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Luis Suarez Mess Underscores How Little Contracts Tend to Mean in Soccer

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Did you ever notice how much differently world soccer operates than our traditional North American pro sports? It’s crazy, right? Maybe somebody ought to consider writing a book about it. This transfer window thing, have you heard of it?

Okay, that’s laying on the sarcasm thicker than maple syrup in the middle of January in Vermont. In the Year 2013, European soccer has been readily available for mass American consumption — either through the web or cable — long enough most fans of it understand the basics of how the transfer window functions. Still, even if you’re a dedicated person getting up at 7 a.m. on a Saturday to watch the Premier League you’re probably are still somewhat in the dark how the shadowy world of transfers truly operate.

On a personal level something that’s always irked me is how difficult it is to pin down exactly how much players are earning directly in wages. If you’re desperate to know how much the utility infielder on the San Diego Padres is making, you’re 2.3 seconds away from that info via the magic of Google. For soccer in Europe its a much murkier process, bogged down by the fact most reported salaries are by the week, meaning both a currency conversion along with multiplying it by 52 to get a rough estimation.

This brings us to Liverpool striker Luis Suarez, who this week showed us why so many high-profile soccer contracts might just as well be printed on toilet paper. Most of the summer the Uruguayan striker has been linked to a move away from Anfield, with Arsenal lodging a bid of £40,000,001 for him last month, which allegedly would trigger a release clause in his contract.

Oh right, his contract. Last August, Suarez was also linked to a move out of Liverpool, only to put pen to paper on a new deal that paid him £120,000 per week. (Again, see why this gets annoying.)  If you subscribe to Fox Soccer, you likely saw it happen on the “Being Liverpool” series. There were smiles all around. Everybody was, temporarily, happy.

Here’s what Suarez said last August:

“When you are a kid, everybody wants to play for Liverpool. I am here now and it is a dream for me, and now I am a Liverpool fan.”

And this was Suarez, in an exclusive interview with Guardian Tuesday:

“I don’t feel betrayed [by Liverpool] but the club promised me something a year ago just as I promised them that I would stay and try everything possible to get us into the Champions League.

“They gave me their word a year ago and now I want them to honour that. And it is not just something verbal with the coach but something that is written in the contract. I’m not going to another club to hurt Liverpool.”

At issue, in brief, Suarez claims if the club didn’t reach the Champions League there’s a release clause in his contract for £40 million ($63 million U.S.). Liverpool maintains the clause is merely the threshold for where they’ll begin talking about moving Suarez to another club, not an automatic release clause. It’s a lot of semantics, but whatever the phrasing in the contract Suarez made it clear he wants out.

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Liverpool, even if the money is a large sum, rightly doesn’t want to send its top scorer to a rival it hopes to challenge for one of England’s Champions League spots. If Suarez goes through and submits a formal transfer request later this week, the club doesn’t have many options. The best path is to hope somebody like Real Madrid makes a bid on Suarez so they can send him out of England. Liverpool could banish him like Manchester City did with Carlos Tevez for much of his latter stay in England, which benefits neither side. The third option is to tell Suarez we signed you to a contract last year, we honored it and now expect you to play seems out of play. (Admittedly, it’s fairly crazy to think players would actually be expected to play out their contracts in soccer, or that it isn’t every player’s inalienable right to play in the Champions League.)

Liverpool Training SessionBear in mind Suarez has been involved in two ugly incidents while at Liverpool, the racial slur imbroglio with Patrice Evra and then biting Branislav Ivanovic. Both times the club supported him. How much this matters in this transfer/release clause dispute is up to for you to decide.

Even with the financial windfall Suarez’ transfer would produce, Liverpool would be scrambling against the transfer window closing on Sept. 2 to find a replacement for his 23 league goals from a season ago, or to use that  money to strengthen the squad in defense. Atletico Madrid’s Diego Costa (linked to Liverpool) is a solid player, but he’s not Suarez and you never know how a guy will translate to a new league. If it wasn’t for his bad reputation, Suarez would have been in consideration for the league’s Player of the Year award last term. (However this is resolved, Liverpool will miss him at the start of the season while he sits out for the Ivanovic bite.)

Liverpool would take a big hit without Suarez, but it did win three of the final four games last season with Suarez suspended. There are reasons for optimism on the red part of Merseyside: Full seasons from Phillippe Coutinho and Daniel Sturridge, a healthy Lucas Leiva and improving Raheem Sterling come to mind.

Remember, unless Arsenal ends up with Suarez, the club hasn’t improved noticeably from last year’s roster. Manchester United is a major question mark without Sir Alex Ferguson. Tottenham still doesn’t know what’ll happen with Gareth Bale. Everton, if it loses Marouane Fellaini, should backslide under new boss Roberto Martinez. Liverpool haven’t made the Champions League since 2009-10, with or without Suarez the path looks easier based on the instability of the rest of the league, save for Manchester City and Chelsea.

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Contrast this Suarez drama to the unending saga surrounding Bale, Tottenham and Real Madrid. While Liverpool face a no-win situation with Suarez and the way he’s handled his desire to move, Spurs are in much better shape whichever way the Bale transfer pans out. If they sell him to Madrid, they’ll wind up with a potential world-record transfer fee north of $125 million, which can be reinvested over time. If they keep Bale, they end up with arguably the best individual player in the Premier League. Plus, the Bale-to-Real Madrid rumored deal has been kicking around for months, if not years, the club should have a plan in place by now about life after the Welshman. Although this situation could rapidly deteriorate, there doesn’t seem to be the level of acrimony at play with Bale.

Still, Bale isn’t a choirboy here, either, as he signed a new deal with Spurs last summer which was set to keep him at White Hart Lane until 2016.

Manchester United star Wayne Rooney, too, holds contracts in about the same regard as Suarez. In August 2010 he signed a deal that extended his contract with United through the 2015 season. All summer’s Rooney’s been posturing for either an increased deal or a move to another club, namely Chelsea. Apparently £250,000 a week in insulating for an increasingly temperamental player who doesn’t seem to have a position anymore.

Players (and their agents) hold the power. It all makes you wonder why even bother with inking contracts when neither side seems to think they’re binding the second after the ink dries.

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