Why are a bunch of soccer stars rebelling against the FIFA video game?

Wait. What?

Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s tweet came entirely out of the blue. We were all still busy marveling about the fact that at 39 the Swedish superstar remains capable of dragging teams into title contention all by himself. On Sunday, this staggering durability had manifested itself in two of AC Milan’s three goals in a victory over Serie A rivals Napoli.

And then.

Then, Wales and Tottenham Hotspur star Gareth Bale chimed in.

“What is FIFPro?”


Surely both men know FIFPro is the global union of soccer players. Ibrahimovic and Bale have both been named to FIFPro’s prestigious World XI team five times. Equally absurd is the notion that they didn’t know that their images were used in the video game mega-franchise FIFA by EA Sports, which has sold almost 300 million copies over its three-decade lifespan. Players publicly obsess over the ratings ascribed to them by the game. Bale was even featured on its cover. Ibrahimovic has posed specifically for several promotions for the video game.

Per The Athletic, lots of other well-known players are planning to follow suit. While FIFA and FIFPro claim to have a mandate to license the players’ image rights to EA Sports for the purposes of the game, players are now suddenly refuting that claim en masse.

So what’s going on here?

According to The Guardian, the players are pursuing potential proceeds from licensing fees that they feel entitled to. But Bale’s agent, Jonathan Barnett, may have given up the game in a quote that he gave to the paper.

“At the moment, the players don’t get paid,” he told The Guardian. “Our big gripe is that FIFA are coming out with lots of rules and regulations saying that they are looking after the best interests of players but obviously they don’t.”

Zlatan Ibrahimovic is suddenly pressuring FIFPro to investigate image rights related to the FIFA video games. But there might be a seedy reason behind it.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic is suddenly pressuring FIFPro to investigate image rights related to the FIFA video games. But there might be a seedy reason behind it. (Salvatore Laporta/KONTROLAB/LightRocket via Getty Images)

It isn’t at all clear how the two things are related; what, exactly, the players not getting a cut from EA Sports has to do with new FIFA rules and regulations. Because image rights of star players are complex, and lots of them are covered by the contracts they sign directly with their clubs. Those clubs, in turn, tend to negotiate contracts for the depiction of their entire teams with video games and such.

But The Mirror sheds light on the incongruence in Barnett’s statement. The English tabloid revealed that the players are acting in concert on behalf of their agents. FIFA has proposed new rules to reform the way agents are allowed to operate within the sport. Presently, there is little accountability for a Wild West industry of agents and operators, who demand towering fees to sign off on their players’ transfers and have come to control entire teams.

Several major agents, including Bale’s Barnett and Ibrahimovic’s Mino Raiola, have threatened to sue FIFA over the proposed new rules and argue that the global governing body has no understanding of what agents actually do.

In The Mirror’s telling, those agents are now leveraging a perceived lack of clarity over who is entitled to the revenue from video game license fees to pressure FIFPro, which has backed FIFA’s reform of the agent industry. Those same license fees that didn’t seem to concern anybody previously.

This unspoken bargaining has evidently taken the form of two of the game’s superstars floating a bizarre, QAnon-ish conspiracy theory with an ominous #TimeToInvestigate hashtag.

Looked at another way, Ibrahimovic and Bale are turning their backs on the global players’ union and their fellow union members for the benefit of their agents, men whom they have enriched and empowered by allowing them to bargain for their talent. That’s how it appears, anyway. And if this is the case, they have made a craven decision, selling out their peers to help the profession profiting off those players — in many cases unethically. They are using their influence to push back against regulation to rein in agents in order to protect their colleagues.

It’s the kind of disunity that a union can’t survive with no apparent upside to Bale or Ibrahimovic, who enjoy an earning ability that few others do.

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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