Premier League clubs are facing a fierce backlash after Liverpool became the latest club to tap into public funds during the coronavirus pandemic as players and bosses struggle to resolve a festering pay-cut row.
English top-flight clubs, among the wealthiest in the world, have come under intense scrutiny as the health crisis escalates, with government ministers warning bosses and players they should "think carefully" over their next moves.
The highest-paid Premier League players such as David de Gea and Kevin De Bruyne command eye-watering salaries, reportedly nearing £20 million ($25 million, 23 million euros) a year.
Even the average salary for a Premier League footballer is more than £3 million a year, according to the 2019 Global Sports Salaries Survey.
European champions Liverpool, who recorded pre-tax profits of £42 million in February, announced their decision to furlough some non-playing staff on Saturday, becoming the fifth Premier League club to do so.
The controversial move comes with no sign of a deal between Premier League clubs and players' representatives on a pay cut.
Olivier Dowden, a culture and sports minister, writing in the Daily Telegraph, said people had a right to expect leadership from football.
"Clubs, players and owners should be thinking very carefully about their next steps," he said.
"Leaving the public purse to pick up the cost of furloughing low-paid workers, whilst players earn millions and billionaire owners go untouched is something I know the public will rightly take a very dim view of."
Former Liverpool stars Jamie Carragher and Stan Collymore strongly criticised the move by the Premier League leaders.
Under the scheme, the British government pays 80 percent of wages. Liverpool said they would top up the remaining 20 percent.
"I don't know of any Liverpool fan of any standing that won't be anything other than disgusted at the club for furloughing staff," tweeted Collymore.
Liverpool fan group Spirit of Shankly initially supported the move but later wrote to the club expressing concern at the negative reaction.
"We understand this is essentially an employee/employer issue, but as LFC's recognised official supporter representatives we are concerned about the damage this is causing to our club's reputation and values," the group said.
Liverpool's opponents in last year's Champions League final, Tottenham, owned by billionaire Joe Lewis, have also opted for the furlough option, along with Newcastle, Norwich and Bournemouth.
Reigning champions Manchester City said they would not be using the government's job retention scheme, with Manchester United reportedly set to follow their example.
- Pay-cut impasse -
The Premier League has been seen as lagging behind other European leagues in its response to coronavirus -- in Spain, Barcelona and Atletico Madrid players have agreed to pay cuts of 70 percent.
The league was last week accused by one British lawmaker of operating in a "moral vacuum" and many politicians have urged action.
The Premier League's suggested strategy involving a combination of pay cuts and deferrals amounting to 30 percent of wages, was discussed in a conference call with players' and managers' representatives on Saturday.
But former England captain Wayne Rooney has criticised the British government and the Premier League for placing footballers in a "no-win" situation.
Rooney questioned the wisdom of the Premier League in preempting behind-the-scenes talks involving players with its own proposals for sweeping reductions.
"In my opinion it is now a no-win situation," he said in a newspaper column. "Whatever way you look at it, we're easy targets."
Former England striker Gary Lineker echoed Rooney's sentiments, telling the BBC that footballers he had spoken to were "desperately keen" to offer help but were an easy target.
Burnley manager Sean Dyche said footballers deserved more credit for the work they do to help good causes behind the scenes.
"I have seen footballers do so many good things, so many things financially, so many things with time, care effort and attention," he told Talksport radio.
The move to force Premier League players to take a pay cut has overwhelming public support.
In a poll conducted by YouGov last week, 92 percent of respondents said they backed the idea.
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