Football's last chance saloon: The tournament where unemployed players duke it out for a contract

 
Joe Hall
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The Czech Republic pose with the Fifpro Tournament trophy (Source: Getty)
The lemon-coloured corridors of the Leiden Holiday Inn are dotted with men in matching tracksuits, slouching on lobby couches, flicking through smartphones or making frantic phone calls.
They’re unemployed footballers, here in the small Dutch city half an hour south of Amsterdam to compete in the Fifpro summer tournament and find work for the coming season.
Since 2005 Fifpro, the representing body of 58 football players’ unions and associations around the world, has organised an annual tournament for Europe’s out-of-work and out-of-luck footballers, a chance (in some cases final) to impress watching scouts - or at the very least remind them of their existence.
This year’s event is the biggest yet: 18 teams put together by unions from across Europe entered the tournament, which took on a staggered, knock-out format - as opposed to smaller round-robin events held in previous summers.
Queuing for the breakfast buffet alongside the holidaying families and men in corporate polo shirts, over 50 uniformed footballers from Spain, the Czech Republic, France and Poland gathered in July for the tournament’s final and third-placed play-off.
Impossible to miss at 6ft 5ins is 37 year-old Jiri Jarosik, formerly of Chelsea, Celtic and a full Czech international sits alongside players with professional appearances still in single figures. The pedigree of the players present varies but their aims are universal: find a job.
In the same week in July, over a quarter of a billion pounds was funnelled between football clubs in transfer fees. Over 1,000 players were signed and Manchester City’s multi-million pound pursuits of Fabian Delph and Raheem Sterling dominated headlines - but this is life at the bottom of the ladder, where football’s forgotten men pitch up with their tools in the hope a watching club will be ready to suck them back into the system.
Thanks to their respective unions, the players present aren’t totally adrift in the world. By putting together a team for the tournament, the players' unions offer out-of-contract players the chance to train in a club environment, build match fitness in competitive games, have dormant injuries attended to and - perhaps most crucially of all - share some company.
“Before this, players would have to wait by the telephone and go for a run by themselves”, says Thijs Tummers, Fifpro’s head of player services who first conceived of the tournament in 2004.
“What we heard many times was that a player was invited for trial and after a few days the club would call the agent or the union and say ‘sorry but we couldn’t judge because he wasn’t match fit.’”
“The social aspect is also very important”, he says.
“They [the players] are in a team, they can talk with other players who are in the same situation. If you have to deal with it alone you get frustrated but here you can talk about it, play football, have fun.”
When you’ve been out of contract for over two years like French midfielder Therry Racon, that team environment is an oasis in the bored desert of life without football.
A tidy defensive midfielder who featured in France’s 4-2 win over Poland in the third-place play-off, Racon started his career at Marseille before enjoying a relatively successful four years in south east London with Charlton, where he racked up over 100 appearances in the Championship and League One, and Millwall, where a misdiagnosed injury in his second game triggered a reversal in his career’s trajectory.
When a brief spell at Portsmouth finished in 2013, Racon moved back home to Paris with his wife and two children and has been waiting for the call ever since.

"This tournament is really, really good for free agents.  When you’re a free agent you just train on your own or get a personal trainer but it’s not the same, you need some games, you need competition."


- Therry Racon.

“It’s really hard [to keep fit]. Really hard,” he says, describing life without a club before hurriedly assuring me (and any eavesdropping employers) that he’s feeling just fine now and has no injury worries to worry about.
He goes on: “So this tournament is really, really good for free agents. When you’re a free agent you just train on your own or get a personal trainer but it’s not the same, you need some games, you need competition. You need to play football, not only running and going to the gym.
“It’s like pre-season with a club. We have games twice a week. Everything’s the same, we’ve got physios, masseurs, coaches,” he explains of the services provided by France’s Union Nationale des Footballeurs Professionnels (UNFP).
“The facilities are really good, we spent a week in Clairefontaine, the base of the national team. We spent one week there, and after that we spent three weeks in camp. We have everything. It’s been spot on.”
Racon chats over a beer at a post-tournament barbeque, where four semi-finalists occupy four different corners of a beachside bar. His French teammates play cards, the Spaniards occasionally stray onto the dance floor, the Poles - still in their matching tracksuits - stay rooted to the same two picnic tables and wonder if two successive hammerings did more harm than good, while the Czech team enjoy a steady stream of drinks, slam tables and let everyone know just how pleased they are with a penalty shoot-out win over favourites Spain in the final hours earlier.
That afternoon, at the small one-sided stadium of Dutch third tier side Rijnsburgse Boys, in front of an audience of a few scouts, Fifpro workers and local dads, the Czech Republic had beaten Spain in the kind of dramatic circumstances that would send Twitter into an ALL CAPS football frenzy.
With the Czechs chasing a 1-0 deficit in the second half, responsibility to rescuing the situation was planted on Jarosik, who had been slowly pushed further and further forward as the clock ticked.
On 90 minutes the tactic of throwing the biggest and best player nearer the opposition goal paid off, as the towering 6ft 8ins figure rifled home from the edge of the box. There was life in the 37-year-old yet.
Cue a penalty shootout, the Czechs converting seven to Spain’s six, and the same wild celebrations - substitutes exploding onto the field after the winning penalty - you’d expect from the biggest games on football’s calendar.
“I loved it, especially because there are players who appeared in the Premier League, national team and they appeared as happy as they’ve ever been”, enthused Fifpro’s Tummers after the match.
“He [Jarosik] even seemed nervous taking his penalty.”
Yet the moment was somewhat bittersweet for 30-year-old defender Tomáš Josl. Injured in the semi-final, he’d been one of just two Czech players not to get on the pitch in the final.


Josl and Racon face-off in the semi-final. (Source: Getty)

"If we win or if we lose I don’t care," he had told me the night before.
"I’d prefer to find another club. I hope to be good for five or 10 minutes of playing time."
Released by Romanian side Rapid Bucharest at the end of a season which culminated in relegation, Josl had hoped to impress a scout from India and where he hoped to return after a short stint in 2014. He told me that looking for the opportunity to perform in front of such an audience when you’re out of contract can sometimes be as draining as efforts to keep fit.
"We played in Portugal and there was a total of 20 people there," says Josl of a recent exhibition match.
"If I get to another country and call many agents ‘Hey guys, come to this stadium and see me play’, there will be no one there. This is no good. But this tournament is good, we can just play."
Spanish midfielder Cristóbal Márquez, whose career has pulled him as far and wide as Ukraine, New Zealand and Indonesia, echoes the sentiment.
"When you are waiting for a new team, and no one calls you, one day is like one week," the one time Villarreal player explains
"If you play you don’t need an agent, but that’s when agents call you. When you don’t play, agents don’t call. This tournament is an opportunity for players to reach a new team. All the players are here because in the last year they had a difficult situation and didn’t play a lot."
Since leaving the tournament, Márquez has found work at Segunda B side CD Toledo, and Fifpro looks on course to keeping up its record of helping over 50 per cent of players at the tournament find a contract. By the weekend of the final, many teams had already lost squad members to paying clubs.
And with such a success rate Jarosik isn’t the only player of note to have sucked up his pride and kitted up the tournament. French defender/midfielder Bernard Mendy, who played for Paris Saint-Germain over 100 times, played and earned a move to the Indian Super League last season where he was considered one of the best foreign players.


Jarosik celebrates winning the tournament with his teammates. (Source: Getty)

Yet the growing clamour from players and national unions for a place at the tournament and an overall cost of €350,000 has meant that the Czech victory will likely be the last in its guise. Instead, Fifpro plans to issue funds to individual unions who can guarantee training camps and put them in touch with nearby unions to organise exhibition matches it hopes will be more accessible local scouts.
After all, as much as it tires, Fifpro can’t look after everyone all the time. When you consider the money and means sloshing about in the game, it’s hard to think why it’s effectively left to one organisation to offer a helping hand.
“It should be an obligation of the club [to help released players find work]”, bemoans Tummers.
“They have a social responsibility. But I’ve never seen a club do it.
“Here in Holland you have a kind of pension fund which means you [players] are obliged to put a part of your salary in a pension which you can get against a lower percentage of taxes when you finish your career. So that’s something.”
Even just offering post-career education classes - as Fifpro does - would be a start: “Sometimes they [players] come to us and say ‘yes, I understand I’m not going to earn as much but I want to earn £100,000 or something’”, says Tummers.
“And we’re like ‘With what? Who’s going to pay you £100,000 a year? For what?’ So they are a little naive sometimes. They have to realise that the way they’ve been used to spending money - they have to change that. All those years when their friends were familiar with them paying for everything. And most of them are continuing with that and then come into trouble even though they have always earned good money.”
Luckily for any Czech players to whom that applied on the night of the final, the beers were on the house. After a late night trip to Amsterdam, bleary-eyed players emerged back to the reality of a Holiday Inn breakfast the next morning. Although one figure was missing: Jarosik had already checked out to hold meetings with interested parties. Meanwhile, his teammates waited by their phones.

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