By Peter Stevenson
THE ONLY information 28-year-old Senegalese professional footballer Gora Tall had to go on when making a choice about leaving Portugal to play in Cyprus was that of his agent.
His agent there told him that clubs in Cyprus paid on time and better than those in Portugal. Tall had no friends playing in Cyprus at the time and no way of checking whether he was being told the truth.
More than four years and stints at three clubs later, and Tall says he is still owed €60,000 from the first two clubs he played for. It is certain he will never receive that money.
Tall arrived in summer 2009 to play for APOP Kinyras in Peyia, and after a relatively successful first season decided to extend his stay on the island and signed for a second season at the Paphos club. Unfortunately for Tall though, the second season, despite beginning well, turned into a disaster.
“My first season was great, we played in the Europa League qualifiers and I received all my salary, but the second season, although it began well and we took our salary as usual, after two months we began not getting paid on time,” he said.
By the end of the season APOP owed Tall six months’ salary and he was unable to pay electricity bills, water bills or even buy food.
“Life became a real struggle, I had my electricity cut off, the water was cut off at times and I went from being comfortable to living day-to-day,” he said.
At the end of the second season Tall looked elsewhere but decided to stay on the island, hoping his experience with APOP was an isolated incident. He moved to AEP, another Paphos team that were trying to get promotion from the second division.
“Problems began from the beginning at AEP. Salary was not being paid on time and sometimes I would get given cash just to get by so I could buy food,” he said.
He stuck around at AEP for a second season after it was promoted, hoping that now the team was in the top flight, his salary would be paid. Instead, his situation got worse and he was sometimes forced to borrow money from friends just to make it through the day.
Tall’s experience was by no means an isolated case.
“I had friends who came to Cyprus hoping to make some money playing football but some were forced to give up the game because they were not getting paid,” he told the Sunday Mail. “The lucky few went to France and began playing there in the second and third divisions, trying to make a living.”
Although Cyprus teams had gained a terrible reputation for not paying their foreign players, it took until last summer before the world football players’ union FIFPro warned players to think twice before signing to play for clubs in Cyprus.
Greece and Turkey were also criticised, but Cyprus was deemed far and away the worst culprit.
“Cyprus has for years occupied the first position, by a wide margin, as regards the number of disputes submitted to FIFA’s dispute resolution chamber (DRC), while Greece and Turkey are vying for second position,” a statement from the Dutch-based organisation said.
Players were advised to be especially wary of clubs who were not playing in European competition, with FIFPro saying many of those teams have failed to keep their promises.
“In all three countries, the number of disputes increases every year. The only exceptions are those clubs that play in European football: these accept the UEFA club licensing system, which reduces the risks.”
With the condemnation came a list of regulations compiled by football’s governing body, UEFA, FIFPro and the EU, which all professional clubs must enforce from the 2014-2015 season onwards.
The minimum requirements include that players are insured, have a pension and provident fund, 12-month salaries which are paid on time, and a minimum of 20 days holiday a year.
But for the head of the local professional footballers’ union PASP, Spyros Neophytides, the damage has already been done.
“Cyprus has a very bad name when it comes to paying players but hopefully from next season when clubs will be forced to apply these minimum requirements that will slowly go away,” he said.
For Tall and others like him however, the new regulations have unfortunately come too late, Neophytides said.
“APOP Kinyras went bankrupt two seasons ago so any money they owed to players has been written off, while the contract Tall signed with AEP means he is no longer entitled to the money as it had various conditions allowing the club to not pay the player,” he said.
Previously clubs were giving players contracts to sign which had ludicrous conditions, allowing them to delay paying the players for months at a time, Neophytides said
“Some contracts even had conditions that would allow teams to cease payment completely and only give the player ten per cent of their monthly salary as compensation,” he said, adding that it was conditions like these which forced FIFPro to make its statement.
The former Olympiakos and Apollon player added that many players, without consulting PASP, would put pen to paper without fully understanding what they were signing.
“Players often fall victim to two-faced agents who are only after their commission,” he said.
On top of all the dodgy contracts players may have signed, the growing number of teams either bankrupt or facing bankruptcy means all hope of back payment is lost.
Neophytides is particularly angry with the Cyprus Football Association (CFA) which he believes should have acted sooner on insisting clubs were forced to guarantee players’ salaries before a season began.
Following FIFPro’s announcement, the CFA was supposed to carry out monthly checks on teams but has allowed them a grace period of 90 days to pay their players.
“They (the CFA) have done everything in their power to delay implementing the minimum requirements that will be in force from next season,” he said.
“The level of foreign players coming to Cyprus has also gone down. It will be years before players like Ailton Almeida (former Apoel player) return to our shores.”
But not all is lost for Tall. Last September he moved to Ethnikos Achnas where he is being paid on time and treated well.
“Up until now Ethnikos has been very different to my previous experiences. I am a lot happier, the guys at the club treat me well and generally it feels like a better environment,” he said.