Newspaper article International New York Times

Some in Professional Soccer Having to Play without Pay

Newspaper article International New York Times

Some in Professional Soccer Having to Play without Pay

Article excerpt

The plight of the players for Racing Santander in Spain -- playing for months without pay -- is becoming more widespread, and threatens to make the game more vulnerable to match-fixing, some say.

Christmas was the last straw for Agustin Fernandez. A powerful defender for the Spanish soccer club Racing Santander, Fernandez had gone four months without receiving a paycheck from the team. Longtime financial mismanagement had brought Santander to the verge of insolvency, and Fernandez was slowly going broke.

When the holidays arrived and Fernandez -- who was supposed to be earning about 2,800 euros, or about $3,900, per month -- could not even afford to buy his 3-year-old daughter the bicycle she asked for, that reality left him in near tears.

"It made me sick that I could not stand up for her as a man," Fernandez said recently. "This is professional football. Racing is a big club, a real club. How could this happen?"

Fernandez left Santander in January for a lower-division team and the promise of regular pay, but he is not alone in his frustration. While most soccer fans are well aware of the glamour and big money of rich clubs like Real Madrid, Chelsea and Paris Saint-Germain, unpaid wages are a growing concern among professional players both in Spain and abroad. The reasons vary -- mismanagement, overspending in pursuit of trophies, corrupt or financially strapped owners -- but they are also a reflection of the larger economic turmoil in recent years in the countries where the teams play.

Situations similar to Santander's have occurred on virtually every continent. Two years ago, players for Shanghai Shenua, in China, protested their missing payments by showing up for training in street clothes before casually strolling around the field while their coaches stared. In Argentina last winter, fans of the top- division club Colon rioted after the team refused to take the field for a match. The players' complaint? They had not been paid for seven months.

According to FIFPro, an organization that represents professional players around the world, unpaid wages are a universal issue but an especially serious problem in Eastern Europe: In a 2011 survey of about 3,200 players there, 41.4 percent said they regularly were not paid on time.

That number was even higher in countries like Greece (nearly 70 percent) and Croatia (about 60 percent). Budding stars with dreams of big homes and expensive cars would be advised to avoid playing in Montenegro altogether: 94 percent of players there said they routinely did not receive their salaries.

Part of the problem, to be sure, are larger economic issues at work in certain countries. But FIFPro argues that the proliferation of unpaid wages is a flashpoint for larger issues within the game: the more unpaid players there are, it contends, the greater the likelihood those players might consider accepting money from match- fixers or other outside agents. About 12 percent of players in FIFPro's survey said they had been approached about fixing a match.

"Nonpayment of players opens the door to corruption," said Philippe Piat, the president of FIFPro.

While the problem is widespread, Racing Santander is embroiled in one of the most dramatic situations. The club, which was founded in 1913, plays in the delightfully named El Sardinero stadium and spent 77 of the past 83 seasons in Spain's top two divisions.

In 2011, though, the club was bought by an Indian businessman, Ahsan Ali Syed. Over the next three years, Santander was relegated two times, dropping from Spain's top division, La Liga, to its third level, Segunda B.

The club's debt was significant before Ali Syed's purchase, according to Juan Antonio Sanudo, the team's acting president, but the finances spiraled quickly as the club tumbled down the Spanish soccer ladder. When Santander was in the top division, Sanudo said, the club had revenues of roughly EUR 26 million, but, under the guidance of a former executive, Manuel Pernia, inexplicably operated with a budget of EUR 37 million. …

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