Written by Mark Docherty
Despite the ludicrous sums of money being bandied about in modern day football, it is commonplace for players to become unhappy with the way they are treated. Now, this is not necessarily surprising as human nature dictates that people will always strive for a better quality of life than they already enjoy. However, the concerning thing is that it is becoming increasingly common for players to simply refuse to play in order to either have their financial demands met or to engineer a move away.
One might think that footballers are generally looked after well enough to keep them happy, but occasionally a set of circumstances will arise where that is not the case, leading to the world’s most expensive player suing his former club for an unpaid loyalty bonus (seriously, someone should give the poor guy a break!). This has happened after Neymar left Barcelona under dubious circumstances for his world record move to Paris Saint-Germain, where the Brazilian allegedly refused to play until he was sold.
This has resulted in Barcelona confirming yesterday that they will be taking Neymar to court for being in breach of contract, and the best thing for the game, in my view, would be for the court to find in favour of Barcelona, resulting in Neymar paying a hefty fine. This is not because the amount if money being talked about would make the slightest bit of difference to either the club or the player, but because the decision would set a precedent which would, in effect, prevent players from refusing to play in future.
Of course, a court case would not have been needed in the first place if the football clubs themselves had simply been prepared to stand up for themselves by refusing to give in to their prima donna players. The reason that players still feel the need to go on strike, with current examples (allegedly) being Philippe Coutinho and Diego Costa, is that it has been successful for almost every player who has done it in the past. Clubs needed to be stronger when confronted by star players as refusing to give in to a player on strike would send a message to fellow professionals that they were not prepared to be bullied.
Instead it has become the done thing for any unhappy player to refuse to report for training and make themselves unavailable for selection, and just wait for either a new contract to be offered at their current club or for a transfer bid to accepted at a lower fee than they would otherwise have commanded. Players such as Dimitri Payet, Raheem Sterling, and Carlos Tevez have all succeeded in earning moves away (to much greater financial packages) by refusing to play for their teams, thus persuading other footballers that striking is the best way of engineering a move.
Unfortunately this has happened all the way down the football pyramid, resulting in fairly anonymous players deciding that they are too big for their teams and going on strike. The current example that epitomises the state of affairs is the situation at National League Hartlepool United, where Pádraig Amond is refusing to play in order to force a move to Mike Flynn’s Newport County. At a level of football where clubs can go bust over the matter of a few thousand pounds, it is pathetic for a player to be holding their team and fans to ransom, especially when his lack of goals was a major contributing factor to Pools’ relegation last season.
While it is still relatively unusual for players to go on strike, there is clearly a problem when players in the fifth tier of English football are making themselves unavailable. However, there are still examples of players who deal with being unhappy in a way which allows all parties to keep a firm hold of their dignity. Some players realise that there are more reasonable ways of expressing a desire to move clubs or for a new contract than to breach their contract and throw their fans’ support back in their faces. A current example of such a stalwart – though it is not necessarily somebody I would have expected – is Leicester’s Riyad Mahrez.
The Algerian wants to move to pastures new; a fairly reasonable desire for somebody with his ability, having won the PFA Player of the Year Award in 2015-16. However, rather than making himself unavailable for selection he has continued to give his all for his current employers, earning rich praise from Craig Shakespeare, and played a key part in the Foxes’ win against newly promoted Brighton & Hove Albion. Certainly, if I was a manager, I would be much more inclined to buy a player like Mahrez who I could trust to give his all for my team than a player such as Diego Costa who wouldn’t think twice about forcing a move elsewhere.
It seems to me that players simply hurt their reputation by going on strike so easily, so nobody gains anything from such a situation. However, refusing to play has come to be seen as the easy way out of a contract so I cannot see it becoming less common unless football’s governing body does something to put a stop to it. They have been offered the perfect opportunity to do so by setting a precedent in the Neymar case that striking will no longer be tolerated, so hopefully the courts will use that chance for the good of the game. Hopefully honest players like Mahrez will no longer be in the minority.