What if Cristiano Ronaldo was playing in Germany?

Cristiano Ronaldo is one of the greatest footballers in history and is currently under contract with Manchester United, presumably earning a lucrative salary. During this past week, snippets of extensive recorded interviews he gave to Piers Morgan have been released – and subsequently debated by the masses – on various networks and social media. In these interviews, Mr. Ronaldo raised a series of allegations against and criticisms of each of his club/employer, the U.S. owners of the club and the manager of the first team (both former and current), the latter of whom – in office terms – we can presume to be his direct ‘boss’ or ‘line manager’. The world is waiting to see how Manchester United – his employer – will react. Media reports suggest that the club is taking legal advice and awaiting the release of the full interviews before making any announcements. 

Alas, at least for now, CR7 plays his club football in England and therefore his employment will almost certainly be governed by the law of England and Wales. Over the coming days numerous highly capable lawyers, journalists and reporters will continue to offer their thoughts and shower their articles and reports with the employment law considerations under English law – and the Premier League’s standard player contract.

I’ve therefore had a ponder of the issues through a German employment law lens, if Cristiano Ronaldo was plying his trade in the Bundesliga.

The German employment law lens

Every now and then, a client will be faced with a watered-down (and less public) version of this situation: an employee, an asset to the employer, will make derogatory remarks about his or her employer, boss, colleagues, etc. There are various options open to the employer and it is important to act strategically beyond the initial and emotional “sack them!” reaction, and instead to consider the ultimate aim and how to get there. 

Terminating the individual’s employment can be the most attractive option. This step will, however, almost always lead to litigation – the employee will want to contest the validity of the dismissal. This may be for various reasons, including clearing their name, though in our experience above all the move will be driven by money. The employee will usually want to either be reinstated or, more likely, put the employer under sufficient legal pressure that an attractive compensation package is agreed to settle any claims. Of course, in this case, the employee in question is a significant commercial asset to the employer, with a global and zealous social media following, adding to the sensitivities. 

The employer, at least in Germany, will need to decide whether to take disciplinary action, including whether to terminate the employment with or without notice. Termination without notice is akin to the U.S.-style “you’re fired” and essentially requires gross misconduct. There is a good chance that statements such as those made by Mr. Ronaldo would be sufficient to justify a termination without notice. But will this best serve the employer? The employee may well have lost their financial claim to notice period pay and severance, but is also free to immediately join another club, including a direct competitor. In the football world, there may be worse outcomes for a footballer – he could join another team without a transfer fee and be in a strong position to negotiate a decent (or in Mr. Ronaldo’s case, more than decent) salary and sign-on fee. An alternative is for the employer to terminate the contract with notice (thus keeping the employee/footballer off the market for a while) as agreed in the employment agreement. Even then, a reason will be required to justify the termination without a prior warning being deemed necessary: when an employee makes such derogatory remarks about the employer, one could expect a court to deem the termination to be valid. 

Other options include continuing to employ the individual until his contract expires, essentially meaning paying a very unhappy player to sit in the stands and invite significant distraction, whilst also ensuring they do not play for a competitor. Depending on what happens next, Mr. Ronaldo could also consider terminating the employment himself.

From a distance – and without an in-depth knowledge of the contractual terms in play – it seems abundantly prudent for both parties to agree to mutually end their relationship. A unilateral termination of Mr. Ronaldo’s contract would mean more extensive media coverage, alienation of some of the club’s fanbase, and potentially litigation. It would also allow him to join another club, as noted above. 


Indeed, I suspect Mr. Ronaldo’s strategy is to ensure Manchester United negotiates his exit with him as it is hard to imagine him having a fruitful future with them. The forthcoming FIFA World Cup provides the perfect timing as the attention of many football fans will be diverted. Any benefit on the pitch and off it with marketing revenue will be overshadowed by a massive distraction and disruption to the team. 

This could perhaps mean Mr. Ronaldo’s contract mutually terminating ahead of the winter transfer window reopening on 1 January 2023, him receiving an undisclosed pay-off which could be a part of the salary he would have earned until the rest of his contract, and a variety of mutually appreciative PR-driven language, possibly including him retracting some of his accusations and certainly with incentives not to speak negatively about Manchester United again for the foreseeable future. Usually, a non-compete may be agreed, i.e. the employee is prevented from joining a competitor for a few months, but that does not really work in the football world.

From a personal perspective, I was fortunate to watch CR7 live a few times when he played for Manchester United, years ago as he broke through as a leading player and he is certainly the best player I have ever seen with a relentless desire to win and improve himself. One can hope that an agreement can be reached to maintain the player’s outstanding legacy on the pitch and allow the club’s promising start under a new coach to continue without distraction.