The Football Lawyer: A move to Premier League is no easy step for African footballers
On Monday, we’ll find out who has been named the 2012 African Footballer of the Year. Of the five nominees announced by CAF, four – Didier Drogba, Yaya Toure, Alex Song and Demba Ba – have either made their reputations or currently ply their trade in the Premier League, giving the sense that England is a particularly welcoming place for African visitors. However, the leap to Europe is still a bracing one for many footballers to make. To make that leap as safely as possible, there’s nothing like the welcoming cushion of a well-negotiated contract. But, if you’re a lawyer representing such a footballer, you’ll find that your work doesn’t stop at thrashing out the best terms you can on their behalf.
But we’ll get to that extra-curricular work in a moment. For now, though, there’s the contract. Sometimes players will arrive with all manner of arrangements already in place, so you need to ask plenty of questions. What obligations are they currently under, and to whom? Is their agent registered with Fifa? What bonuses are they planning to receive? These contracts are often negotiated over the phone and in a very short space of time, frequently involving players and laws from countries where English is not one of the main languages, so you’ll need to have your wits about you.
About 45 per cent of my time with my clients is unpaid and is actually spent doing work that is nothing to do with providing legal advice, and everything to do with making sure that they feel happy and settled in their new town. If there’s a local expat community, then I’ll see that they’re introduced to them, so that they have some friendly and familiar faces. They might be after a good hairdresser, a decent bank, or just a good restaurant – otherwise, as has happened before, they’ll be anxious about venturing out and will just stay eating the food in the team’s hotel, slowly coming to hate it. One of the players that I represented came from abroad and didn’t know how to shop in a foreign supermarket, so I had to set him up with a shopper whenever he went out. These are all seemingly minute things, but they’re vital in a player’s first few months.
Ideally, this emphasis on comfort is also reflected in his playing agreement. Each Premier League player has a contract, which consists of a standard form whose terms are fairly static and well-established. However, attached to that standard form is a Schedule of Benefits – which includes bonuses – and, as you might expect, it is this section which generates much of the most intensive discussion. For a top African player, this can include a one-off payment for the first time that he travels to a European country, and money to cover his removals and bringing his family over. These can amount to something like £300,000 over his first two years: these “resettlement costs” are very important, but are frequently prone to being lost in translation, with serious consequences. This is to say nothing of the vast majority of Africans, who are on far less than this when they first arrive, and for whom these bonuses are absolutely crucial.
I have been pleasantly surprised at the speed with which many African players have adjusted to their new surroundings in Europe. Part of that is due, of course, to the welcoming cultures in which they find themselves, but more of it is down to their extraordinary determination: that perhaps explains why so many of them, such as Drogba and Samuel Eto’o, are now among the finest footballers, African or otherwise, that the world has seen. After all, the path that they have had to walk just to kick their first ball in an elite European league is far from straightforward. In order to help them do so, a football lawyer may often find himself or herself playing the additional roles of friend, chaperone, and general fixer. There are therefore two guarantees in this line of work: the first is that you’ll find yourself going far beyond your initial job description, and the second is that it will never be dull.Tagged in: football
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