When can a club oblige a player to undertake an individual training plan? A review of the Sebino Plaku case
Published 05 May 2017 By: Marcin Kwiecien
This article reviews the case of Albanian footballer, Sebino Plaku, and his claim against the Polish football club, WKS Slask Wroclaw, for breach of his employment contract. The case is important as it addresses the need for a club to show a legitimate health or sporting reason should they choose to subject a player to individual training sessions or an individual training plan. Specifically, the article examines:
- Facts of the case
- Proceedings before the Polish Football Association
- Proceedings before the Court of Arbitration for Sport
- The claim for compensation
Please note that the author represents Sebino Plaku.
In June 2013, the Albanian footballer, Sebino Plaku (the Player), signed a professional football contract with WKS Slask Wroclaw (the Club), expiring on 30 June 2016. The salary that the Club agreed to pay the Player was the highest among all the players in the team.
Up until end of August 2014, the relationship between Player and Club was good. Then, as part of a general costs cutting exercise, the President of the Club proposed a 50 % reduction of the Players salary. The Player was presented with a draft amendment to his contract, setting out the decreased salary. The Player however refused to sign the proposal.
Thereafter, the Payer found himself being moved by the Club to the second team, which played in the local amateur league (the third tier of the league). In addition, the Player found that he was obliged to undertake an individual training plan, a copy of which was handed to him by the Club at the beginning of each week. The plan applied only to the Player, and was entirely different to the training plans of the other players in the first and second team. The Player had three training sessions daily. Only one of them was together with the second team of the Club.
- First training took place from 8.00 - 9.30 a.m. and involved running. The player went with one trainer to the park and had to run 8km each day. The training set was the same from the first day of the individual training plan until the termination of the contract (i.e. from September 2014 to February 2015).
- The second session was from 2.00 - 3.15pm. It was individual training in the gym with one trainer.
- The third session was at 6.30p.m. It was a normal training session with the second team of the Club.
The player was also obliged to demonstrate training sessions for young players. The demonstrations took place in a remote part of the city, away from the usual training facilities of the Club. Travel time in one direction took around 45 minutes. The demonstration consisted of the Player standing by the side line of the field and observing the training of the youth players. The player was not directly involved with them in any way.
The Player was also obliged to take part alone in marketing activities for the Club. For instance, he had to distribute leaflets at the supermarket.
Short breaks during training sessions did not allow the player to have a meal at home or at a restaurant. Instead, he had to eat his meals in the locker room.
The Player’s activities were planned in such a way as to force him to stay in the Club’s facilities for the whole day. Their frequency was scheduled so the player had as little time as possible between his individual training sessions. The Player had to report for duty at least 45 minutes before each training session began.
In September 2014, after the start of individual training plan, the Player wrote to the Club asking why he had been moved to the second team and why he was obliged to undertake an individual training plan.
The Club replied that the Player’s performance level had dropped and that the Club hoped that the individual training plan would return him to his normal level.
The Player disagreed with the Club’s opinion. He felt that the only reason for moving him to second team and obliging him to undertake an individual training plan was to force him to either agree to the proposed reduction of his salary, or to terminate his contract with the club.
The Player trained six days a week, three times a day from 15 September 2014 to 24 February 2015.
The Club also imposed on the Player contractual and disciplinary penalties for imaginary offences, which (they argued) entitled them reduce the Player’s salary under the terms of the contract. The Player appealed these penalties to the Polish Football Association (PFA), and agreed to only one penalty for being late to one training session.
Proceedings before the Polish Football Association
According to the laws of the PFA, the competent body to settle disputes between football players and clubs in Poland is the Chamber for Dispute Resolution at the PFA (IRSS).
The IRSS consists of arbitrators designated by the Clubs and representatives of the players. The adjudicating panel for a hearing is comprised of three arbitrators. Any appeal from the decision of the first instance panel is considered by an appeal panel of five arbitrators.
In November 2014, the Player submitted to the IRSS a motion for dissolving his playing contract through the fault of the Club due to breaches by the Club of their contractual obligations therein. The Player alleged that being subjected to an individual training plan constituted harassment. He also alleged that the Club was preventing him from improving his skills, and that the Club’s actions were in fact motivated at forcing him to accept a decrease in his salary.
In January 2015, the player’s attorney expanded the legal basis for termination of the contract after the Club breached its obligation to pay remuneration specified in the contract for a period of longer than 3 months.
On 25 February 2015, after hearings that took place in December 2014, January 2015 and February 2015, the IRSS decided to dissolve the contract without adjudicating fault. Such award meant that:
- the guaranteed contract of the Player (which was to be binding until 30 June 2016) expired immediately, and
- that the Player had no right to claim compensation and damages.
The adjudicating panel based its ruling on Article 14 Section 12 of the PFA’s “Rules regulating the relationship between a football club and a professional player”. The rules state that the IRSS may dissolve a contract without adjudicating fault if none of the parties agree to continue the contract and the entirety of factual circumstances in the case points to the conclusion that further validity of the contract would be contrary to the goals and rules of professional sport as well as goals and rules of engaging in physical culture activities.
The dissolution of the contract would not be possible if, due to such dissolution, the interests of either the Player or the Club would suffer, or if such dissolution breached the principles of equity, good faith, good practice.
According to the IRSS’s opinion, the contract was dissolved without adjudicating fault because they accepted that the Club was aiming to return the Player to the high level of performance that they expected, but that they were unable to motivate him to do so (and were not to blamed for this). Equally, the Player was convinced that the club was acting in bad faith, so should also be given the possibility to develop his skills at another club.
After the dissolution of the contract, the Player returned to Albania and was left without a club until June 2015. The Player then signed a contract with the Football Club Partizani sh.a. from Tirana.
On 20 April 2015, the Player submitted an appeal to the five-person panel of IRSS against the 25 February 2015 ruling. The Player argued that the dissolution of the contract without adjudicating fault breached the rules of equity, good faith, good practice, and sportsmanship. The Player stated that in the effect of this decision he was left without any income even though had a guaranteed contract with the Club until 30 June 2016.
The IRSS is not competent to assess financial claims (its competence only extends to making decisions on the existence, validity or termination of football player contracts). The body to assess financial claims is the Football Arbitration Court. However, the Player first had to put a motion to IRSS to dissolve the contract (hopefully owing to the fault of the Club) before suing for contractual damages in Football Arbitration Court.
On 30 of June 2015, the appeal panel rejected the Player’s application and upheld the initial ruling. They stated that they had no power to assess the rationality of training regimes carried out for players in order to improve their performance. They also held that according to the coaching staff, the Player’s performance was still unsatisfactory, unstable and fully justified individual training. The panel did not accept that the individual training plan was either inadequate to improve the Player’s skills or too hard.
Proceedings before the Court of Arbitration for Sport
In October 2015, the Player filed a Statement of Appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS). The Appellant moved to change the ruling of the IRSS, and order the dissolution of the contract from the fault of the Club or, as alternatively, to quash the ruling in question and refer the case back to the IRSS for re-examination.
The Club filed a response asking CAS to dismiss the appeal.
The hearing was held on 4 March 2016 in Lausanne, Switzerland. The Panel decided to uphold the appeal of the Player and ruled that the contract be terminated owing to the faults of the Club, and that the Player be entitled to claim for compensation and damages.
The Panel found that that the Club breached the contract not only by submitting the Player to an individual training plan without any good sporting and/or physical reasons, but also by not paying the Player his salary for August, September and November 2014.
The Panel held that there were two conflicting versions of events: rhe Club’s, supported by the coaches, in which the Player was not in good shape and would benefit from a program of individual training; and the Player’s, in which the Club was simply punishing him for not agreeing to a pay cut, with no sporting justification. The Panel found the Player’s version events more convincing on the evidence.
According to the PFA law, the Player now must return to have the contract formally dissolved by the IRSS. Once that is complete, the next step will be go to the Football Arbitration Court on the matter of damages and compensation. There is no time frame for this yet, but the Player will be claiming, without limitation, his contractual salary from 25 February 2015 (the date of the dissolution of the contract by IRSS) until the end of the contractual term, 30 June 2016, subject to mitigation which will see an assessment of the salaries earned by Player in the meantime in Albania.
The case of Sebino Plaku was the first in Poland concerning the admissibility of individual training sessions for football players. It does not mean that before this case such situations did not happen.
This practice (also concerning situations in Poland) was exhaustively described in the report by the footballers’ trade union FIFPro in its publication entitled “FIFPro Black Book Eastern Europe”, where it is stated that ordering a player to undertake individual training sessions is tantamount to harassment and an obvious way of intimidating and humiliating players (if not justified by a legitimate sporting reason). The authors state that 15.6% of the players questioned in Poland admitted to being forced to perform individual training sessions. Among them, 65.5% were forced to perform individual training sessions because the club wanted to terminate the contract, and 13.8% because they refused to sign a new contract.
The publication also broadly describes the so-called “Klub Kokosa” (Coconut Club) which was formed in the club Polonia Warszawa. The idea of Klub Kokosa was moving players to the second team for a number of reasons including: not meeting performance expectations of the club; earning too much money and not wanting to dissolve the contract; or a player did not want to agree to renegotiate the contract and accept a reduction in remuneration.
The main victim of such actions was Daniel Kokosiński, for whom the club developed an exclusive training programme which mainly consisted of running, among other places, on the stairs of Polonia stadium.
Sebino Plaku was the first player to seek a judicial solution to his problems with the Club. The attitude of the Player was key in the decision to run the case; such cases can only be run successfully if a player is aware of his rights and convinced about doing the right thing. It was a big risk for the Player to put the motion to CAS, taking into consideration the costs of the proceedings. First, Sebino Plaku does not play for the (comparatively) bigger clubs in Europe or command the highest level of salary. Secondly, after his contract was dissolved by the IRSS, he had problems finding a new club in Poland and had to return to Albania where average salaries are on a lower level at approximately 1000 Euro a month.
The Player’s idea was always to use all possible judicial routes available to him to prove that the Club harassed him.
The case was very difficult to plead when it came to ensuring the submission of sufficient evidence. The only proof that the Player had were his own words and the training plan which he received from the Club. The other players on the team did not want stand witness in case. The Club arguably held the stronger position. From the beginning, they held that the aim of the individual training plan was to return the Player to full fitness after injury. The Club also held that the sessions were run by professional and qualified trainers who do their best for the Player. The Player was also provided with medical services. The Club framed the individual training plan for the player as an exclusive plan to return the Player to the right level of fitness. The coaches were prepared to attest to this. This made it challenging to prove to the court the difference between what the Club called an exclusive training plan, but what the Player knew to be harassment.
That is why the decisions of the IRSS went against the Player. The IRSS stated that it had no power to judge whether the training methods used by the professional trainers are justified or not. As mentioned before, this was the first case of such nature in the judicial bodies of PFA, so there was no jurisprudence to lean on.
The case of Sebino Plaku was a mile stone in terms of the treatment of football players in Poland. Until his case, subjecting a player to individual training sessions in order to accept a lower salary or terminate his contract was by all accounts a relatively common practice. After this case, it has not appeared to have happened, and the awareness levels of the players and the clubs’ management teams has significantly increased.
A finał couple points of interest:
- As of 27 March 2015, a new set of rules governing players contracts in Poland came into force. It is interesting to note that the new rules state that individual training sessions are only allowed when justified by health and/or sporting reasons. Under the previous rules, the admissibility of individual training plans was not mentioned.
- For those wondering about Articles 14-17 of the FIFA Regulations and terminating a playing contract with “just cause” - the view was taken that it was much safer for the Player to plead the case in the manner above. We were primarily concerned with the laws of PFA, as the IRSS was stated as the competent authority in the Player’s contract. And while the PFA’s regulations are based on FIFA’s, it is interesting to note that there is no such term as "just cause". CAS did however directly indicate that individual training plans that are not justified by a health or sporting reason are "just cause" to dissolve the contract through the fault of the club.
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- Tags: Albania | Athlete Welfare | Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) | Dispute Resolution | Employment | FIFA | Football | Poland | Polish Football Association (PFA)
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Marcin Kwiecień, advocate, football lawyer. Represents football players, trainers, agents and clubs. Acts before the juridical bodies of Polish Football Associations, FIFA and CAS. Vice President of the Legal Committee of the Polish Football Association. President of the Football Arbitration Court in the Lower Silesian Football Association in Wroclaw.