In recent years, there has been a progressive increase in the number of footballers failing to honor their contracts. In soccer, most players are signed to 3, 4 or 5 year contracts. The sad truth is that many supporters of soccer know that this is meaningless today. The evidence shows that a contract provides little stability for teams that sign their players for several years. If a player does not want to be at a club, the club will normally struggle to retain his services. The ultimate outcome will often be that the player transfers to another team, who may be offering a better remuneration package than his current club.

This problem has been highlighted by the recent and ongoing saga revolving around Manchester United’s Portuguese Midfielder Ronaldo. Ronaldo has been at the core of a feud between Manchester United and Real Madrid of Spain. Despite the English club’s insistence that the player is not for sale at any price, Madrid have continued in their open pursuit of a player who only recently signed a new contract in Manchester.

Manchester United reported Real Madrid to FIFA (football’s world governing body) for their public pursuit of Ronaldo. FIFA thus far has found no wrongdoing by Madrid and certainly has not penalized them, despite their inappropriate and obvious media-driven quest to unsettle the player and thus trigger a transfer. With FIFA failing to outlaw this type of behavior, the effect is not to deter the Madrid club’s actions; it will in fact encourage them.

With Ronaldo being party to a long-term contract in Manchester, and the Manchester club declaring that the player is not for sale, the story should end there. The reality, however, is that this story has continued to brew for weeks and months subsequent to Manchester’s statement that they will not sell. This is just one example of many where a player seeks a move elsewhere despite his club’s expectancy (and indeed contractual right) that he honor his contract. What does this say about player contracts in soccer? What good is it signing a player on a long term contract, expecting that he stays for that period, making preparations for the seasons ahead with that player’s contributions borne in mind, when he can leave in an instant? The fact that these transactions continue to go through clearly demonstrates the fact that player contracts in soccer are worthless (particularly to teams).

Sepp Blatter, President of FIFA, has an opinion that will only worsen the problem. When asked about clubs that make their players honor their contracts, he described such situations as ‘slavery’. Is it really slavery? Many footballers are on multi-million pound/dollar contracts, live the life of a superstar, drive nice cars, live in good houses and are in prime physical fitness. Slavery?

It is true that the average length of a player’s career is 8 years. It is also true that the European legal principle of freedom of movement for workers is generally well-respected in the European Union. Given these facts many would argue that players should be entitled to transfer to other clubs without restriction so as to assist them in earning as much financially as is possible in their short careers. However, to those who maintain this opinion I would ask what purpose player contracts in football serve. Moreover, are these contracts not failing to serve the purpose for which they were drafted in the first place (stability to teams, security in planning/preparations for seasons ahead, a commitment/statement of intent from players towards their clubs)?

Perhaps there is a wider picture to look at. The ever-increasing commercialization of sport means that money has become a decisive factor in major issues in soccer today. At the end of the day, the majority of incidents where players do not honor their contracts result from an opportunity to earn more elsewhere. Can we blame them? Not really. But we can blame the administrators of sport who are allowing these transactions to go through, often at the expense of the clubs who have little choice but to sell a player who wants to leave (even where the club clearly does not want to sell).

Clubs are given little protection. In fact it has been shown above that the governing bodies are offering zero protection to clubs. Whilst a team can technically rely on its contractual right to hold on to a player until that contract’s expiration, very few will want to keep a player who’s heart and head is elsewhere. The lack of stability in player contracts in modern-day football is a sorry state of affairs. Where will the line be drawn, and who will draw it?