There is a very interesting battle going on between professional soccer clubs and their players, mostly in Europe. It is a battle over who controls the player.

With the increasing amount of transfer fees, players are becoming key investments and assets for professional clubs. They are meant to pay dividends in several ways

  • through winning championships and therefore bringing in significant money from competitions such as the Champions League
  • from increased merchandise sales
  • from increased TV revenues
  • from selling the player at an even higher transfer fee

With these investments clubs are very keen on protecting the health and capabilities of their assets. After all an injured or unfit player does not perform and their revenue potential for the club drops. So clubs have developed a plethora of increased rules and conditions to ensure the performance of their players. For example:

  • Nutrition – clubs prescribe what players can eat and drink at what times
  • Sleep – how much and when players sleep, at home or on road trips
  • Use of cell phones and devices – not in the bedroom, during team meals/meetings/etc.
  • Medical tests – daily blood tests and analysis, saliva analysis, weight
  • Recreational activities
  • Training requirements during the off-season
  • Analysis – players are “wired” during practice and games and information on heart rate, speed, distance run, breathing, etc. are fed instantly into data bases

There is not much left in a life of a pro player that is not controlled.

Players also benefit financially. Their salaries have risen exponentially somewhat in line with the transfer fees. But at the personal level some players are struggling with all the control by the club and they are acting out. Drinking binges, absences, unauthorized travel with and to friends and family. I believe that as humans they are struggling with the lack of control over their personal lives, not unlike children with strict parents acting out.

Clubs and players interests come together in the contract between them. Contracts stipulate the obligations of each party as well as minimum future transfer fees for which players can be sold. This is the key – can be sold. The club is under no obligation to actually accept an offer.

So why are more and more players provoking a transfer by acting out against their club and the contracts they signed? Let’s look at a current example. Top Borussia Dortmund striker Aubameyang is rumored to be in touch with Arsenal for a transfer. He has a few years left in his contract, but he wants to go. Why? Because Arsenal is offering him a higher salary and he believes there are fewer restrictions on his private life, not as much discipline. Dortmund wants to keep him, at least until the end of the season in order to achieve the club’s competitive and financial goals. But he wants to transfer now. So what has he done? Skipped practices, came late to meetings, went on unauthorized trips, etc. The club took disciplinary action and benched him for the last two games. The focus of the team has shifted from competition to the conflict. The fans are upset, team mates are split between supporting the club and Aubameyang, the media are having a field day. The result? Two ties in the last two games against lower opponents scoring just one goal. That does not help anyone.

But, the club has to be careful. The less he plays the more his transfer value declines. The player has to be careful as well. The less he plays and the more his value declines, the lower his salary potential gets. So it becomes a very tricky dance until the situation resolves itself – most likely in an immediate transfer. I should mention one other key fact: At the end of the contract players can transfer for free, the club gets nothing. So it is in the club’s interest to extend contracts and sell a player before it’s expiry.

It is a sad situation that players would essentially blackmail their club to get an immediate release. Some players at least wait until the end of the season and come to a reasonable agreement with their club. But it is an understandable situation and the clubs are not without fault for escalating the financial parameters.

The questions are: Has soccer become too much of a financial business? Has it moved away from being a sport? Is it any different from any other pro sport?

I don’t have the answers but what concerns me most is that it has become more about money than the game. And that is not a good model for our children to grow into.

Maybe it is time to scale back a bit on controlling players’ lives, on making them less of a machine that is tracked and analyzed every minute of every day. Is it all really necessary or is it done just because clever entrepreneurs have developed the tools and information systems to facilitate the controls? Time to determine what is actually essential and relevant and cut out the rest. At the same time the transfer fees need to be held in check and a mechanism needs to be developed that prevents clubs making more money from clever transfer strategies than from playing good and successful soccer.

FIFA is trying with their financial fair play program – a good start. I look forward to its success and to FIFA taking the holistic view and also look at standard contracts and enforce their application. There are professional leagues who are more successful – no transfer fees (trades), salary caps, penalties for breaking contracts, etc.. Although FIFA is the largest and most profitable sports organization in the world, it can learn from its peers.