Football star Gunnarsdóttir wins landmark maternity pay case against Lyon

Football star Gunnarsdóttir wins landmark maternity pay case against Lyon Football star Gunnarsdóttir wins landmark maternity pay case against Lyon
Grace Fisher

A Fifa tribunal has awarded ex-Lyon midfielder Sara Björk Gunnarsdóttir backpay of €82,000 plus interest after the French club failed to pay the 32-year-old's salary during the majority of her pregnancy.

Fifpro, a players' union, called the ruling "a clear message" that "the strict application of maternity rights is enforceable."

Meanwhile Lyon laid the blame on French law, saying that regulations forbid them offering Gunnarsdóttir another form of employment during her pregnancy.

Gunnarsdóttir herself spoke out in an essay published in The Players' Tribune. The Icelandic player said "I know this story might upset some powerful people in the football world. You're not supposed to talk about this side of the game. But I have to tell the truth."

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She described how on initially learning of her pregnancy in March 2021, "the only thing [she] felt was happiness, but then reality hit me...How would the team react?"

When she first told the management team, the response seemed positive. Once she was told by doctors to stop playing, she asked Lyon if she would be able to carry out the rest of her pregnancy in Iceland, where she would be able to speak to doctors in her native language and be near her family.

"But I wanted to return to Lyon after giving birth. I was very clear about that. I believed that being the first player ever for Lyon to return from pregnancy would be something we could all celebrate together."

The club agreed, and Gunnarsdóttir flew home, assuming that her salary would be paid normally. When her paycheck failed to arrive, she assumed it was a clerical error—though she did check with other players, who were all paid on time.

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After a second missing paycheck, she and her agency reached out to the club several times before receiving a response. Eventually club director Vincent Ponsot apologised for the missing payments and said Gunnarsdóttir would be paid for those, but no more.

"For the third month, he says something about how they're going by French law—meaning, they don't owe me anything else."

"I said to [my agent] Dietmar, 'No, that's not right, they should be going by Fifa rules.'"

Fifa's maternity regulations, which have been in force since January 2021, require clubs to provide a mandatory maternity leave of at least 14 weeks at a minimum of two-thirds of their contracted salary as well as medical and physical support upon reintegration into work.

Months went by and despite her agent's, Fifpro's, and the French players' union's best efforts, Gunnarsdóttir's salary still went unpaid. During this time period, though accommodating her pregnancy, she was still training intensely, and she was paying for everything, including a personal strength coach, out of her own savings.

"I took a lot out, and I wasn't sure I was ever going to get it back. That's not a good feeling, especially when you're starting a family."

At one point Gunnarsdóttir even wondered to her boyfriend, Árni, if she would be forced to quit.

Lyon also failed to reach out during Gunnarsdóttir's pregnancy to check on her training or to discuss reintegration.

Finally her agent informed Lyon that Fifpro would be taking the case to the Fifa level. Director Ponsot allegedly, though he later denied it, responded that "If Sara goes to Fifa with this, she has no future with Lyon at all."

Amidst all the stress about her salary and her future return to play, Gunnarsdóttir explains that she tried to focus on what she could control and on enjoying her pregnancy.

On November 16, 2021, she gave birth to a healthy baby boy, Ragnar.

"It was the most amazing, indescribable feeling, becoming a mom. You feel like a superhero after a birth like that."

In January of last year, she flew back to Lyon with Ragnar and her boyfriend, ready to rejoin the team. Although she resented Lyon's actions through her pregnancy, she just wanted to play again.

But even as Fifpro was fighting for her money at the Fifa level, Lyon was treating Gunnarsdóttir differently on her return.

"I was being asked—no, told—all sorts of things, like not to bring my baby with me on away trips. They said it was because it could really disturb the players on the bus or plane, if he cried the whole way."

"I shook my head and told them I'm not signing anything like that. This was while I was still breastfeeding, and he was so small and so dependent on me."

"They always made me feel like it was a negative thing, that I had a baby."

Fed up, Gunnarsdóttir realised her career with Lyon was over. She is now with Juventus, where she says she is "very happy."

Gunnarsdóttir learned the results of the case, which were made public yesterday (Jan 17 2023), in May 2022.

Fifa ordered Lyon to pay Gunnarsdóttir a full restitution of her salary, plus interest. If they failed to pay within 45 days of the decision, they would face a transfer ban. Fifa also found that the club had failed in 'duty of care' by not offering Gunnarsdóttir alternative employment or checking on her welfare during her pregnancy.

Gunnarsdóttir welcomed the decision.

"This victory felt bigger than me. It felt like a guarantee of financial security for all players who want to have a child during their career."

"Ragnar is almost a year old, and we're in a great place as a family...But I want to make sure no one has to go through what I went through ever again. And I want Lyon to know this is not O.K."

After the results were made public, Lyon responded, saying their actions were constrained by French law.

"Fifa has reproached us for not having offered another job to Sara Björk Gunnarsdóttir during her sick leave and then her maternity leave when at the same time the law forbids us to do so in France and the player had expressly asked us to be able to return to live in Iceland, which we accepted."

"We are proud to have had Sara Björk Gunnarsdóttir in the workforce of Olympique Lyonnais. Our paths separated for purely sporting reasons."

"If she wishes to help us today to further develop French law, we would be happy to be able to involve her in our efforts alongside Amel Majri to allow all athletes to fully experience their pregnancy as well as their return to competition."

Majri, a winger for Lyon and French international, had a child in July 2022 and returned to play for Lyon just a few days ago.

Fifpro said in a statement that "We are pleased to have assisted [Gunnarsdóttir] in achieving the first ruling of its kind since Fifa's maternity regulations came into effect in January 2021."

"It is extremely important for woman footballers and the women's game that these mandatory maternity regulations are both implemented and enforced at national level."

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