Footballers in the Maghreb are still chasing their social rights

Footballers in the Maghreb are still chasing their social rights

Ali Boumnijel, the former goalkeeper of the Tunisian national team - photographed here during a 2006 Fifa World Cup match in Germany - was the first president of the National Union of Tunisian Footballers (UNFT), created in 2012.


It began well enough. A four-year coaching contract with Mouloudia d’Oujda, a Moroccan first division club, an ambitious project and a budget of several million euros. After spending most of his career in France, 43-year-old Abdeslam Ouaddou did not hesitate for a second. “It was an honour to come back to Morocco to take part in the development of football”. But when he landed in Oujda in the autumn of 2020, he was stunned: “Some players came to tell me that they had not been paid their salary for six months. Some of them can no longer pay their rent and have ‘nothing left in the fridge’”.

He then discovered the other side of the coin of Moroccan professional football. The players’ social rights are not respected: taxes and social contributions are not paid. These shocking revelations are corroborated by a study carried out in 2016 by the International Federation of Professional Footballers (FIFPro). The extensive study is based on the testimony of nearly 14,000 players in Europe, America and Africa. On this latter continent, “the most basic conditions of employment are not respected”, the report states.

“Players who get injured, who retire, get nothing. The clubs operate outside the law and the bodies that could push for change (the National League, the Royal Moroccan Football Federation, the Moroccan Union of Professional Footballers) are turning a blind eye,” says Ouaddou.

On condition of anonymity, the communications officer of a first division team agreed to talk to Equal Times about the subject, taking the opposite view. In his view, for example, footballers should be “insured”. But insurance only covers accidents. If their salary is not paid, a player can inform the federation and launch legal proceedings to secure their rights. “Given that they risk heavy sanctions that can go as far as relegation, clubs pay their outstanding salaries,” he says.

In theory, the communications officer is right. In practice, the interests of the clubs always take precedence over those of the players, according to the lawyer Christophe Bertrand, who has had to deal with several cases linked to African football in his Parisian law firm. “While rules exist and are in line with Fifa’s guidelines, that doesn’t mean they are respected. A 2008 circular, drawn up by world football’s governing body, sets out the minimum requirements, including compliance with local labour law. However, the text is not binding.

Creation of a Tunisian trade union

Morocco is not an exception in North Africa. Bad practice is also the norm in Tunisia. According to FIFPro’s 2016 study, the country is the second worst in Africa for the late payment of wages.

To tackle the situation, a union was created in the aftermath of the 2011 revolution. Ali Boumnijel, a former Tunisian international who became a coach, helped found it. He was the president of the National Union of Tunisian Footballers (UNFT), the launch of which was supported by the UNFP (National Union of Professional Footballers in France) and FIFPro. But the reception by club managers was icy: “What they want is to have control over the players, they prefer to divide and rule,” he says, adding that the concept of trade unionism frightens them.

“As far as the clubs were concerned, we were there to go on strike...[.] There was a lot of pressure from the teams on the players who wanted to join the union. The clubs wanted to nip our initiative in the bud.” Finding members is also a headache. “When I called the players and explained the purpose of the association, everyone was delighted, but when it came to signing up it became more difficult.”

Ten years on, there is no change on the horizon. Football employees are still subject to the arbitrariness of omnipotent management. This was confirmed by a football industry insider, who asked to remain anonymous. In the event of injury, for example, or a stoppage of activity, clubs may, unilaterally and illegally, stop paying a player. They may refuse to pay hospital costs if they consider the player not important for the team.

Boumnijel encountered numerous problems: lack of funding, lack of support from the Ministry of Sports, the league and the federation. He ended up throwing in the towel. Today, the organisation still exists, but carries little weight in Tunisian football.

The 2004 African Nations Cup champion is bitter, convinced that the changes he was campaigning for could have benefited everyone: “When you have a player who feels confident and knows his duties as a professional, it’s all good for the club, the player will perform much better, he’ll be less stressed.”

And there is something the players know well, Fifa’s justice system provides protection. The body has a dispute resolution department, renowned for its efficiency. But to avoid being “the repository for all disputes”, explains Bertrand, the organisation allows each country to have its own body.

The lawyer questions the very composition of these institutions where there is a “closeness between the clubs and the members of the committees. In the appeals system, there is no real guarantee of the right of defence,” concludes the lawyer. The players know this and ultimately few seek justice.

Ouaddou describes the system from the inside, from his experience in Oujda. He criticises the “omerta” that reigns in the clubs and the “means of pressure” used by the directors to gag those “who claim their rights”. Because they fear for their careers, “many players cannot speak out”.


If the problems of social protection and taxes have never been resolved, it is because they are not due to simple negligence, according to Ahmed Ouerfelli, a Tunisian lawyer and former president of the National Professional Football League. Their origins are more complex, due to the “ambiguity of the financial circuits” of football. “Sometimes you find fans or businessmen in a region who give money directly to players. This obviously happens outside any legal framework, the sums do not even pass through the club’s coffers.”

“Professional football has a considerable risk of drifting off course”, confirms Bertrand. “It is a small community where there is a lot of money.

“When a club signs a professional player, it already has his future transfer in mind. The contract is in fact only a legal obligation that teams submit to in order to allow transactions to take place,” the lawyer explains.

It satisfies a purely formal requirement and does not in any way guarantee that the footballer’s rights will be respected. In 2016, the honorary president of FIFPro’s African division, Didier Drogba, deplored the absence of “clearly defined statutes”, or even a statute at all, in many countries on the continent.

In April 2021, Wydad Casablanca (WAC) was ordered to pay around €300,000 to Souleymane Sissoko by the Court of Arbitration for Sport for non-payment of salary. The Malian footballer was recruited in 2017, but “the chairman wanted to get rid of him”, recalls Abderrahim El Ouazzani, a sports law consultant. The player then tried to negotiate his departure amicably. The result: “From one day to the next, the footballer finds himself without a home, without a salary, without money.” Sissoko was initially rebuffed by the FRMF authorities. “The WAC managed to drag out the proceedings, to multiply the postponements to try to exhaust the player and his financial means. It was finally the CAS in Lausanne that ruled in his favour after four years of proceedings.”

While Bertrand believes that “courageous” personalities such as Souleymane Sissoko can help the system evolve thanks to their individual litigation and the resulting jurisprudence, the sports law specialist favours a more institutional approach: “The powerful Fifa, allied with FIFPro, must impose global rules and ensure they are applied.”

This article has been translated from French.