Crossing the picket line

This coming weekend could be one without Serie A football. Rocco Cammisola has the story.

The question of the Italian players strike has reared its head once more. Like a dormant volcano, it had been resting beneath the surface of the Italian football landscape ever since the initial threats were made in September. Now the players have decided to invoke the strike action once more, and as a result, there will be no football this weekend. Stadiums will lie empty on the 11th-12th December in the hope that action rather than words will force more constructive negotiations between the AIC (Italian Players Association), the chairmen of Serie A's twenty clubs and the league. Should the players carry out their threats, it will be the second strike in Serie A history. The first (which took place back in 1996) focused on contract details and changes required related to the Bosman ruling, which had been ratified earlier that year.

For those of you who may not have been following the proceedings, the fundamental issue is the lack of a collective agreement which guarantees some basic rights for the players. The previous agreement expired at the end of last season and little headway has been made in negotiating a new deal during the past six months. This past September, the players detailed eight core demands that they wished any new agreement to address.

Negotiations appeared to be making substantial progress when six of these were agreed upon, and the threatened strike was suspended. These six demands are as follows:

- Contracts that are up to 50% performance related.

- What the players are allowed to do in their free time.

- How professionally players should behave in their free time.

- Allowing players to see their own medical staff if they want.

- Differences over disciplinary sanctions – the AIC want fines to be decided on a case-by-case basis.

- An arbitration panel to preside over cases between players and clubs with a president selected from an agreed list of candidates.

However, it soon became clear that those points were just the tip of the iceberg. The relative swiftness of the agreement gave the illusion of progress, but it was the final pair of demands that saw the two sides at loggerheads. The first point is that clubs want to transfer players within their squads to clubs of a similar level, without the need for the players' agreement. From the chairmen's perspective, there is a clear desire to offload dead weight within their squads, but players obviously have their own careers to look after, and nobody wants to be unemployed.

The second point is one that has manifested itself regularly over the past few seasons, and relates to chairmen banning players from training with the rest of the squad. This is generally a reaction to some disagreement with a player, often over contract or transfer negotiations. The chairman's intention is to both punish the player and ensure that they don't provide inspiration to their teammates. Rather like seminarians who decide that life as a priest might not be for them, they are forced to spend weeks in solitude considering their decision. However the truth is that the exclusion of these players does inevitably breed negativity and sides have often struggled to adjust to the stale and awkward atmosphere that surrounds these issues. In the last eighteen months we have seen Goran Pandev, Cristian Ledesma (both at Lazio) Federico Marchetti (Cagliari) and most recently Sampdoria's Antonio Cassano treated this way.

When the players were presented this last demand to the chairmen, the public reaction wasn't far off that which rained down upon Martin Luther after he pinned his Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. It was, and still is, viewed as a bout of whinging from some of the richest people in an economically unstable country. Italian sports daily Il Corriere dello Sport called it 'the strike of wealthy men.' Despite the papers' stated intention to echo the views of the nation, remarkably little has been done to explore the wider issues. Polls taken by Gazzetta dello Sport revealed that approximately 90% of the public were vehemently against the strike. It seems clear that if the players had any intentions of drumming up public support to apply further pressure on their chairmen, then they had sadly mistaken the mood of their audience.

The chairmen are opposed to the AIC, the media are opposed to the AIC, a great deal of the supporters are opposed to the AIC - but what many didn't expect was that a number of players would also speak out against their colleagues. The most notable of these have been Juventus goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon and Atalanta playmaker Cristiano Doni, who together have taken the considered decision to set up a rival association. The ANC (National Players Association) are against any strike and are campaigning for an agreement to be struck.

All of those against the strike either have their own agendas to protect or are simply misinformed. It's not about money, none of the players' demands have been remotely grounded in financial issues. Using this argument in response to the strike action is absurd. It's one thing to think that players should just put up with it because of their inflated wages, but football in Italy has long been a law unto itself. Unfortunately for us, the scales of payment involved are unlike any which the average person will encounter during their lifetime.

Players have been subjected to the will of their chairmen for such a long time that some measure of balance needs to be restored. Gabriele Marcotti recently wrote in Calcio Italia that there are three types of chairmen in Serie A; life long fans of clubs (Sampdoria's Ricardo Garrone), those entirely interested in making a quick buck (Palermo's Maurizio Zamparini); and those who have been caught swindling clubs whilst trying to make their money (former Lazio head honcho Sergio Cragnotti). These are very rarely men of great moral fibre, yet it is the players who appear to have come off worse in the exchanges, which have largely been conducted in public.

Why should players continue to be ostracised by their employers? If a contract is signed then it should be honoured by both sides, and only broken when it is in the interest of both parties - a transfer for example. Whilst the focus has been on the millionaires striking in Serie A, it is the players in the leagues below the top flight who will suffer the wrath of their chairmen. In the main, they are part time and on significantly lower wages, which are likely to be based entirely on appearances with performance-related bonuses - reducing players' pay where they are excluded from training and matches.

If chairmen were allowed to force players' transfers on a whim, then part-time players could find themselves compelled to uproot their lives (and those of their families) in order to follow their footballing ambitions. It hardly seems fair to ask people who are not too far removed from the man in the street to make such sacrifices because of a moment of petulance from their wealthy chairmen.

It is also worth noting that despite it being termed a strike, the planned action is anything but. The loss of service will only be temporary and the games missed will be played again later in the season - perhaps in April when all of the Italian sides will almost certainly have been eliminated from European competition. Chairmen will get their gate receipts and fans will have all but forgotten about the weekend in early December when they had to do something else with their Sunday afternoon.

In a blog written for La Republicca, Fabrizio Bocca encapsulates my thoughts on the whole sorry mess:

“What efficiencies, innovations and progresses has there been? What [is] forward thinking [about] football? Where are the modern stadiums? What moral example have they [the Chairmen and authorities] provided? What efforts...against violence and racism have these great chairmen given us in the last few years? Why should their position be made any more comfortable than that of the footballers?”

If you would like to read more from Rocco, please visit The Football Express. You can also follow him on Twitter @rcammisola.