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Coronavirus: Pressure grows on U.K. soccer stars to cut pay as crisis deepens

"The first thing Premier League footballers can do is make a contribution," the country's health minister said.
Image: General Views of Sport Venues after events postponed due to Covid-19
A shut London Stadium, home of West Ham United, on March 14.Justin Setterfield / Getty Images

LONDON — After days of mounting pressure, the top soccer clubs in Britain said Friday they would ask their players to take a 30 percent pay cut as the sport grapples with the damaging fallout from the coronavirus crisis.

"The overriding priority is to aid the health and wellbeing of the nation and our communities, including players, coaches, managers, club staff and supporters," the Premier League said in a statement following a pivotal meeting earlier in the day.

It remains to be seen how players — whose wages span a wide spectrum in a league with no salary cap — will respond to the request following calls from government ministers to cut their often-astronomical wages.

The outbreak has plunged the world's most popular sport into crisis across Europe, its financial epicenter.

Its leagues have been left uncompleted for the first time since World War II, and several organizations governing different parts of the game in the United Kingdom have been locked in talks over who should take the financial hit.

Some of Europe's biggest clubs, such as FC Barcelona in Spain and Juventus in Italy — two of the hardest-hit countries — have already agreed to hefty wage cuts with their stars.

With the coronavirus pandemic causing economic pain around the world, a growing chorus feels that soccer stars, many of whom are millionaires, should do more to share the pain being felt by others.

Meanwhile there are some, namely several leading ex-players, who believe that soccer is an all-too-easy target for a government perhaps eager to shift the focus from its own shortcomings.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who is quarantined after testing positive for COVID-19, has come under fire for a lack of coronavirus tests and personal protective equipment for health care workers.

Nevertheless on Thursday, Health Secretary Matt Hancock turned his crosshairs on the sport.

Image: Britain's Health Secretary Hancock holds digital COVID-19 presser in London
Hancock addresses the media Thursday.Pippa Fowles/10 Downing Street / Reuters

"Given the sacrifices many people are making" in the health service, he told a daily briefing, "the first thing Premier League footballers can do is make a contribution, take a pay cut and play their part."

There is no salary cap in the Premier League — the most watched domestic soccer competition in the world — and its biggest stars earn the equivalent of tens of millions of dollars a year, plus equally lucrative sponsorship deals.

For many here, spring is heralded by roars of adulation and despair from pubs and couches across the nation as the league reaches its final games. That was cut short this year with most teams still having nine games to play.

While no one questions Liverpool should win the league given the team's dominant points tally, there are still huge questions about which three teams get relegated to the second-tier league, and which trio gets promoted the other way.

This is worth tens of millions of dollars on a club's balance sheet. Furthermore the Premier League estimates its 20 clubs face a shortfall in television revenue of 750 million pounds ($920 million) if the season is not completed.

Already several English clubs, including Tottenham Hotspur and Newcastle United, have chosen to furlough some nonplaying staff, taking advantage of a government pledge to pay up to 80 percent of these workers' wages.

As well as a possible 30 percent pay cut for its players, on Friday the Premier League said it would donate 20 million pounds (about $25 million) to the publicly funded National Health Service. This has followed increasing calls for action from several leading politicians.

"It is deeply unfair that these staff should take less money home with players retaining full salary," Julian Knight, a lawmaker with the ruling Conservative Party and the chair of Parliament's Digital, Culture, Media and Sport committee, wrote in an open letter to the league this week.

He pointed out that the purpose of the government furlough scheme was not to prop up wealthy soccer clubs, calling for sanctions for any team treating playing and nonplaying staff differently.

Several former soccer players and other commentators have said the debate is not so simple, however.

Image: Sky Sports pundit Gary Neville looks on during the Premier League match between Liverpool FC and Manchester United at Anfield
Former Manchester United defender Gary Neville is among those who have criticized the government's comments about soccer players.Michael Regan / Getty Images file

They accuse the government of trying to score points and deflect attention from criticism of its coronavirus response. Some health experts say Johnson was far too slow in locking down the country, wasting valuable time while it was clear the outbreak was already at his door.

The United Kingdom is still not testing nearly as many people as in other countries and front-line medical workers say they are in desperate need of more personal protective equipment.

Gary Neville, a former Manchester United defender and one of the most decorated players in the history of the league, tweeted, "Matt Hancock calling [soccer players] out when he can’t get tests in place for NHS staff is a f@@@@@g cheek!"

He is among those who believe that it is too early to pass judgment while talks are ongoing.

"Let's give the players a chance to respond before we have this hugely judgmental pile-on that we always get nowadays," Gary Lineker, one of England's biggest stars in the 1980s and the early 90s, told Sky News.

"Footballers are always an easy target, and I hate whataboutery," he added, "but where are the big businessmen, where are the CEOs of these enormous companies? No one ever seems to care about them."