Could Liverpool legally let Raheem Sterling "rot in the reserves" in response to contract dispute?

Joe Hall
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How do you solve a problem like Raheem? Liverpool's hopes of keeping Sterling look harder than ever. (Source: Getty)

When a 20-year-old footballer publicly declares he wants to leave a club and his agent hurls insults at one of its legendary players, you can forgive fans for reacting emotionally.

Raheem Sterling's all-too-public wrangling over a new contract with Liverpool has turned ugly in recent days, with many fans calling on the club to come down hard on the want-away winger.

"Let him rot in the reserves" is a familiar refrain from slighted Reds who would prefer to shunt Sterling out of the spotlight rather than grant him his desired move away from Anfield.

But could Liverpool really get away with a strategy seemingly motivated more by vindictiveness than fiscal sense? And would Sterling be able to do anything about it if they did?

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Article 15 of Fifa's regulations on the status of transfers and players rules that an "established professional" who has appeared in fewer than 10 per cent of a club's official matches "may terminate his contract prematurely on the ground of sporting just cause". A player would have to attempt to terminate his contract within 15 days of the season's end and make the club aware of his dissatisfaction - one thing Raheem Sterling would have little problem with based on recent evidence.

So, being dumped in the reserves could potentially provide a way out for Sterling?

The Court of Arbitration for Sport has defined an "established professional" as aged 21 or over, a bracket Sterling only falls into halfway through next season, and reserve games may also be deemed to be official matches.

"It's a very, very high-risk action to take", John Shea, a solicitor at Blake Morgan LLP specialising in litigation and sports law told City A.M. "There've been no successful cases of it and only a few cases where it's been used due to the very severe consequences of getting it wrong. He would face the prospect of having to pay Liverpool compensation if his contract was deemed to be wrongly terminated.

And on top of all that, terminating his contract using article 15 could put off clubs from signing him in the future as they could be jointly liable for the compensation and face sanctions such as a transfer ban if it's found that they induced him to terminate his contract.

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Yet Shea also argues that freezing out Sterling in the reserves would still be an unwise move from Liverpool, one carrying certain financial and legal risks:

In terms of Liverpool's position it would basically just be a principle that they'd taken. There's little point in paying his wages for two years and not making use of his services while also losing out on transfer fee in the process. It makes no sense whatsoever. If he won't sign that contract - which is what it's looking like - it's really a case of negotiating the best fee for a transfer they can.

You've got a player - you might as well play him rather than just pay him. There's that risk that he might be justified in terminating his contract in which you lose him for nothing. There's been cases in Switzerland regarding personality results for entertainment and sports stars whereby because they're treated as a special professional that needs a platform to showcase their skills and maintain their experience. There's elements of Swiss law that protects that and says you can't just pay a sportsmen or entertainer without giving them the ability to showcase their talent and maintain their experience because that's what the profession is based upon. That gets very complex regarding jurisdictions - sometimes Swiss law can be applicable in a footballing context.
So, while letting a player "rot in the reserves" may quell some sense of betrayal in reality it's a move lined with legal and financial pitfalls that neither party would look forward to crossing.
Perhaps the best thing Liverpool could do is swallow their pride, take a fat wad of cash, and move on without Raheem.

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