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The history of player contracts

Footballers are some of the highest-paid athletes in the world. We look at the history of footballers' contracts.

Lionel Messi Signs New Contract With FC Barcelona : News Photo
Lionel Messi is one of the highest paid footballers in the world

In a world monopilised by cash and consumerism, football is no different. The average Premier League wage sits at a very comfortable £44,000 per week and the growth of finance in the sport is exponential. It is, therefore difficult to envisage a time when those at the top of the game played merely for pleasure, ever so often pocketing an incredibly modest fee for their services.

As we see the likes of Paul Pogba secure big money transfers today, it is the football contract which is the raw catalyst of such mammoth moves and which drives the game today. Here,we analyse the entire history of player contracts, so we can pinpoint where it all began.

The basic timeline

The origin of the sport itself divides opinion. Many believe football can be traced as far back as the Tudors, but other reports suggest that it was created around 1863, when students at Cambridge University introduced a rule to rugby that outlawed handling of the ball. In the same year, the English Football Association was formed. 

Fast forward 23 years to 1885 and the concept of ‘professionalism’ was first legalised, enabling players across the country to begin earning money for playing top-level football. Six years later, a £4-a-week wage limit was introduced. The growth many anticipated from this point onwards did not actually come to fruition. This limit took a long time to rise, given that after 50 years – in 1947 – it had only tripled to £12-a-week.

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Then came perhaps the biggest landmark in the history of player contracts. Former Fulham player and soon-to-be TV personality Jimmy Hill, chairman of the Player’s Football Association at the time, campaigned for the abolition of the then £20-a-week wage in 1961 – he would be successful in his pursuit.

Scottish striker Johnny Haynes became the first ever professional footballer to earn a three figure weekly salary as a result, pocketing £100-a-week. It was an important step forward for the association formerly known as the Players’ Union, and it sparked a rapid ascension in player wages.

Manchester United Announce New Contracts for Marcus Rashford and Cameron Borthwick-Jackson : News Photo
Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford is reported to be on a £20,000-a-week contract

Just over 30 years later, in 1994, Chris Sutton signed a deal in which he would earn £10,000-a-week at then Premier League outfit Blackburn Rovers. The following year came the introduction of ‘The Bosman Ruling’, a new law allowing out-of-contract players the chance to secure free transfers and, with this, the potential for even higher wages elevated simultaneously.

Now, in 2016, the likes of Wayne Rooney and Lionel Messi are taking home upwards of £300,000 a week. How things have changed! 

The components of a footballer’s contract

We throw the term around a lot – “he’s signed a new deal” – but what does this actually entail? When a player puts pen to paper, so to speak, at a new club, what aspects need to be negotiated in their contract?

Matthew Buck of the PFA claims that a footballer’s contract will generally incorporate “a basic salary, signing-on-fees, loyalty fees, objectives based on games, sub-agreements for image rights and any (other) clauses you may wish to negotiate.”

A signing-on-fee is essentially a payment the individual receives when signing for a club. Some players may also receive an ‘adjustable’ salary which can increase year-on-year after a certain number of appearances. Loyalty fees are paid to players who see out the entirety of their contract at a club, while image rights ownership ensures that a player is provided with the right to control the commercial use and exploitation of his image, voice and likeness. 

Other bonuses can be determined by the number of appearances a player makes or how successful the team is while he is at the club i.e. the number of trophies they win.

A footballer’s contract at the beginning of the 1900s was limited merely to a weekly wage, given that the Players Union was yet to have been set up. Comparatively, in September 2009, as part of UEFA’s Financial Fair Play regulations, clubs are now encouraged to place emphasis on performance-related earnings and add-ons when offering players contracts, in order to minimise their wage bills and avoid any penalties.

Role of the agent and player power

Cristiano Ronaldo Attends 'The Key to Mendes' Book Presentation : News Photo
The agent of football royalty – Jorge Mendes

Typically portrayed as slimy, deceptive scoundrels looking merely for personal gain, football agents form an incredibly pivotal role in football contracts. Agents will essentially use a solid season of performances from a player as leverage to negotiate a better wage for him, even if his contract has not yet expired with the club.

Football contracts typically last for up to five years but they are usually renewed every couple of years in order to boost wages, so that a club can be assured that a player will remain with them. This is a prime example of the player power now evident in modern football.

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According to ‘Article 17’ of FIFA Transfer Regulations, a player is allowed to unilaterally cancel his contract with his club after three years (if under 28 years old) or two years (if over 28 years old), provided that the club receives adequate compensation for said player. This came into effect as of July 2015, and it was Hearts player Andy Webster who was the first to take advantage of the new law when he forced through a transfer from the Scottish capital to Wigan Athletic in August 2006. 

Loopholes and clauses

On a less serious note, some contracts have had bizarre loopholes tied into them over the years. For example, Liverpool’s Norwegian defender Stig Inge Bjornebye loved ski-jumping and so when he signed for the Merseyside outfit in 1992, the club inserted a clause into his contract stating that he could not go within 200 yards of a ski-slope, for fear he would pick up a fatal injury.

Another notable loophole that springs to mind is when Paul Gascoigne once demanded that his accommodation had to be near a fishing lake in one of his club contracts!

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