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Marcel de Jong leads fight to organize CPL players, pointing to uneven playing field

As a veteran who played in the Netherlands, Germany and Major League Soccer, Marcel de Jong had more bargaining power than most when he came to the Canadian Premier League.

As a veteran who played in the Netherlands, Germany and Major League Soccer, Marcel de Jong had more bargaining power than most when he came to the Canadian Premier League.

The Canadian international, who joined Pacific FC ahead of the league's inaugural 2109 season, also had some real-world international experience to compare the fledgling Canadian circuit against.

"It's been really a crazy ride so far," said de Jong. "The owners, the clubs, the league have all the power. The players are being left by themselves to defend themselves.

"And we obviously have a lot of young players who never had the experience of playing abroad where they have proper unions and organizations to help them. Obviously that's something that's not here at the moment."

The 34-year-old de Jong set out to change that. While he says he has been treated well by Pacific, he believes others need help.

Last April, some 90 per cent of the players in the eight-team league signed on during the association's organizing drive. 

The Professional Footballers Association Canada (PFACan) was accepted last month as a candidate member by FIFPRO, which represents more than 65,000 professional men's and women's players across 65 affiliated national player associations.

PFACan will have to serve two years as a candidate member before becoming a full member of FIFPRO, which recognizes one player association per country. 

De Jong, who announced his retirement as a player last Friday, is the inaugural president of PFACan and is running for re-election at end of the month at the association's inaugural annual general meeting for a two-year term.

Because the CPL clubs are spread across the country, PFACan faces a more complicated road in being recognized. It hopes the league will do so voluntarily.

Commissioner David Clanachan seems unwilling to do that.

"I think the right thing to do is go through the process and we've committed to do that," he said.

A less desirable option for the association is to go after a labour board certification order on its behalf in every province where there is a CPL team.

"We can go through that dance and, if we have to, that's what we will do," said Paul Champ, an Ottawa-based labour and human rights lawyer who is helping the players organize. "We think it would be deeply unfortunate and a waste of resources on the part of both the league and the association."

"I will say this, we're not going to allow another full season go by without forcing the issue, if the league isn't amenable to coming up with a voluntary agreement," he added.

Clanachan says while he has no issues with players wanting to form an association, the time is not right.

"There's no issue with that," he said. "But it would be nice to able to be out from underneath this giant cloud that we're all in right now first."

Champ, says the association has told the league it just wants recognition as the players' formal bargaining agent to start with, and is willing to forgo collective bargaining for a year.

"Obviously negotiating a collective agreement in the midst of a pandemic when they don't have any people in the stands, doesn't make a whole lot of sense. And we get that," Champ said.

In the meantime, he says players are paying the price.

"Each individual player is at a massive disadvantage in trying to negotiate a free contract," Champ said.

The association has offered another independent player vote to demonstrate its support to the league.

"So far they haven't agreed to that," said Champ.

At present, there is no formal link with the league, with Champ saying "they kind of tolerate us."

PFACan has complained about the league's past lack of transparency regarding player pay. Other complaints include the league adopting new rules and not publicizing them, and teams having access to player wage details throughout the league while the players themselves are not allowed to disclose their pay.

"Team owners shouldn't even be discussing such things. That's something unheard of anywhere else," said de Jong.

Asked about teams exchanging contract information, Clanachan said he had not heard that. But he said there is "contract transparency" and that teams have access to contracts.

Players took a 25-per-cent pay cut during the pandemic-disrupted 2020 season with de Jong and Champ saying they are still awaiting word on what happens to the money they didn't get.

Clanachan said the players got about 82 per cent of what they were owed. They will not get the rest.

"They played in the Island Games, they didn't play full seasons. I think we did our best for the players at the time," he said.

The commissioner admits to "some miscommunication" on the pay reduction topic, however.

Other current members of the PFACan board are Marco Carducci, Kyle Porter, Tomi Ameobi, Dylan Carreiro, Jamar Dixon, Ben Fisk, Omar Kreim, David Monsalve, Issey Nakajima-Farran and Roger Thompson. 

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This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 8, 2021

Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press