Coronavirus: Soccer stars' pay cuts are refreshing, damning and a contour of the post-pandemic age

·4 min read

By some estimates, Lionel Messi will give up some $50 million.

On Monday, Barcelona’s players announced through Messi that they would forgo 70 percent of their salaries for the duration of the coronavirus pandemic, as soccer is on hold and the clubs’ earnings have declined.

But Barca being Barca, the magnanimous announcement was not without controversy. In his message on Instagram, Messi was indignant that front office members had been pressuring the players to take the cut when they had offered to reduce their wages of their own accord.

At any rate, Barca isn’t alone.

German clubs took the lead when the Bundesliga worked out that the losses could amount to more than $800 million and that half of its clubs in the two highest tiers could be in financial trouble. Borussia Monchengladbach went first, announcing wage cuts. Then followed Borussia Dortmund, announcing a 20-percent cut to the players’ and coaches’ salaries, which would reportedly help salvage the jobs of the club’s 850 other employees.

Bayern Munich matched that 20-percent pay reduction, and several other German clubs have as well, with some squads forgoing their salaries altogether. That’s what Juventus and its players and coaches agreed to, meaning manager Maurizio Sarri, star striker Cristiano Ronaldo and all the rest will be going unpaid for four months, saving the Italian juggernaut some $100 million.

Lionel Messi and his Barcelona teammates are taking pay cuts to help staffers make it through the coronavirus suspension, which raises some unsettling questions about the club they play for. (Photo by Alejandro Rios/DeFodi Images via Getty Images)
Lionel Messi and his Barcelona teammates are taking pay cuts amid the coronavirus suspension, which raises some unsettling questions about the club they play for. (Photo by Alejandro Rios/DeFodi Images via Getty Images)

Atletico Madrid and several other major clubs are in the process of making the same sorts of arrangements, and negotiations between the Professional Footballers’ Association and the English professional leagues are ongoing.

As Bayern goalkeeper Manuel Neuer put it, per ESPN: “Professional footballers belong to an exceptionally privileged group and thus it should be a given that they financially lower their sights.”

To see a sport that usually operates in a kind of collectivism void – the big clubs have abandoned the interests of the small ones so systematically over the years that breaking away to form their own European super league doesn’t even strike them as amoral anymore – display such unity is satisfying. There are, after all, so many competing interests within the sport that this sort of solidarity may not have been expected on such a broad scale before.

But that it’s necessary at all is alarming. Barcelona essentially needing a bailout from its players after just a few weeks without soccer suggests that most clubs are in much worse shape than they ought to be, given the skyrocketing earnings they’ve enjoyed the last few decades. Consider that the bulk of the clubs’ income is brought in by the broadcast contracts, which shouldn’t yet be affected, in theory anyway. This suggests that a great many clubs are still living perilously close to the financial edge, even now that they’ve grown rich and prosperous.

It’s this kind of brinksmanship – the habit of setting nothing aside for a rainy day and pumping every dollar earned back into the competitive arms race – that has put clubs in a bind so quickly. And now they need to take from their employees, or pressure them to give up their income voluntarily, right as they face just as much uncertainty as the clubs they work for do.

All the same, this kind of solidarity will become a necessity going forward.

The new contours of it aren’t entirely clear yet and will take some time to sharpen, but it’s already obvious that soccer will be a sport changed forever by the coronavirus and what might become a sort of post-pandemic age.

It doesn’t help any that it was potentially a soccer game that dramatically accelerated the spread of the disease in Italy and Spain, some of the hardest-hit countries, when Atalanta hosted Valencia in the Champions League in Milan on Feb. 19. That match is now being called “Game Zero” and amplifies the notion that there’s a new risk in putting yourself in the midst of a large crowd that has traveled from faraway places.

This pandemic will likely trigger a kind of social reset button and it’s hard to say how soccer will fare as the way we live in our modern society changes. Some clubs won’t survive those changes. And how badly the sport as a whole is impacted will depend on how long this spirit of cooperation can be maintained, how long clubs’ individualistic tendencies can be deferred for the greater good of the sport.

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.

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