Saturday 20 July 2019

Comment: Philippe Coutinho and lack of living wage sums up football's disconnect


Philippe Coutinho is all smiles in Barcelona yesterday ahead of the completion of his £145million move from Liverpool. Photo: REUTERS/Albert Gea
Philippe Coutinho is all smiles in Barcelona yesterday ahead of the completion of his £145million move from Liverpool. Photo: REUTERS/Albert Gea
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

What a couple of months it's been for Liverpool Football Club. At the weekend they sold Philippe Coutinho to Barcelona for £142 million (€160m). Last week they bought Virgil Van Dijk from Southampton for £75m (€85m). And in November they agreed to pay their stadium staff the £8.45 (€9.53) an hour recommended by the Real Living Wage campaign, a whopping 95p (€1.07) increase. They'll start in June.

Liverpool mayor Steve Rotheram was over the moon about this phenomenal act of generosity, declaring that the club is, "a responsible and progressive employer that respects and fairly rewards its employees".

His exultation shows how little we have come to expect from football clubs. You don't need to be Karl Marx to see the incongruous relationship between the 95p and the £142m.

A common reaction to fees like Coutinho's is to describe them as "obscene". That's fair enough providing you notice that this form of obscenity is not confined to the football transfer market.

The rapid and massive inflation of fees merely mirrors what has happened to society in the era of free-market fundamentalism.


Virgil Van Dijk at Anfield after his £75m move from Southampton. Photo: PA
Virgil Van Dijk at Anfield after his £75m move from Southampton. Photo: PA

It may be mind-boggling that the world transfer record has increased five-fold within a decade but it's entirely in keeping with the spirit of the age.

After all, we live in a world where the CEOs of America's top 500 companies earn 271 times more than their average employee. Football's model of extravagance at the top and parsimony at the bottom grabs the headlines but there's nothing unusual about it.

That doesn't make it all right. There is a tendency to dismiss the amount involved in transfers such as Coutinho's or Van Dijk's as in some sense having no connection with the real world, like it's Monopoly money. But there is very little fantasy attached to the financial dealings of a big club.

The decision to lay out huge sums in transfer fees and the decision to pay workers at the bottom of the pile as little as possible are connected.

Juan Mata, whose 1pc charitable initiative has been poorly taken up. Photo: REUTERS/Andrew Yates
Juan Mata, whose 1pc charitable initiative has been poorly taken up. Photo: REUTERS/Andrew Yates

So it's reprehensible that one factor contributing to spiralling transfer fees is the exorbitant sums being pocketed by agents.

The classic example of this is the £41m reportedly extracted by Mino Raiola for his involvement in Paul Pogba's transfer from Juventus to Manchester United.

Raiola maximised his personal take by acting for both clubs at the same time, something which might have struck the uneducated layman as slightly illogical. You could argue that the likes of Pogba are profiting by virtue of extraordinary talent. It's hard to mount the same defence of Raiola et al.

United's blithe unconcern about forking out in this case is in stark contrast to its penny-pinching elsewhere. Because Liverpool's £8.45 an hour actually makes the Reds one of only five clubs which have agreed to pay the wage which the organisation Citizens UK have been campaigning for in recent years (the others are Chelsea, West Ham United, Spurs and Everton.) Most of the Premier League's clubs give their lowest-paid stadium staff under £8 (€9.02) an hour.

There was a stark contrast between the 2015-16 annual turnover and minimum-wage rates for the likes of United (£515m, £7.05), Manchester City (£392m, £7.50) and Arsenal (£354m, £7).

The contrast between Huddersfield Town (£13m, £8.50) and Watford (£94m, £6.50) is also striking.

Such disparities illustrate how modern football clubs are run on the Downton Abbey model. Upstairs the aristocrats have so much money they hardly know what to do with it.

They can fritter it away on gambling, property, yachts, any mad old thing which takes their fancy. Downstairs the servants scrape by on a pittance.

To defend this way of doing business is to put yourself in the same position as the poor crawling peasant of old who'd insist to his begrudging peers that, "their lordships know better about that sort of thing than the likes of us".

The situation is indefensible. Take, for example, the fact that Paul Pogba earns £290,000 (€327,000) a week at Manchester United.

I doubt if it would make much difference to Paul were he on £280,000 a week instead. Yet that £10,000 could provide a £100-a-week raise for 100 people, something which would make an enormous difference to the Old Trafford kitchen staff paid £7.05 an hour.

Someone who's tried to change the situation is Pogba's team mate Juan Mata who is donating 1pc of his salary to charitable causes and has sought to persuade other professionals to follow his lead. Yet only five Premier League players have done so.

The league's average salary is £43,317 a week yet £433 is apparently too much to ask from the millionaires who play in it.

There was some excitable talk about Mata sparking a revolution when he began his initiative.

There has been far less comment about the underwhelming response, perhaps because it tells a pretty disheartening story about footballers.

Does anyone really think Paul Pogba doesn't have £2,900 left over at the end of the week?

Professional football doesn't just accept the tenets of the greed is good world view, it propagandises for them.

There is more and more talk about wages and fees and more and more acceptance of the idea that success only comes via the cheque book and the war chest.


Football tells its supporters that the high achiever can never have too much money and that everyone else should be happy with what trickles down. The emperors in the Colosseum would approve.

The logical culmination of this amoral and wealth-worshipping world view will occur in four years' time when a World Cup takes place in stadiums literally built on the bones of slave labourers. No footballer has expressed concern about or solidarity with those exploited in Qatar.

Not a single one. These are the guys your kids idolise. And maybe that's OK, kids are kids after all. But adults have to do a little better than stick their fingers in their ears and go, "Na na na na, I can't hear you. I just want to watch the match."

So; is Coutinho worth £142m? I don't know and I don't really care. But I do know that nobody should have to work for seven quid an hour.

Even if a small increase puts those cash-strapped Premier League clubs in danger of bankruptcy.

Why do the big clubs spend so much money on players? Because they can.

Why should they pay their employees a Real Living Wage? Because they could.

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