There may not be many people who feel kindly towards Luis Suarez at this moment, apart that is from his mum. Yet this whole unedifying Suarez transfer saga may well help us understand and, even possibly, get a workable buy out clause in future contracts. And that can only be for the good of the game.
Now transfer talk invariably involves coded language where words acquire a wholly different meaning. So the player who seeks to move – and this also applies to managers in the same position – will wax eloquently as to how they want the club they are seeking to leave to show “ambition”. The supporters invariably interpret this to mean the club’s board must buy players that will help their club win trophies. Or, if the club is in the Premier League, at least get into the top four and qualify for the Champions League.
In fact what the player, or the manager, means by ambition is how much will the directors open their cheque books so that there can be more money in the player’s bank accounts. The ambition being talked about is not about who the club buys to improve the squad but how the club can vastly improve the player’s bank balance. Nothing wrong with that. We all seek more money from our employers except we do not dress it up in the altruistic, high moral, tones that football players and managers indulge in.
Similarly, when clubs are upset by players broadcasting their desire to move they talk of players not showing “respect” for their club. I can well understand why the Liverpool manager, Brendan Rodgers, is so angered by Suarez’s comments. However his use of the word respect is a very specialised football use of the term, not the way most of us would use the word if we were having a contract battle with our employers.
In terms of ordinary, every day activities, Suarez has not shown any disrespect to Liverpool. What he has done is that, feeling frustrated, he has come out into the open about transfer negotiations. In that sense he has broken the omerta code of football where, until a transfer is concluded, all sides behave as if nothing is happening. And even after the transfer is done and dusted the fine details of what the buying club has paid, let alone the nitty gritty of the contract, like a buy out clause, remain shrouded in mystery. Certainly there was no talk of a buy out clause when Suarez arrived at Anfield. Now we know such a clause exists and the problem is what Suarez believes this clause guarantees him.
Such clauses are, of course, a relatively recent phenomenon in English football contracts and like so many such innovations have been imported from Europe. There to a large extent transfers are handled very differently to the way they have been traditionally done in this country.
We are getting used to buy out clauses but before the Suarez case emerged the belief was the buy out, or get out, clause meant if another club met a certain valuation then the club that held the registration of the player had to let him go.
This is certainly what Suarez thought his buy out clause meant. But that is not quite the case and we have to thank Gordon Taylor, chief executive of the Professional Players Union, for providing the most intimate reading of a buy out clause that I have ever seen.
Taylor’s remarks come hedged with the sort of qualification you would expect: “It is a delicate situation and we are trying to help.” However it is the details he has provided that are fascinating.
According to Taylor: “He [Suarez] believes the £40 million amount that is mentioned, if that is offered that gives him the right to go. Liverpool, from their side, are saying that is a minimum figure from which they will consider negotiation. If you are going to have a supposed buy-out clause it should be that, but it is different as it says if there is no qualification for the Champions League [by Liverpool] and if there is a minimum offer of £40 million then the parties will get around the table to discuss things but it does not say the club has to sell. It quite clearly states £40 million is a minimum offer for discussions. There is a ‘good faith’ clause in relation to serious discussions but I can’t say it is cast-iron buy-out clause.”
Then in order to soothe Suarez, who is a PFA member, Taylor adds: “We want to be supportive, however, he may well have thought such an offer would trigger a move. The interpretation is not that simple by any means and there is no guarantee of getting a (successful) result if it is referred to the Premier League.”
He then goes on to conclude: “These buy-out clauses have caused no end of problems in the past and they continue to do so because of the way they were drafted at the time. There are different ways it can be interpreted.”
Yes buy out clauses could be better drafted. But the real problem is that the clause is meant to serve two very different objectives. For a player, or more particularly his agent, it provides a figure the agent can then hawk round other clubs when he wants to trigger a move for his client. With a buy out clause in the contract the agent can approach a possible buying club confident the club does not have to guess what the sale price might be.
However the objectives of the club to which the player is contracted are very different. That club inserts a buy out clause because it believes it provides a shield behind which it can retreat should clubs come calling. This may not work if a big club with pots of money wants their player but it can deter most other suitors. But as the Suarez saga shows depending on how the clause is drafted it can create a very different impression on the player’s mind than the one the club intended and this can cause all sorts of problems.
Of course one answer would be not to have the clause at all and go back to the way players’ contracts were drafted in this country. Clearly with regard to Gareth Bale there is no buy out clause otherwise we would have heard of it and certainly the amount Tottenham were seeking. Yet that has not stopped the transfer speculation with Real Madrid which is so frenzied that the move seems to be getting ever closer as the days go by. The fact is, as Keith Mills the Tottenham director put it to me, if a player wants to move there is little or nothing that can be done to stop it. Contracts do not matter.
But then football contracts are not like ordinary contracts. To quote Mills again: “The extraordinary thing with football clubs is that you negotiate players’ salary and transfers upwards when they’re doing very well. It doesn’t seem to reverse when things are not going so well.”
That is not how it works in every day life. There contracts are subject to changing economic winds. Football is so shielded from such reality that we may be sure that whatever happens to Suarez he will end up with a contract which provides him more money. That is the world of modern football and nothing will change that.
Mihir Bose was the first sports editor of the BBC. He has worked for various media outlets and launched the Inside Sport column for the Daily Telegraph. Now a freelance journalist he has written 28 books. His latest book: Game Changer: How the English Premier League Came to Dominate the World was published by Marshall Cavendish for £14.99