Black market soccer

Most of Albanian soccer clubs have suffered a descent into informality over the years, as terms of contracts are ignored, pay is delayed for months at a time, and contributions for social security and health insurance are not paid.

Fatjon Baze and Klevis Paloka

An investigation by PSE has revealed that Albanian soccer clubs operate in a climate of informality, as terms and conditions of contracts they sign with their players are not respected. Paying of salaries on time and social security contributions are often considered as luxury.

Testimonies and interviews with 10 active and retired footballers, who have played during the course of their careers with dozens of Albanian clubs, reveal that delays of pay for months at a time and failure to pay social contributions for many years is a normal occurrence in soccer clubs of the Superior League, first division, and the same goes for those in the second and third divisions.

The Albanian Football Federation, FSHF, as the main regulatory body, appears to have continuously neglected dealing with this situation, and has failed to punish soccer clubs for neglecting their contractual obligations, or convince them to respect the terms of contracts.

Informal labor relations, its the norm for Albanian clubs

Daniel Xhafaj, a retired soccer star living in the United States, has no qualms about speaking freely on the state of labor relations in the Albanian soccer, admitting that informality is the norm.

“I’ve played professionally in Albania for 19 years, but social contributions were paid only for six years. Even those clubs who profess about paying social security contributions, fail to do so,” he tells PSE.

He retired after playing for the best teams of the top tier division, such as Flamurtari, Dinamo, Teuta, Tirana and Skënderbeu, and now lives in Florida coaching a soccer team Celtic-U15.

His colleagues in Albania are not as frank and courageous as he is in speaking out about the problems they have experienced over the course of their involvement with soccer clubs; due to fears that their careers may be over if they decide to do so. Under conditions of anonymity they reveal to PSE some of the problems they’ve encountered over the years.

“I have played with several Albanian soccer teams such as Turbina, Iliria, Besëlidhja, Dinamo, Mamurrasi, Kamza, and Burreli. Social security contributions have not been paid by any of these clubs,” a soccer player tells us.

Dinamo, Besa, Teuta are three teams I’ve played for in Albania. Social security contributions have never been paid by one of those clubs,” says another one.

Lengthy delays in paying salaries and failure to fully meet financial obligations deriving from signing of contracts with soccer players is also a major source of concerns.

“I was always paid in cash (not through banks), and I want to point out that salaries are paid whenever club presidents feel like it. No one can argue with them,” tells PSE a former soccer player of Teuta, Laçi and Kukësi.

Concerns and worries that their careers may be over, but also a certain lack of institutional culture, often compel soccer players to speak on condition of anonymity and not fully reveal problems they face due to clubs’ failure to meet contractual obligations.

“We, the players, have long neglected an institutional solution, because, if we were to lodge complaints to protect our rights, we would have won, even before the start of any trial. But since we do not have an institutional culture, we do not take that next step and pay for it with our own sweat,” says a former Teuta player.

Ildo Muho, a 24 year-old former footballer, has decided to talk and be interviewed by PSE, because by now he has nothing to lose. As a matter of fact, problems with receiving salaries during the time he played professionally, forced him to retire two years before he had planned to, cutting short his career:

“I played for Besa Kavaja for one season, as well as Egnatia. In six month at Besa I didn’t get a single cent. At Egnatia the salary that I took was just for our expenses and traveling. Social security contributions were not an issue,” he said.

Another young footballer, who asks not to be identified, tells PSE that he decided to relinquish his dream of pursuing a soccer career because soccer clubs he played for were rarely paying salaries.

“I played for two well-known teams Tërbuni and Kamza. We had problems with salaries in both teams, as we were not paid regularly by the club, but only once every three or four months. It was impossible for me to go on under those conditions,” said the former soccer player.

Footballers interviewed by PSE say that even when some teams pay monthly salaries through banks, the declared amount is several times smaller than the real salary, thus avoiding paying the full amount for social security contributions and health insurance.

Contracts of soccer players and their enforcement remain a thorny issue, and transparency is a rare commodity even when town halls are shareholders or co-owners of soccer clubs, and make regular donations or provide financial support with tax-payers money to pay for debts accumulated by these sport organizations.

For the sake or transparency PSE sent five requests to town halls, which own shares of soccer clubs, to make available the contracts of their players, but these documents were not made available by any of the local government institutions.

Shkodra town hall, which owns 100 percent of Vllaznia soccer club, reported only on the total amount of funds they give to the club, some 60 million Lek (some $470,000) per year, while the mayor of Shkodra, Voltana Ademi, refused to deliberate on whether player salaries were paid on time.

Tirana city hall, which owns 34 percent of shares of Tirana soccer club, transferred this request to the president of the club, Refik Halili. He called and promised to be transparent in reporting his players’ contracts, but than he failed to do so and have further contacts with PSE.

Korça town hall replied to our request only after we filed a complaint with the Commissioner on the Right to Information, by saying that it owns 30 percent of the club’s shares, and the rest is managed by its president Ardjan Takaj. The president of Skënderbeu refused to comment on this issue.

The municipality of Kurbin, which owns 30 percent of shares of Laçi soccer club, stated that it was not involved with the negotiations and contracts between players and the club. The president, Pashk Laska, initially promised to release his players’ contracts, but later reneged on this promise.

Lezha town hall replied to our request but sent only a list of players of Besëlidhja soccer club and an unsigned contract template, suggesting we talk to the president of the club, Gjokë Noka. He responded with arrogance and contempt to our request to be transparent in reporting on his players’ contracts.

“So what, if I can’t pay my players on time, are you going to step up and pay them?!” Noka snapped at the PSE reporter.

Soccer body’s apathy in dealing with the situation

A former player of Elbasani, Ervin Llani, who now works as a manager in a Boston restaurant, decided five years ago to take a bold step. He filed a complaint with the Office for Conflict Resolution at the FSHF against Elbasani soccer club for failing to fulfill obligations of a contract signed in 2010.

The Office for Conflict Resolution is the only Albanian institution capable of deliberating on players’ contracts, while the courts of the land do not take upon themselves to resolve conflicts in sport organizations.

“Even though we signed a contract for three million Lek (some $23,000) I was paid only for the first five months. For the remaining period that contract was ignored, and Elbasani owed me a debt of Lek1.5 million,” Llani tells PSE.

The former footballer won the case and the FSHF institution ruled in his favor in 2012, but that decision has not been enforced yet, and the soccer federation has not taken any steps to punish Elbasani soccer club.

“That decision was never enforced,” states Llani. “I’ve filed several complaints with FSHF, but their justification is that Elbasani has no money, and they must wait for the soccer club to receive enough funds for them to intervene. That decision is just a piece of paper, and I don’t think it will ever be enforced.”

A former soccer player, Mario Morina, tells PSE that he had to wait three years after a FSHF decision in order to receive some 1,000,000  Lek (less than $8,000) due to a failure of Tirana soccer club to respect the terms and conditions of his contract.

“I won my case against Tirana with the Office for Conflict Resolution in early 2013, and I managed to collect the money that that I was owed in September 2016,” said Morina.

PSE made several inquiries and requested many times to interview FSHF officials, since November 2016, on this institution’s jurisdiction and supervision on contracts that clubs sign with their players, but received no answers.

In many cases, FSHF has been a witness of deals and compromises between footballers and clubs, even though such deals have often placed players at a disadvantage.

Such is the case of soccer player, Klejdis Branica, who sued Shkumbini soccer club in March 2015 with FSHF, and demanded the dissolution of the contract, as well as the disbursement of back pay for the period February-June 2014.

FSHF confirmed that he hadn’t received any payment for that period, but decided to rule only in his favor regarding the dissolution of the contract. Even that decision was reached only after Branica accepted to withdraw his claim on back pay.

“I reached that compromise with Shkumbini only to be free to play in other teams,” Branica told PSE.

From a legal point of view a party is in breach of a contract when it fails to respect terms and conditions agreed upon between the two parties, but Albanian footballers have had to reach compromises and forego the money owed to them just to be free to play somewhere else.

On the other hand, breaches of contract are tolerated only when Albanian soccer players are involved in such disputes.

Foreign players which join Albanian teams, file their complaints with the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) and not FSHF, when they have contractual disputes with their clubs.

In case UEFA finds in favor of these players, Albanian teams are forced to pay at once the amount owed to their footballers, or face stiff penalties if they fail to do.

Tirana could not trade any players for the first half of 2017, after they failed to pay in time a Euro 5,000 debt owed to their Bulgarian former player, Martin Kavdanski.

However, aside from FSHF, other state institutions should share the blame for the present situation of labor relations between football clubs and their players.

By law, each soccer club must register as a business entity and be assigned a taxation identification number, which should enable the taxation administration and the labor inspectorate to investigate on whether they are respecting the rights of their employees and fulfilling their obligations.

PSE asked the Inspectorate of Labor on whether they had make inquiries on labor contracts signed between Tirana and their players, and whether the club is keeping its end of the bargain.

This institution reported that the last check at the Tirana soccer club was conducted in early 2015, and that no more checks were carried out afterwards.

“This club has not paid salaries since February 2014, while social security contributions have not been paid in 16 months,” said a document dated March 3, 2015. “The club claims that Tirana city hall, a shareholder, has failed to deliver the necessary funds. Due to a failure to carry out its financial obligations, the assets of the club have been frozen by the Tirana branch of the taxation administration.”

The difficult situation that Albanian clubs are faced with appears to dash hopes and dreams of the young who want to pursue a football career in Albania, and may even hurt the future of the Albanian national team.