On the surface, their cases couldn’t be farther apart.
On the one hand we have Dimitri Payet, the spoiled 29 year old French diva whose playing “strike” at West Ham appears to have failed to convince his club to sell him to Marseille for a reported price of £20 million.
On the other we have Joël Matip, the beleaguered 25 year old ex-Cameroonian international whose club, Liverpool, are desperately seeking clarification from FIFA on whether his call up for the Africa Cup of Nations means he is ineligible to play for his club, despite his retirement from international football in 2015.
Matip and Payet, hero and villain. However, these narratives share a common thread—our moral view of these players is directly tied to their ability to play for their respective clubs. Any supposed sympathy or hostility for their situation is only relative to whether they can help West Ham or Liverpool win. It’s in bad faith.
That’s because both these cases underline the restrictions on movement of workers in professional football (and European sport in general). Yes, it is inescapable that total freedom of movement for players would radically alter football, possibly for the worse. But that does not mean the present arrangement is ideal or fair.
In Payet’s case, imagine you signed a five year fixed employment contract, only for your wife to take a strong dislike to your new surroundings. You decide that your marriage is more important than your job, so you give notice to your employer (either one week or more depending on the contract terms). Normally, that would be enough for you to go on your merry way, but in this case your employer not only says no, but that they require a lump sum payment (transfer fee) in excess of the remaining value of your contract from another employer before letting you leave. You are reasonably outraged, and weigh your options. You decide that you won’t work until your employer allows you to go.
Many have expressed understanding with Payet’s family situation, but less so with his decision to refuse to play. But what other recourse does he have? Payet and his representatives know that West Ham has every reason to wait for the summer to take bids, when there will be more potential offers. But Payet does not want to wait six months. By refusing to play, Payet has some measure of leverage against the club that the law does not provide because of sport’s “special status” in European law.
Of course, our sympathy for the man is limited by the fact Payet is one of the better paid players in the sport. He should shut up and play and show loyalty to the fans! But for every Payet, there are many other lower league players whose clubs refuse to pay their salaries, while using their contracts to keep them from leaving. The amount of money is different but the principle is the same. If Payet plays nice with West Ham, shuts up and carries on, it weakens the case for countless players in smaller clubs across Europe.
Matip’s situation is similar. A player retires from international football, his national team sends a “message” by calling him up, and now FIFA appear to be taking their sweet time offering Liverpool assurances they will not be docked points or Matip sanctioned for simply following FIFA regulations. By delaying clarification despite Matip’s adherence to FIFA’s own stipulations on international retirement, FIFA are signalling that national associations take precedence over the players they represent.
The difference is we have sympathy for Matip, but only insofar as Liverpool are in the heat of a Premier League campaign. But as long as we snipe at Payet while defending Matip, our arguments for Matip’s freedom to choose where and for whom he wants to play ring hollow.
It’s true that there is no football without fans, but there is also no football without footballers. Of course sport is a special case; an entirely free market of labour could prove disastrous for the game. But as club owners and league executives increasingly try to transform football into a global business, we can no longer blithely ignore labour issues in the game under the guise that ‘football is different.’ We need to put club loyalties aside and start to think bigger. West Ham fans should realise that what goes around comes around.