You are an Argentine club. Out of the blue, you wake up one morning and your star Colombian striker is in Mexico, wearing another team’s jersey, and smiling for the cameras at a press conference while signing what is likely an illegal contract. Here’s what gets your goat: he has a contract with you. You saw him sign it, along with his agent, not more than a few years ago. You even got it notarized. You are dumbstruck at his brazen action, but also the underlying motive. Before leaving, he voiced some complaints, but nothing serious (he wants more money – who doesn’t?). How can this be? you ask yourself. It’s simple. You are Santa Fe. The player is Cesar Valoyes. And the club is … Mexican. Veracruz to be precise.
In the international transfer market, the terrain is simple: there are bullies and there are the bullied. Unlike middle schools across America, there’s no anti-bullying campaign to save your club’s bacon. Mexican clubs are unabashed bullies. What other leagues need to learn is, should you get pushed, you either push back or you’ll get pushed again. It’s a lesson MLS have yet to take to heart.
Last year, Querétaro poached Camilo Sanvezzo from Vancouver despite the club exercising an option year on his contract. Had MLS should filed a lawsuit (or “FIFA complaint”) to clarify whether club option years are legal, rather than just accepting the loss of a good player and groveling for a transfer fee, future incidents might have been avoided. But once the player has left, you have next-to-zero leverage. If I have something in my hand, just try to squeeze some pesos out of my bolsillo.
Sadly, MLS learned nothing from the Sanvezzo situation. This past fall, Real Salt Lake fans were gushing over rising prospect Carlos Salcedo. He’d moved up the RSL defender ranks and was primed for a breakout 2015 MLS season. Thus, the club, gearing up for another playoff push, was set to exercise a unilateral option on him. There was just one problem: Salcedo took to Twitter in November, publicly asking the club not to pursue the option year, accusing the GM of lying, and announcing he was going to Chivas de Guadalajara.
Just like in the Sanvezzo case, MLS and the club were both surprised. Mediotiempo reported that his agent filed a complaint with FIFA regarding both the option year and the legality of any contract between a league and club. Rather than duke it out in the courts (or, err, halls of FIFA), RSL reached out and agreed to a transfer fee. We don’t know how much the fee was, but, when confidentiality is a part of any deal, it’s because one party is embarrassed by how small or big the cost was. I’d wager it’s the former. Either MLS is spooked by the argument their contracts are illegal (unlikely) or just prefers to let bullies kick sand in its face.
As we already have written (and will write and will write and will write), they should fight back. Argentine clubs have done so with some success. Recently, Veracruz got slapped with a million-dollar fine by the Court of Arbitration and Sport for their antics back in 2009, when the prior owners negotiated the transfer of Colombian striker Cesar Valoyes, a rising star. The old Veracruz owners didn’t pay diddly squat to Santa Fe, but the new guys got slapped with a seven-figure fine. Veracruz’s only argument was that the 2014 club was a new “franchise” (har har – as if they didn’t assume the old one’s liabilities) and “separate business entity” with different owners than the 2009 club. The CAS didn’t buy it, ordering them to pay up.
The funny thing about CAS rulings, though, is that they give the parties 30 days to reach a settlement. In the case of Veracruz, the new owners reached out to Santa Fe and reached a deal: they would help the Argentine club navigate Mexico’s muddy bankruptcy waters and legal terrain to try and collect its debt from Veracruz’s prior owners. Thus, this was both a legal and a practical victory for Santa Fe, as the club finally received compensation. More importantly, any other club that tried to poach from them would have to pay attorney fees and a possible fine. Why haven’t MLS teams followed that same path?
Time is one answer. Just looking at the Valoyes case makes you realize FIFA complaints and CAS rulings do not happen overnight. We’re talking years. Also, many fear a situation similar to Alan Pulido and Tigres. Pulido had a great World Cup for Mexico this past summer, then shortly afterwards claimed his signature on a contract extension with Tigres was falsified. This is quite possibly the dumbest and weakest argument one can make, just short of “I was drunk when I signed, dude.” CAS didn’t buy Pulido’s laughable argument either, ruling in Tigres’ favor.
But Pulido and his agent had started to shop around for European teams. So what can Tigres do with a player that has refused to train with the reserves and left to Europe to train on his own? Tigres executives are hopeful the two sides can hopefully patch things over, but Pulido is basically a disgruntled employee who refuses to work and is arguably owed a hefty salary. Tigres could sue for breach of contract, but that’s another long and winding legal limbo. Still, Tigres has sent a message to both raiding clubs and unhappy players, making it clear they won’t let a star player leave at will or a European club come in and pick off their young talent. Liga MX clubs turn a blind eye to contracts when signing others’ star players, but show off the brass knuckles when someone tries to snag theirs.
Mexico’s willingness to get tough and throw their weight around means Liga MX clubs will continue to pick on MLS until MLS stands up and learns how to navigate the FIFA and CAS game. This divergence in tactics is perilous because Mexican clubs can offer both a huge salary bump to MLS players and the opportunity for them to freely choose the club they’ll play for.
MLS clubs will need to learn to play the same game. Or perhaps simply don some brass knuckles. Otherwise, a beloved player may be under contract, but he’s not under wraps. Just ask Real Salt Lake and Vancouver.