Fri, Feb 15, 2019 - Page 16 News List

In France, players fight bullying in courts

AP, PARIS

Stade de Reims’ Anatole Ngamukol plays in a Ligue 2 match against LB Chateauroux in Reims, France, on March 9 last year.

Photo: AP

As it does for many soccer players, the day finally came when Anatole Ngamukol was told by his club that it was time to move on.

Embarking on a new season in Ligue 1, Stade de Reims decided they had no further use for the player who had helped them climb out of the second division. He had turned 30 a few months earlier and had not been scoring many goals. The club wanted out of the contract.

However, Ngamukol had other ideas. Without attractive job offers from other teams, a family to feed and another kid on the way, the player decided he would rather stay in Reims to see out the last year of his two-year contract.

That is where things got nasty, he said.

Rather than let him try to play his way back into the team, Ngamukol said that Reims packed him off to purgatory, sending him to train with their reserve team, where he was banned from playing any matches and sometimes made to practice alone, running loops around the pitch while coaches worked with his teammates.

This cold shoulder was the team’s way of applying pressure to get him to quit, he said.

In France, soccer players use an English word to describe such treatment: le loft.

Evoking an image of being locked in an attic, it refers to a no-man’s land where clubs park players they no longer want, but cannot get rid of immediately or who have fallen out of favor with coaches and club officials.

Players subjected to the most extreme forms of “lofting” have described themselves as being suddenly ostracized; ordered to train with youth teams, reserves or alone; and subjected to petty humiliations including the loss of access to lockers, parking places or showers.

Speaking in an interview, Ngamukol said that Reims officials told him: “You’ll not get a single minute, no playing time at all, you won’t even be part of the pro team.”

The complete disappearance of the player who had made 29 appearances for Reims the previous season did not pass unnoticed. People stopped him during his grocery shopping to ask why he was not playing.

Players often suffer their exclusion in silence and quietly agree to leave the club with a payoff, the French National Union of Professional Footballers said.

“Lofters” are often fearful that complaining publicly would dissuade other clubs from hiring them, the union said.

“Most of all, they’re scared that if they sue their club, then all of football will say: ‘We’re not taking this player because he’s not compliant,’” union vice president David Terrier said. “So players don’t dare stand up to the clubs, because they are scared that they’ll be imprisoned by the football system and blacklisted.”

Not Ngamukol.

He and another former “lofter,” ex-Paris Saint-Germain star Hatem Ben Arfa, are turning to the courts for redress.

In both cases, their lawyers are arguing that in excluding the players from first-team action, Reims and PSG subjected the players to workplace bullying.

Considered one of the most talented French players of his generation, Ben Arfa joined PSG in 2016, but after scoring twice in a Coupe de France quarter-final in April 2017, he never played for PSG again to the end of his contract in June last year, an exile of nearly 70 matches.

Why? Seemingly because the midfielder offended PSG’s president by criticizing him in front of the club’s owner, Ben Arfa’s lawyer Jean-Jacques Bertrand said.

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