Football Features

Eight times players refused to return for pre-season

By Ollie Thomas

Published: 16:30, 20 July 2023

Aleksandar Mitrovic has reportedly joined Fulham’s pre-season tour reluctantly — and vowed never to play for the club again.

The Serb is said to be distraught that Fulham have priced him out of a move to Saudi Arabia, with Al Hilal having two bids rejected. He was considering staying away from Fulham’s tour of the United States in protest, but his agent Pini Zahavi and PFA representatives have since convinced him otherwise.

Had Mitrovic stayed away from Fulham’s pre-season tour, though, this would not be the first time a player has refused to turn up for his duties.

Bound to rile up your team-mates and fans alike, refusing to go on tour — or turn up at all, for that matter — has become something of a transfer power play in recent years. After all, what club would want to keep a player who simply says no to training in an exotic country, free of charge?

Whilst not being professional, it has certainly proved to be effective in the past. With that, we’ve take a look at eight players who refused to take part in their clubs’ pre-season in order to force through a transfer.

Don’t get any ideas Mitrovic!

Laurent Koscielny (Arsenal, 2019)

Arsenal’s former club captain and *apparently* the model professional, many were shocked to hear that Koscielny went all out to ensure he wouldn’t be playing for the club in 2019/20 by refusing to go on tour in the United States and trying to force through a move to Bordeaux.

Early in 2019, Koscielny was reportedly in the process of agreeing an extension on his contract in north London: an additional 12 months on top of the year he already had remaining. However, Arsenal’s failure to qualify for the Champions League and their damaging defeat to Chelsea in the Europa League final had major repercussions for their existing players, none more so than Koscielny.

The Frenchman was supposedly already unhappy with the direction in which the club was going and believed that his service to the club, spanning across an impressive nine-year career, would be enough to convince the Arsenal hierarchy to let him leave. He was wrong. Unai Emery and Co were believed to have had Koscielny down as a key part of the 2019/20 season, especially given their lack of centre-back options at the time.

Ultimately though, Koscielny got his wish and moved to Bordeaux, while Arsenal signed David Luiz and William Saliba.

Neymar (Paris Saint-Germain, 2019)

In what promised to be one of the most high-profile transfer sagas of recent years, Neymar was once again dominating the headlines in a summer window in 2019. The Brazilian maverick missed that year’s Copa America through injury but was reportedly fit enough to start pre-season training with PSG straight away, though he was nowhere to be seen when the club returned for action.

Neymar had been linked with a return to Barcelona following the emergence of Kylian Mbappe, who was fast becoming the centrepiece star of the Parisian club. As a result of his absence, he was reportedly fined £340,000 and fell out with the club’s hierarchy. Ultimately, though, he stuck around in the French capital, and remains there to this day.

Antoine Griezmann (Atletico Madrid, 2019)

Antoine Griezmann’s exit from Atletico in 2019 had been inevitable for a while. After announcing he planned on staying at the club following the World Cup in 2018, Griezmann unsurprisingly changed his mind a year later and revealed that he was leaving the club, with Barcelona being his preferred destination.

However, Neymar’s eagerness to return to Spain seemingly left Griezmann in something of a limbo. Barcelona were unlikely to afford both of them, but they were exploring the possibility of bringing Neymar back to Catalonia. Ultimately, though, they went for Griezmann.

And despite Atleti agreeing to let him go, he still refused to turn up for their pre-season, citing ’emotional stress’ as his reason. It felt bizarre since Diego Simeone and those above him appeared happy to let him go. No major damage was done to his reputation, though, as he is now back in Madrid and shining for the club once again following his underwhelming Barca stint.

Thibaut Courtois (Chelsea, 2018)

The pull of Spain appears to be too strong for players to resist going on strike. Having returned to Chelsea from Atletico Madrid, Thibaut Courtois refused to turn up on the first day of Chelsea’s pre-season in 2018 following Belgium’s successful World Cup in order to force through a reunion with the Spanish capital, this time with Real. Courtois’ two children live in Spain with his ex-partner, which was the reason he was so keen a return.

Courtois had actually done the same thing when he was at Genk in order to secure his move to Chelsea back in 2011. Both of these power plays worked: the Belgian joined Real Madrid in August 2018 for a reported £35m after a saga which did little to endear the goalkeeper to either set of fans.

Diego Costa (Chelsea, 2017)

What is it with Chelsea players going on strike? Just a year before Courtois’ actions, Diego Costa decided he would rather spend his pre-season in Brazil than London after Antonio Conte revealed to the striker by text that he was no longer wanted at the club.

This refusal was perhaps a little more understandable than the aforementioned examples, as Costa accused Chelsea of ‘treating him like a criminal’. Unsurprisingly, Costa secured a big-money return to Atletico Madrid but was forced to wait until January 2018 to play for his former club due to a transfer ban.

Ousmane Dembele (Borussia Dortmund, 2017)

Dembele has had his fair share of training dramas in recent years. The French winger failed to turn up to Barcelona training after supposedly playing Fortnite all night, a stunt which landed him a hefty fine.

Prior to his move to the Catalan side, Dembele went AWOL during Dortmund’s pre-season. Dortmund’s manager at the time, Peter Bosz, said: “Ousmane Dembele was not in training today. We do not know why. We tried to reach him but we did not.”

Dembele’s antics did eventually lead to him moving to the Spanish champions, though.

Raheem Sterling (Liverpool, 2015)

In what is surely the most high profile clash between a club and a player in recent years, the summer of 2015 saw Raheem Sterling go from hero to zero with the Anfield faithful.

Following two successful seasons under Brendan Rodgers, a disagreement over his contract and interest from Manchester City led to the then-20-year-old deciding that his time with Liverpool was up and he wanted to move on. In order to make sure this happened, Sterling refused to go on the pre-season tour to Asia with his team-mates. Liverpool remained firm on their £50 million valuation of Sterling, a price-tag which City were able to match later that summer.

Luka Modric (Tottenham Hotspur, 2012)

Many seem to forget that the 2018 Ballon d’Or winner was a stalwart in Spurs’ midfield for four years, playing a major role in the North London side qualifying to the Champions League under Harry Redknapp.

Modric rejected a contract offer which would have doubled his wages as well as refusing to train before Spurs’ pre-season tour to the US. The Croatian midfielder was determined to complete a big-money move to Real Madrid — again, the Spanish clubs causing players to act up — a wish which was eventually granted after the Spanish side met Spurs’ £40 million valuation.