Grass Is Sometimes Greener, but Offshore Pitfalls Abound for Young Players

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Be careful what you wish for …

So many young Australian soccer players, tempted by the prospect of big money or the chance to play in countries where football is the main sport, take their chances and move overseas to further their careers.

All seems well when they set out. 

The ink on the contract has just dried, the coach has either told them – or their agent – that they are a crucial part of their new club’s plans going forward, and the owner of the club is on hand to dispense warm greetings and a positive story about where his team is going.

And it’s always up. To the top of the league, to promotion, to intercontinental competition.

Even though the young Australian may not be a star, he is assured that he will be a key component of the exciting journey they are all about to undergo.

If he’s lucky, the player moves into an apartment, the club provide him with a car, and his salary arrives in his nominated bank account on a weekly, fortnightly or monthly basis.

The team does well, he gets plenty of minutes, begins to attract the attention of scouts and managers from bigger clubs in his new country or from more developed football markets, and his career takes off.

That happens quite often – if a player is good enough, and if he goes to the right country, where basic legal frameworks and employment law cover his workplace conditions and rights. 

If he is good enough, he can then make the leap to the big time – as, in years gone by, players like Lucas Neill, Tim Cahill, Mark Schwarzer, Mark Bresciano, John Aloisi and Vince Grella, who started with lower tier clubs in England, Germany and Italy, did.

Sadly its not always the case.

Some agents are more diligent or simply have more staff and support than others and can smell a rat, or at least decide that the protagonists on the other end of a deal are too dodgy or dubious to work with.

Others, lacking those resources, may steer a young and impressionable player into a move that will quickly end up going sour and leave their career in limbo and perhaps well out of pocket.

The downside works like this.

The player gets to a foreign country where he finds that, contrary to expectations, the apartment has not been hired, the car isn’t there.

The coach, who seemed so keen in the negotiations, seems not to be bothered that much now, particularly as his attention is  more focussed on keeping his job given a recent run of bad results.

The owner, who was so happy to talk the club up, is now reportedly in talks with interested consortia on selling out – ostensibly to those with deeper pockets who can “deliver the sort of success the fans deserve”.

The coach, who has given the young Australian a few outings off the bench but no starts in his first few weeks, pays the price for more disappointing results and is sacked. The owner is  desperate to keep the team in the hunt so that it can be sold for a better price to would-be investors who are going cold now that relegation looks to be a real possibility.

Another older, more experienced coach, is brought in, a man who specialises in firefighting and getting teams out of the relegation zone.

He brings in his cadre of assistants and advisers, hardened men focussed on results and the short term.

He has never heard of the young Australian player, knows little or nothing about him and, desperate to keep the team in the division, signs some local veterans who may not have much career upside but know how to kick, fight and claw their way out of a sticky situation.

Having little use for the young foreigner, who is being paid more than the locals, the owner now decides to cut his losses.

The fact that the player has a two-year contract can mean little in some jurisdictions. 

The coach tells him he doesn’t want him training with or near the first team, and the youngster has to go and train with the under 18s. His promising career is in limbo, his development stalled, and his match fitness fading.

Then suddenly the rent on his apartment isn’t paid, his salary isn’t arriving on time, and, alone in a foreign land, lacking language skills and any support, things start to look very bleak.

In the end he cuts his losses, tells his agent to find a new client, tells the club owner that he will leave if they pay his air fare home and forego all or part of the salary he is owed, reasoning that he can return to the A-League and, if he is lucky, reboot his career – if coaches there haven’t forgotten who he is.

Okay, this is a composite horror story.

But all the elements it contains are true, and have (and probably still are), happening to many young Australian players who think the grass is greener elsewhere.

It surely is, if you can make it to the top, in one of the bigger leagues in a stable, well-run country where employment practices and customs are in place. But it’s something of which even experienced players have to be wary.

The PFA, the players union, has been dealing with such cases for donkey’s years.

It used to largely be eastern Europe and the Balkans where Australian players would be lured to chase the dream at second-tier clubs in some of the bigger leagues in that region – Greece, Turkey, Romania, Serbia, Croatia, Russia.

For some, like Mark Viduka and Josip Skoko 20 years ago, Mile Jedinak more recently,  it might work out and prove to be a springboard to their dreams of a Premier League future. 

For many, however, it presages a spiral of decline, disappointment and disillusion.

Where once it was eastern Europe, it is now the cashed-up leagues of south-east Asia where disappointment often lies.

The same cycle is being repeated there in boom-and-bust competitions where promises are made, and often broken.

Player unions around the world are left to pick up the pieces.

There was a stark reminder that this can happen to anyone here in Australia in recent days when Robbie Kruse and James Holland, two well-established internationals – particularly the former – walked out on their Chinese club, Liaoning Whowin, because their wages have not been paid.

Kruse had travelled to China as a Socceroo of several years’ standing and with half a decade’s experience in the German Bundesliga, most of it with one of the top teams, Bayer Leverkusen, under his belt. But it was to no avail.

In part the pair have been victims of China’s new foreign player rules which changed as they arrived in the country, so that can’t be laid back to them, or their agents.

But it’s another example of what can go wrong – if you are unlucky. They are now free agents and looking for other clubs. They have established track records, so should be successful. But for those who haven’t, be careful what you wish for.

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