A court ruling on unemployment benefits could have unforeseen consequences in the lower rungs of Swedish football. A court in central Sweden ruled a soccer player was ineligible to receive benefits because he receives a modest salary from his club.
by Chipp Reid
With just a month before the Allsvenskan and Superettan kick off their 2010 campaigns, a court decision about unemployment benefits could send shock waves right to the roots of Swedish football.
In mid-October of last year, a county administrative court in central Sweden ruled a 24-year-old soccer player was ineligible to receive unemployment benefits because he receives a modest salary from his club team during the football season. Kujtim Berisha, an immigrant from Kosovo, got a job at Myresjöhus, a lumber company, in 1998. At the time, he was a youth player for Myresjö IF, a Division 2 side that plays in Central Götaland. A career in football—or at least a paying job in the sport—was just a dream, so Berisha took steps to care for his future.
“When I started at Myresjöhus, shortly after high school, my parents told me that I had to join the unemployment insurance fund, because it is security if I lose my job,” Berisha said.
He never really thought about the deductions until March 9, 2009, when the global recession slammed into Sweden. Orders plummeted at the mill and Berisha lost his job. He applied for unemployment benefits but his union, GS, denied his claim, telling Berisha because he also earns a salary from his club team he was ineligible to receive payments. The decision floored the young midfielder.
“When I received my first rejection April 29, I was shocked,” he said. “The union does not believe that I can take any job because I have a contract with Myresjö IF. But give me a job so I can prove that the work takes precedence over football.”
Berisha made his debut with the first team at Myresjö IF in 2002. Although a starter, he wasn’t a star. Still, his place on the first team earned him a modest salary of 1250 crowns (about $150) which essentially paid for his travel to and from training. In return for his salary, which he received only during the season from March 1 to October 31, he had to attend a set number of practices and play in at least 80 percent of the team’s matches.
That salary, little more than a stipend, was enough for GS to deny him unemployment benefits. The decision even surprised his team, which filed an appeal on the player’s behalf.
The decision also shook the rest of Swedish football.
“The risk is that no one dares play in Superettan, Division 1 and Division 2 now, if you have another job.” said Gert Persson of Spelarföreningen Fotboll i Sverige. “I would not dare combine work with football in these circumstances.”
For most players in Division 1 or Division 2, football is a pastime with a dream attached. Nearly every player in the Allsvenskan started at a much lower level that the first team. Youth teams attached to Allsvenskan clubs usually play Division 1 or Division 2 schedules. It is not only a way to develop talent but winnow out those who see football as a career and those who simply play for fun.
Most Division 1 or 2 clubs are neighborhood teams, composed mostly of friends, co-workers or even families. Crowds are small, the travel is mostly local and the quality of football, by and large, is standard at best. Still, it is these small teams that are the breeding grounds of talent for which bigger clubs are always on the prowl. Trelleborg manager Tom Prahl said his fear in the wake of the court decision is young players may give up football to protect their jobs or insurance eligibility.
“Anything that would keep young players from pursuing their careers is bad for football, and not just in Sweden,” said Prahl. “I think every club depends on finding young players they can develop and the only place to do that is in the lower divisions.”
For most Allsvenskan players, there is no longer a question of how they will earn a living. The top flight of Swedish football went fully professional roughly ten years ago and today, there are few if any players that also continue to hold down a job outside of football. Persson says the danger is to any player who is not a full professional.
“The problems that exist for players with full-time jobs and that work alongside football as a hobby are very real,” he said. “Many find themselves in this situation, many more are there if one goes down in Division 2.”
Football players do have a measure of unemployment protection, provided they make 1920 crowns ($300) a week, which is the cut-off for “elite players.” Persson said many players run into problems when they reach that pay level only to see their teams drop out of the top divisions.
“How someone can be classed as elite players in Division 2, or next year in Division 3, is a mystery to me,” he said. “It’s tough enough for many players in the Superettan to live solely on football.”
Persson said his biggest fear is the unemployment conundrum could chase talented players away from football. Players, like anyone else, have bills to pay, he said.
“We have raised this issue with SvFF (Swedish FA) and agreed to locate a member of parliament who is passionate about these issues,” Persson said. “Banks should pay back the fees. We advise players to always ask about their unemployment insurance fund before they become members, to see if they can get compensation if they get fired. Another option is to allow a player agreement to be broken if there is a direct obstacle in the assessment of the unemployment insurance fund compensation from another job.”
Prahl, whose son Martin played for Falkenberg in both the Superettan and Division 1, said teams must find a way to work with unions to ensure young players receive coverage.
“I’m not sure how that can be worked out, but I am sure there is a solution,” he said. “I think we must find a solution or else we can lose many good players and deny many opportunities for players to develop.”
It is small comfort to Berisha. GS turned down his appeal over summer, so the player brought the union to court. In October, a judge dismissed the case, saying GS acted properly.
“The county court considers that I am playing at the elite level,” Berisha said. “To me, Division 2 is not elite. It is the fourth division in Sweden and no one can live on that pay alone. I try to save every penny but it is hard to deal with any anxiety.”