Sport

Lack of team work

Tianjin’s football strikers

Teda Tianjin fans wonder if the team bothered training this week

Tianjin and Manchester are just over 5,000 miles apart. But in football terms the distance could hardly be greater. Indeed, the players at Tianjin Teda probably feel they are at the other end of the soccer scale to the superstars of Manchester City. Since the club’s purchase by Abu Dhabi last year, the English team has become the world’s richest with an annual salary bill that exceeds $163 million.

Such salaries – star City striker Emmanuel Adebayor is on $243,000 a week – will no doubt harden the Tianjin Teda squad’s own sense of grievance, as they have been in dispute with the club’s management over their own (much lower) pay – and a new ‘performance-related’ playing contract.

The players revolt now includes boycotting training sessions. They have hinted that they don’t feel particularly motivated when playing matches either; one key player told the Chengdu News that in an Asian Football Championship game against Korea’s Pohang Steelers (drawn 0-0, at home), they didn’t quite give 100%. “With no signed contract we are still free agents – how can they ask so much from us? We and the management must put ourselves in each other’s shoes,” reasoned the malcontent.

The club – which has finished in the top six for the past five seasons – has not always enjoyed such rocky relations with its players.

The team’s owner is local state-owned enterprise, Teda, which – thanks to a successful property franchise – is generally viewed as a well-off and stable employer.

The turning point seems to have been the appointment of Li Guangyi as general manager in July 2007. According to the Chengdu News: “Many players made it clear that as long as Li Guangyi is at Tianjin Teda, they would continue the training boycott.” Little wonder, as Li is the man behind the players’ new contract terms.

So what exactly is so objectionable about the contracts? As with most disputes, money is at the root of the problem. The average Teda player currently earns Rmb200,000 per year. The new contract will reduce a player’s base salary to Rmb36,000 and introduce a raft of performance-related bonuses. For example, pay will be linked to the amount of time the player is on the pitch, the team’s monthly results, and whether or not the team finishes in the league’s top three.

All of that – to the average management consultant – might sound eminently sensible. But when some of the players are used to earning as much as Rmb1 million annually, the potential downside looks a lot worse than the possibilities on the upside.

Someone that sits on the bench will earn just Rmb3,000 per month, for instance. The players have complained this won’t even cover their rent (let alone the fast-living luxuries beloved of your average professional footballer). The younger players are even more aggrieved, having been told they will have to sign a five year deal on these terms.

For the players, the contract terms promise a “feudal” existence. The worry is now that the playing squad will escalate the training boycott into a refusal to turn out on match days – a move that would threaten Tianjin Teda’s status in China’s Super League, and risk punishment from the Chinese Football Association.

It wouldn’t be the first time the club’s players have been in trouble with the authorities, mind you.

Readers may recall that in WiC21 we profiled the travails of Tan Wangsong, the club’s volatile defender, and especially his red-card for a (very) late tackle on Beijing Guoan’s goalkeeper in June.

Tan’s foul earned him a five game ban and a $4,000 fine. In an earlier incident, another of his studs-up tackles sparked a 22-player brawl. There was a ban then, too.

Given his lengthy spells on the sidelines, Tan’s own concerns about performance-related pay are not difficult to fathom.

The question now is more whether his rebel streak is going to be matched by the rest of his team.


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