Football and Employment Law

28th March 2023

Antonio Conte’s tirade against his own players was remarkable to see. Spurs up 3-1 against Southampton until 2 goals found the back of their net ending the match in a draw. During the post match interview, Conte did not hold back in telling us what he thought of his players, describing them as ‘selfish’ and that a ‘rotten culture’ was growing inside the club.

Public criticism can be a hard pill for pro-stars to swallow but when it comes from their manager, it poses some interesting employment law questions.

In a traditional employer/employee relationship, if an employer makes derogatory comments about their employee, then a case for repudiatory breach of contract could be made out but does this same treatment lend itself to the player/club relationship?

In another interview, Conte commented on Tottenham’s Richarlison’s poor performance referring to his injury-prone nature and inability to score goals. Arguably, post-match interviews influence other managers’ decision-making on signing talent. Essentially, these interviews could potentially be regarded as “references” provided by an “employer” and, if they are particularly scathing, it can irreparably damage a player’s saleability for future transfer windows. This could relate to significant sums of money lost and reputations damaged.

A case of interest is Barea v Neuchatel Xamax. Eddy Barea, a Swiss Super League footballer, brought a constructive dismissal claim against his club after its head coach labelled him an “idiot” and a “traitor” during a post-match interview for not following instructions given to him. Consequently, this affected Barea’s saleability and career prospects as a footballer. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Swiss Federal Supreme Court upheld Barea’s claim.

While Barea would not need to be followed by an English tribunal, it is possible that a similar case would yield the same result here. Also, the the commercial realities cannot be ignored, especially in this age of constant social media – a manager’s “bad mouthing” of a player can go “viral”, across the globe, in a matter of seconds.

In a practical sense, employment claims are rare in the world of football because these sort of interviews and comments generally are accepted as going with the territory. However, one only needs to consider the financial implications which may arise from damaging a key player’s reputation to consider whether it might make sense to impress upon managers of clubs that they may owe a duty of care  to safeguard the future employability of players? Let me know your thoughts!