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Jan 25, 2011

The lessening value of a contract

There's been a lot of talk during the current transfer period in Germany about those ruthless, egotistical, deluded, pampered, spoilt and overpaid specimens known as football players; their cold-blooded, shifty, greedy, perfidious, devious and cunning sidekicks called agents and the almost limitless power that the combination of the two wields in the world today.

The debate was triggered when an unnerved Wolfsburg at last waved goodbye to £27 million striker Edin Dzeko, who'd been at the centre of transfer speculations for 18 months running before joining Manchester City, and it was followed by no less than three well-known players asking (or even demanding) to be let out of their respective contracts: Hoffenheim's Demba Ba, Schalke's Jefferson Farfan and Hamburg's Ruud van Nistelrooy.

A player's contract, the argument went, has become a document that binds only one party, namely the club, because the players can do as they please: when they smell a good transfer they will pout and moan and find reason to suffer from mysterious ailments until the clubs let them move to wherever the grass is greener. (Or until the clubs better their contracts to match those offers from abroad, be they real or imagined.)

Bremen's general manager Klaus Allofs said: "We mustn't give the impression that players or agents can create so much pressure that the clubs have no choice but comply." But of course that's exactly what's happened at Hoffenheim, where Ba has been offloaded to West Ham on loan, and what would in all likelihood have happened at Schalke with Farfan if there had been a serious offer for him.

"What is taking place here and also at Hoffenheim is no longer tolerable," said Schalke's coach Felix Magath after Farfan was late in joining the team's training camp in Turkey and told the press he would be moving before the transfer window closed. Magath added: "Some players act as if it doesn't mean a thing that they have signed a contract."

For Schalke, it's a case of once bitten, twice shy. They've been through a similar saga starring defender Rafinha. For most of the five years that he played for Schalke, the Brazilian made no secret of the fact he would like to move to a bigger, better and more famous club. Schalke finally sold him last summer - to Genoa.

However, clubs can be equally annoyed when a player does the exact opposite - when he never complains, never asks for a transfer and quietly stays put. Strangely enough, Schalke are yet again a good example. They have been trying for a solid two years now to get rid of midfielder Albert Streit, but the player has morphed into in a real-life version of the John Belushi character in the sketch "The Thing That Wouldn't Leave".

Streit was first demoted to the reserves under coach Fred Rutten, then loaned out to Hamburg, then suspended by coach Magath, then sent to the second team again. While playing for Schalke's reserves he was insulted and even spat at by the club's own fans. "They treated me like a criminal," Streit said at the time. But his crime is that he has signed a contract until 2012 which he is determined to fulfil even though the club are all but begging him to pack his bags and hit the road. (I think I don't have to add that it's a very lucrative contract. But perhaps I should add that "Streit" means "quarrel".)

Yet this case also suggests clubs may be a tad hypocritical when they whine about footballers playing hardball with them regardless of valid contracts. Because humiliating a professional by consigning him to what is in effect amateur football, hoping it will make him dissolve his contract, isn't exactly cordial either.

As Uli Hoeness put it a few days ago, talking about the recent trend of players forcing a move: "We have to take a strong stand against such behaviour. But it's also a case of 'look who's talking'. You don't have to be surprised by all this when you hear that players who are unwanted have to train on a remote pitch, as in Schalke, or have their shirts taken away from them before the season begins, like Huntelaar at Real Madrid." (Or are sent to the second team, like Zvjezdan Misimovic at Galatasaray.)

Double standards were also on display at Hamburg. During the very week that Van Nistelrooy was told he couldn't move to Real because his Hamburg contract runs until the summer, the club were openly courting the German FA's (DFB) Matthias Sammer and publicly announced last Tuesday that the supervisory board had voted 12-0 in favour of making him Hamburg's new director of football.

At the time, Hamburg were criticised because such behaviour wasn't very respectful towards Bastian Reinhardt, the club's current director of football, and also because the announcement appeared a bit rash. (Which was the reason Sammer ultimately rejected the job.) However, no one drew attention to the simple fact that Sammer still has more than two years left on his contract.

Quite obviously, Hamburg just assumed that it's perfectly normal in the world of business to go headhunting without asking the other party, in this case the DFB, for permission. And the DFB must have considered this standard practice too, because on Thursday they asked Sammer to reach a decision for or against them. In other words: for or against an employer he was already under contract to.

Then again, maybe I shouldn't be surprised that few observers considered this in the slightest unbecoming. Because Hamburg have a history of courting executives committed elsewhere. In the summer of 2009, the club lured coach Bruno Labbadia away from Leverkusen so blatantly that Bayer's chairman Wolfgang Holzhäuser angrily said: "Mister Labbadia is under contract for one more year. I have asked Hamburg to respect this contractual situation."

He added: "I'm annoyed about a situation in German football, where coaches enter into contracts and then end them on short notice, without financial compensation for the affected club."

Apart from that admittedly crucial bit about money (in the end, Hamburg paid some 1.5 million euros and Labbadia moved), this statement sounds uncannily like the current complaints levelled against players.

So, if both their direct superiors, the coaches, and their employers, the clubs, don't respect valid contracts when it seems opportune, one shouldn't scold the players for following suit.

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