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Philippe Piat, the president of the French professional footballers’ union (UNFP), who is also vice president of FIFPro and president of FIFPro Division Europe doesn’t mince his words in an interview with Belgian magazine Sport.

 

'The social dialogue has finished. Our relations have been getting worse ever since the clubs became financial companies, and since the crisis arrived...’:

 

Philippe Piat, President and emblematic figure of the UNFP (Union Nationale des Footballeurs professionnels), the powerful union that was established in 1961, welcomed us at his home in Dijon.

 

French football has some troubles. A little more than a year after the Nicolas Anelka affair, the strike by the French national team in South Africa, and the departure of Raymond Domenech, storm clouds are now gathering at Paris Saint-Germain. Lightning has struck there several times since Colony Capital sold the club to the Qatar Investment Authority under Sheikh Tamin Bin Hamad Al-Thani, Crown Prince of Qatar. The club based at the Parc des Princes has been shaken by other storms as well - the defenestration of trainer Antoine Kombouaré (after he’d taken them to the top of League 1!) and his replacement by Carlo Ancelotti, and the matter of Péguy Luyindula (who had been training alone since the beginning of the season, until his contract was terminated on January 18th).

 

There’s plenty there to worry or irritate Piat, even though he’s seen a lot more: ‘When I look at what’s happening, I can’t be optimistic.’ In 1961, at the end of a long struggle, players rose up ‘to give football back to the footballers’, as Piat puts it. But will their achievements withstand the shifting and drifting of high finance, the overcrowding of calendars, the power of players’ agents, the corruption that rigs matches, not just to get big winnings for forecasters, but also to showcase mediocre players?

 

Aren’t clubs more and more setting up smoke and mirror systems to regulate transfers to suit their own convenience?
Philippe Piat: Yes, that’s obvious. It has always been clear to us that it’s players who should pay their agents. But what happens at present? The clubs handle the remuneration for this work and frequently give too much commission to agents, some of whom hardly know the players concerned but turn up at the last minute at the club’s request. Heaps of things can happen, with back-handers at stake or bonuses for other services, like the departure or arrival of other footballers. A player who pays his agent will never offer him 500,000 euros for a transfer if he’s done nothing. Players should nevertheless be asked to agree in principle to the club’s paying a commission, and should know the size of it.

 

It was to avoid this that they set up their smoke and mirror systems, right?
These tricks clearly suit some clubs. I remember a FIFA meeting that was aimed at limiting agents’ commission to 3% of the transfer fee, with a ceiling of one million dollars. The clubs were the applicants but, strangely, they then talked about a limit of two million dollars. As a FIFPro representative I didn’t understand this, for it was a strange way to reduce the agents’ commission. The whole thing collapsed, because everybody had a different opinion: FIFA, UEFA, the clubs, the European Union, the players. At the last meeting of the LFP (Professional Football League), Jean-Michel Aulas, the President of Lyons, said, Piat has been pushing his solution regarding players’ agents for ten years, and I’m beginning to think he’s right.

 

 

Won’t individualism kill football?
Our union is attentive to this problem. There is no more respect for the validity of contracts. A club and a new trainer will sometimes ditch players who no longer fit in with a system. Some footballers, not being any stupider than they are, go as far as to imitate that dodge when they want to leave before the due date. I’m pessimistic about the future, and it’s these economic factors that have put us where we are. Players and clubs are increasingly going to court, and this is dangerous. Club presidents are pressing for the abolition of the winter layoff. But that rest period is indispensable for the players: it’s the only time they can dedicate themselves to family life and enjoy their children’s company. And these executives call us reactionaries...

 

The winter transfer window doesn’t leave you cold!
Regarding the winter transfer window, the UNFP wants to limit purchases to a single player per club. As well as moderating agents’ commissions, this would contribute to improving relations between clubs and players. Business sets the tone, but how the notion of a group has changed since my time as a player! It’s an entire team, or almost, that’s brought up at every meeting. At one time, the bench didn’t exist. The twelfth man was shown on the referee’s list, so he could warm up if he had to substitute for an injured player. The frustration of those who were ‘eliminated’ was worse than it is today. I’m not opposed to money, far from it, and if I need to quote an example I’ll mention Lille. Rudi Garcia has built up a team that has no big names. The starring figure is the whole team, and you can’t buy that during the winter transfer window.

 

Are players still slaves?
Raymond Kopa coined that phrase in 1963. His criticism hit home but, in legal terms, players are still slaves. At Paris Saint-Germain, the labour law question can’t be a major concern for the Qataris, although the rules have to be respected. Unbearable pressures had been applied there to sell Luyindula. As far as he was concerned, he only wanted to stay until the end of his contract. It should be possible to penalize a club that doesn’t want to comply with the decision of the League, which has requested the reinstatement of the player in the pro group. This too is one of the UNFP’s battles. Kopa was right, and he is still right.

 

The UNFP has come a long way, nevertheless.
Fifty years after we took our first steps, we have forty employees, representatives in every club and region, so we can react as soon as a problem arises. Our representatives attend training sessions, and any grievances are quickly passed on to the appropriate authorities. It isn’t easy to be a unionist. You have to be well versed in all the details. That requires work. You have to get up every morning with your knife between your teeth. The players’ union in Belgium, Sporta, is not very combative. When I see that anti-doping checks can be made on players at home, in the middle of the night, during their holidays, without warning and without letters of request, I am outraged. That is a violation of private life for players who spend their time where it is so easy to find them: at the stadium.

 

What have been the major events for your union?
The UNFP obtained its ‘Bosman ruling’ in 1972, establishing the freedom of a player at the end of his contract. In 1995, we supported Jean-Marc Bosman in his struggle so that this freedom would be extended to the whole of Europe, then to the whole world. I’ve known ever since 1972 that this was something positive for the players. From that time on, anything that has to do with the daily life of a player, his future and his physical integrity cannot be arranged without his participation. The UNFP is close to the players and helps them in every field: insurance, redeployment, legal advice, management, unemployment, retirement, training and work experience when the player is awaiting a new team. This demands economic resources, and we have created a magazine, trophies that win lively success in the media, image rights (whenever several clubs or players are exploited, we are awarded rights), a percentage of the television rights.

 

 

What’s left of the Bosman ruling today?
It’s meant to be a positive thing, but it’s being used negatively. Clubs don’t want to apply the law, so they twist it. They don’t want their players to come to the end of their contracts. Their main objective is to get contracts extended, no matter what it costs, before the last year. Mediocre players see their wages rising but the purpose will be to sell them on as quickly as possible to another club which, at the end of the day, will pay the new wage. Football has now entered into a mad Ponzi scheme. The clubs are bled dry because of this. Players are made to earn amounts that bear no relation to their quality, and that’s bad for the system. It isn’t a good move to overestimate wages, for then you get the well paid on the one hand and down-and-outs on the other.

 

You keep on bringing up the good old social dialogue...
At an earlier time, we had genuine discussions and we knew the club presidents. In France and elsewhere, the presidents of big firms are salaried employees and are handsomely paid. I know some who get 80,000 euros a month. It’s finished, terminated, it’s a power struggle and those people don’t respect anything. We’ve ended up bringing an action against the League, because its members, the clubs, don’t comply with their own regulations. Football is an area outwith the law. The managers of these clubs permit themselves to do things in football they wouldn’t dare envisage in their companies.
Labour law forbids you to do as you please. A footballer is now an employee like any other. There have sometimes been strikes, but although I favoured dialogue, I’m wondering now whether going through the courts wouldn’t always have been a better route. It’s the same thing at international level. I’m a member of FIFA’s Dispute Resolution Chamber. When we take our decisions, we don’t want to have to stand up for ourselves against the Court of Arbitration for Sport, because it is subservient to those in power. At the last Champions League final, the bigwigs of the Court of Arbitration for Sport occupied the best seats in the stadium.

 

So, you aren’t very optimistic...
No, even though the UNFP necessarily lives in harmony with its period. Other enormous problems are showing their faces. At a recent conference in Greece, all fourteen representatives of Eastern European clubs said their championships were corrupt. That is a mortal danger for football. Through FIFPro, we are taking on a preventive role. Some players have not been paid for six months and, if they don’t agree to keep their mouths shut, they are threatened and they never get a sniff of their money. Some referees are quick to exclude players who aren’t in on the fiddle. We’ve been told about the ‘3+3’ rule: a club wins at home, loses away with scores known in advance. This opens up the way to a tailor-made honours list. In France, some players turn up who get two or three million euros, but they’re useless. In the East, some players are still threatened with a pistol if they won’t terminate their contracts. We’re preparing a black book about this Mafia system. It isn’t worth while to hold up a bank these days: it’s easier to win a few millions by arranging a transfer.

 

Just Fontaine, the co-founder and first president of the UNFP, said, I’m prouder of the UNFP than of my thirteen World Cup goals.
I understand him. I too am proud of this immense collective labour, but the dangers are terrible and that’s what explains my pessimism about the future.