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Footballers Living on the Breadline: Low Wages, Short Contracts, No Security | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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David Low completed his national service in Singapore and then made a living from football in Australia, USA, Germany, Switzerland, Hungary, Thailand, Mongolia, New Zealand and Cameroon. Photograph: David Low

London- Manchester City made two players the most expensive defenders in history last month. Kyle Walker’s became the costliest defender in the game when he made a £50m move from Tottenham and, just 10 days later, Benjamin Mendy took the record by joining City for £52m. The day before City signed Mendy they also tied up a £26.5m deal for Danilo, Real Madrid’s second choice right-back, taking their spending on full-backs to £128.5m in the space of a fortnight.

City’s trio of new defenders will each earn around £100,000 per week, a sum that has become common at the richest clubs in the Premier League. However, away from the moneyed elite at the top of European football, the majority of footballers live in a very different world. FIFPro, the union that represent 65,000 players across the world, say 45% of their members earn less than $1,000 a month.

Former Croatia Under-23 international Josip Vukovic has also been looking for a new club this summer but his situation is in stark contrast to the new signings at City. He was released by RNK Split at the end of the season as the club had been relegated two divisions from the top Croatian league for non-payment of wages. As many as 41% of footballers have been paid their wages late and, unfortunately for Vukovic, this was not the first time an employer had let him down.

“At my previous club, Istra 1961, I went for five months without being paid,” he says. “I was injured for a few months while I was at Istra and had to pay the private medical costs of around €10,000 myself for treatment of a pelvic bone. The club then suggested that my monthly wages of €4,000 should be cut by 50% because of the injury.”

Vukovic, who grew up in the youth set-up at Hajduk Split but never broke into the first team, wanted to stay in Croatia but knew that only a few clubs are guaranteed to pay wages on time so looked abroad. “It’s very unfair and I’m very nervous about my situation,” he says. “The life of a football player here is unstable but it is my whole life. I have made a lot of sacrifices since being a youth-team player to do this. The clubs just want to buy and sell players – they want easy money. They are not being professional. They expect us to be professional at every level, but they are not themselves.”

Earlier this week Vukovic found a new club, Vitez of the Premier League of Bosnia and Herzegovina, where he is pleased to be earning €2,000 a month. He is on a short-term deal – until December 2017 – but there is nothing unusual about that; globally, the average length of a footballer’s contract is just 22.6 months – less than two years.

David Low was also on the lookout for a new club this summer but, unlike Vukovic, he has the added struggle of knowing his career is winding down. The 33-year-old had a late start in football as he had to complete two years of national service in his native Singapore but he has still crammed a lot of experiences into his time as a player.

He has played in a dizzyingly wide range of countries over the past decade, including Australia, New Zealand, USA (where his club folded), Switzerland (where his club went bankrupt), Hungary (where he left due to unpaid wages), Germany, Italy, Thailand (where he left due to unpaid wages), Iceland (where he left due to restrictions on non-EU players) and even Mongolia.

Low’s most recent port of call was Cameroon, where he joined top-flight club Canon Yaoundé. Like so many of his contracts, this one lasted for only four months. When it expired, he move to another Cameroonian club, Cosmos de Bafia, on another short-term deal.

“During my time in Cameroon, some of the best players – including internationals – were earning between $1,000 and $3,000 per month, but the majority were on less than $1,000 per month,” says Low. “It is the same in Asian countries, such as Malaysia and Thailand, as well as Eastern Europe, where clubs are going bankrupt or are financially unstable. Most players prefer to keep quiet about this so they can get another contract. It is an illusion for footballers everywhere today – they are drawn to the glamour of it all without knowing the reality behind it.”

Low’s perspective is understandably coloured by bitter experience. “Football is a very tough business, very harsh. Football fans think it is very pretty, very glamorous but it’s not like that. Contracts are not respected. In some countries they just sack the player. Many of the football bosses are in business or government – and some of them are corrupt. Lots of players are afraid to stand up for themselves because they think it will affect their careers. Local football federations and sports ministers must lay down the law and protect the players.”

“Even in Western Europe it is very hard for players in lower divisions. People think Europe is the holy grail but a lot of lower league players are suffering. It’s a cruel world. Only the strongest survive. The richest clubs should help the poorer clubs. There’s an imbalance in the money.”

The inequality in the game has at least caught the attention of Uefa president Aleksander Ceferin, who says he is considering the introduction of a salary cap to close the gap between football’s richest clubs and the rest. Speaking earlier this summer Ceferin warned that the wealth gap was “increasing dangerously” and that something would have to be done. “In future, we will have to take into serious consideration the possibility of limiting clubs’ budgets for players’ wages,” he said. “The wealthiest clubs are only getting richer and the gap between them and the rest is getting bigger. If we succeed it will, in my opinion, be an historic change.”

Ceferin’s words came before Paris Saint-Germain signed Neymar for £197m and bumped his wages up to £520,000 a week. You wonder what Vukovic and Low feel when they see a fellow professional earning more in a month than they will make in their entire careers. As Low says: “We move from contract to contract with a lot of insecurity. It is a very risky job as the money is never guaranteed.”

The Guardian Sport