15 Jan 2017

Footballers' lives: nasty, brutish and short

From The Weekend, 10:06 am on 15 January 2017

Contrary to what you might believe, the life of professional footballer is uncertain, poorly paid and short.

For the Messis, Ronaldos and Bales of this world life is indeed a bowl of cherries, but they are at the top of a tiny band of pros who make a living from the sport. Down in lesser leagues life is far from glamorous.

This is according to new research done by FIFPRO, the union for the world's most popular team sport. The 2016 FIFPro Global Employment Report tells of short careers with even shorter contracts.

It analysed professional footballer's salaries, contract renewals and transfers, and gathered information about footballers throughout their careers.

Wellington Phoenix striker Roy Krishna in action against Melbourne City

Wellington Phoenix striker Roy Krishna in action against Melbourne City Photo: Photosport

Lynn Freeman spoke with Andrew Scott-Howman, a Wellington lawyer who represents some of New Zealand's professional footballers.

He says just as most actors wait tables and hope for a break the story is the same for footballers and because we only see the tip of the professional iceberg, we forget that 80 percent are just getting by.

FIFPro conducted the study with the University of Manchester that involved 14,000 players in 87 different leagues.

“The football fan in New Zealand probably couldn’t name six or seven leagues. This involved … leagues in every country: England, Spain, Italy; all the way down to the Congo.”

The study broke professional football down into three tiers.

Worldwide, the top 2 percent of players are paid astronomical salaries and have eye-wateringly handsome working conditions.

Then there are players in ‘decent’ leagues in countries such as New Zealand and Australia who are well looked after but unlikely to be set for life after one season.

And finally, the vast majority’s (over 80 percent of players who returned the survey) working conditions are pretty rubbish.

Football salary facts:

Carlos Tevez.

Carlos Tevez has signed to Shanghai Shenhua for $NZ1.2 million a week. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

Of 14,000 who answered the survey, less than 2 percent had income in excess of $US750,000 a year almost half (45 percent) earned less than $US1000 a month.

So how would an A-league player in New Zealand be doing?

“The average salary in the A league is $120,000. The top salaries in the A league range from $180,000 [to] $200,000 and certain marquee players can earn in excess of that - but they don’t tend to be New Zealanders,” Scott-Howman says.  

He says although the A League may not be top flight football, conditions are among the best in the world.

“Conditions of work in New Zealand and Australia are at the very high end of the world scale; you get paid the figure in your contract and you get paid on time. If you move teams there are relocation benefits for housing and schools.

“Our players, although they’re not at the high end of salaries, they are paid well and looked after well compared with the rest of the world.”

But even for a relatively well paid journeyman professional, life is uncertain.

One New Zealand player is quoted in the survey.

Players are a commodity whether they like it or not, Scott-Howman says.

“The average length of a professional career is 3-and-a-half years, the average length of a contract is 22 months.”

The reason for this odd 22-month timeframe is because clubs sell on players before they’re out of contract.

“If you sign for 2 years my incentive is to sell you before the end of your contract because then I get a transfer fee, if I let you get to the end of your contract you’re a free agent and you don’t get anything.”

Quite often a player is transferred against his or her will, the survey showed.   

Lionel Messi has won the Ballon d'Or for a record fifth time.

Lionel Messi has won the Ballon d'Or for a record fifth time. Photo: Photosport

“You’re going to be doing the same job but now you’re going to be based in Bangkok. Imagine the upheaval in your life? Quite often players are told you’ll only be there for a year anyway.” 

And to even get to this level you have to be at the very top of the talent heap. 

Scott-Howman says Dutch club Ajax has a soccer academy which takes on players at 7 years’ old and manages 13 youth teams. Of those 100 plus players each year two will get a professional contract.

“The number of young players in this country even good enough to be considered for that academy would be miniscule, probably no more than half a dozen of our players would be good enough to be considered for it.

“And even if you do get into a world class academy you’re chances of getting a job are minimal and even then it’s a three and a half years career, and your likely earning are less than $100,000 for those years.”

The financial problems that come with such a short playing career are compounded by an often sketchy education. Very few professional footballers have qualifications to fall back on.

He says it’s a sports-wide problem with 60 percent of all professional athletes broke within three years of finishing their career.