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What’s the deal with Maurizio Sarri’s buyout clause?

The man who’s already been replaced at Napoli is not free to move.

ACF Fiorentina v SSC Napoli - Serie A Photo by Gabriele Maltinti/Getty Images

The biggest point of contention as well as confusion in Chelsea’s continuing pursuit of Maurizio Sarri is the former Napoli head coach’s release clause, which remains in effect through the end of the month of May (contrary to some reports that claimed it would expire on May 22, a random Tuesday). Consistently reported as €8m, any team willing to pay that much would be allowed to freely negotiate and push through a transfer. But only two teams are in the running at the moment, Chelsea and Zenit St. Petersburg — with recent reports making Chelsea a 90% favorite — and neither appear willing to spend that money on someone who’s already been replaced. So what is going on here, in the land of De Laurentiis?

Sarri’s contract with Napoli is good through 2020, and it was apparently not terminated when Napoli hired his replacement, Carlo Ancelotti. Sarri may have been relieved of his duties, but he was not sacked, technically. (Or some such distinction.) That move must have proven just a bit too standard for De Laurentiis though it also likely has something to do with the reported breakdown in the relationship between the owner and his former head coach. ADL is a shrewd businessman above all else, and he probably thinks he can get some value out of Sarri’s contract yet, at the (temporary) risk of having to continue to pay him as well alongside Ancelotti.

As per the contract, De Laurentiis would also have to pay a €500k termination fee if he sacks Sarri, though that’s something that surely would be waived by Sarri if De Laurentiis were to just let him go. But ADL doesn’t play by those standard rules of engagement, especially not when he can eke out some more money from the situation.

(This concept of a termination fee appears to be why reports in Italy continue to put Chelsea’s cost of sacking Conte at €20m, twice as much as the usually reported £9m in the English media. If Chelsea not only have to pay a severance to Conte and staff but also a penalty for terminating their contracts — a sort of anti-loyalty bonus — then the club’s reluctance at the potential financial burden suddenly becomes a bit more understandable.)

But back to the murkiness of the Sarri situation. As we stand, with a week left in the release clause, Chelsea have three options (possibly more with minor variations, but three major avenues).

  1. Don’t wait and just pay the release clause. Cost to Chelsea: €8m. Simple, clean-ish, most expensive. Deal gets done promptly, enabling the club to move forward with the rest of the summer’s plans.
  2. Don’t wait, but negotiate a lower release clause. ADL may be playing hardball, but he surely doesn’t want to be stuck paying two head coaches for too long. Some reports in Italy claim that an agreement could possibly be found at €4m. Cost to Chelsea just €4m, and the deal still gets done promptly. (A previous version of this rumor included throwing in David Luiz instead of cash as the transfer fee.)
  3. Wait and see what happens, to see what the next move is in this “complicated chess game”. The release clause expires May 31. At that point, Sarri can resign, and leave ADL with nothing. It’s unclear if Sarri himself (or Chelsea, by proxy) would have to pay a penalty or simply just forgo any compensation (which, if he takes another job, would be academic anyway). It’s also unclear if Sarri can even “just resign”, as previous reports made it clear the Napoli would have to “accept” the resignation. Sarri could certainly walk off the job, but it’s doubtful that the regulatory powers that be would look upon that too kindly. Getting rung up for a breach of contract is not a good way to start a new life in England. None of that may be a valid way to do business, either, but who has time to challenge such things? Either way, Chelsea’s summer plans would be significantly delayed, and time’s already ticking away. Plus, you never know what sort of Jedi mind tricks De Laurentiis will think of in the meantime. Are the few millions saved really that important? Is the precedent it might set that dangerous? ADL certainly appears to be making his play for these free bonus stacks of cash.

All that is assuming Chelsea and Conte can find a clean break. That may just be a question of money, but seeing the mess in Naples between two uncooperative parties should give us pause for a potential mess between Conte and Chelsea as well.

On the plus side — unless you’re hoping that Chelsea somehow end up keeping Conte — Chelsea and Sarri appear to have closed on an agreement, with the 59-year-old expected to approve those personal terms (2 years at €6-6.5m/year) by early next week. But as far as the release clause (or transfer fee, as it were) ... the drama may only be starting.

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