that will offer specific injury-related packages to cover lost wages, and maybe it’s time for some players to start signing shorter deals.
“For top players who have the leverage to do so, signing shorter contracts and/or running down existing contracts is a strategy that could pay off in a big way,” said Jake Cohen, a sports lawyer who has Premier League clients. “The shorter the player's contract, the less transfer value he has to clubs, as there is always the risk to the club that the player will simply run down his contract. By taking steps to minimise the transfer fee attached to him without reducing his overall value as a footballer, the player puts himself in a position to secure a larger wage and compensation package in subsequent contract negotiations.”
No matter how much money is out there, a short-term contract is still a bet on yourself: If you play well and run down your deal, you’ll likely be in for a big payday. But if you sacrifice a five-year contract for a two-year deal and then struggle with injuries, performance, or playing time, you’ve likely lost the same level of long-term security you could have initially had.
“The optimal way for footballers to mitigate the risks involved in signing shorter deals may be to sign long-term deals, but with these NBA-style opt-out clauses,” Cohen said. “This type of contract structure not only provides the player with financial security: The player can always choose not to opt out should market and personal conditions dictate that he's already in the best possible situation. But it also provides the player with the freedom to test the market and a mechanism for which to earn his full market value, rather than having a sizable chunk of his value siphoned off by his current club in the form of a transfer fee.”
LeBron James signed a two-year deal with a player option in the second year when he first went back to the Cleveland Cavaliers, then opted out, did the same thing, opted out again, and then signed a three-year deal last summer with the ability to opt out again, as everyone expects him to, next summer. Kevin Durant signed a two-year deal with the Golden State Warriors in 2016 but opted out this summer—only to sign another deal with the same player option. Why couldn’t Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi do the same thing?
Of course, those are the two best players in basketball and soccer; they’re in position to sign such player-favorable deals because they immediately reset the balance of the sport every time they sign a contract. So, for a nonsuperstar soccer player to sign a deal with an opt-out clause, they’d likely have to settle for a contract with a substantially lower total value than they would have otherwise received.
In the NBA, though, an above-average starter like J.J. Redick can sign a one-year, $23 million deal that triples his earnings from the previous season but also maintains future flexibility. A still-unproven player like Kentavious Caldwell-Pope gets a one-year, $17.75 million deal that exceeds the total value of his rookie contract but also gives him the platform to perform and earn a more lucrative and longer-term contract next summer. In soccer, those kinds of deals still haven’t really been established, but it would be a way for players to wrest back some control.
The other option, especially for players like Coutinho, Keita, Dembélé, and van Dijk, would be to negotiate contracts with clear release clauses.
In Spain, every contract is required to have buyout clauses—a set number that the player has to pay to get himself out of his current deal. That clause typically gets covered by the buying club, as it did in Neymar’s transfer to PSG. But the release clauses we often hear about in England and elsewhere aren’t the same thing. Typically, they’re just “good faith” clauses that say that a team will enter into negotiations to sell a player if they receive a bid of a certain amount. Those clauses often don’t stand up to legal scrutiny, and that’s why when Arsenal offered £40,000,001 to Liverpool—£1 more than Luis Suárez’s supposed release clause—the outcome was Suárez playing another season for Liverpool before transferring to Barcelona the next summer.
However, players could start negotiating automatic release clauses into their deals. This would require their teams to allow them to enter into personal negotiations with any club that submits a bid for whatever number the clause specifies.
That calculus, though, is ever-changing because of the market. Take van Dijk. Two years ago he was a relatively unknown center back who transferred from Celtic in Scotland to Southampton in England for €16 million. He signed an initial contract, but after a successful first season, he signed a new six-year deal last year. Van Dijk could’ve negotiated for a release clause in his new contract, but that would’ve likely required him to accept a lower overall salary. Plus, how does he know what number to put on it? The higher the release clause, the bigger contract he’d get—but how is he supposed to know that a year later one team would be willing to break the defender transfer record to acquire his services? If he’d inked a two-year deal at the start, he could basically sign with the Premier League team of his choosing this summer for a higher salary than he’d get if he ever moved via transfer fee.
As Eastham and Bosman showed, there are plenty of problems with a labor market that attaches fees to individual player movement. Both of their legal challenges have brought the shape of the system closer toward what it should look like, but this summer serves as a reminder that something still isn’t right. That will probably always be the case as long as transfer fees exist—the best players get funneled to a handful of teams that can afford their transfer fees; agents are incentivized to constantly move their players so they can pocket a percentage of the fees; players make less money because of the fees—but a soccer career is incredibly short, and the players should get paid as much as they can while they still can.
“There is a very finite window for which anyone can earn money playing football, and this window could close at any moment,” Cohen said. “As such, footballers should be exploring all possible ways to maximise their earning potential.”