IT HAS been interesting to hear the criticism of players who left their club in order to move elsewhere. Some clubs and their fans take it worse than others, but ultimately, in the free market that is football, players are like you and me, they have a choice to earn their income from whom they choose to work for. Football is not a vocation, a calling or a commitment to a higher order, it is a job, albeit an extraordinary way to earn a living.
Players are capitalists, eager to exploit a short career. If you consider that 10 years is the most a player can realistically consider himself marketable, that’s a very small percentage of the average working man’s life.
Fans will always feel more affinity to their club than any player, except for those that have been reared by the club and the player has stayed with them for many years. The latter is a rare breed these days and the time a player stays with a club is, generally, much shorter than it was 30 years ago.
If a player is a genuine talent, he will get offers to move on and earn more money. For most of us, the temptation to get a better job, work for a bigger and wealthier employer, is too much to resist. Yes, we say our farewells, we say things like “keep in touch” and we promise we will miss our former colleagues, but at the end of the day, the thing that binds people who work at the same place is just that. When you leave an employer, you are quickly forgotten and your old workmates are too busy surviving to notice you’re no longer around. That’s life, as they say.
For football, most players are quickly cast into the memory box as soon as new recruits are brought in and the team evolves and rebuilds. A team does not stay intact for too long and straight away, the supporters demonstrate their allegiance to the new players who are wearing the club’s shirt.
All too often, fans consider a popular player moving as an act of betrayal. There seems to be a code that has developed that the player has to move with grace, thanking the fans, kissing the badge but expressing the desire to move on and “give myself a new challenge”. Roughly translated that means, “I’ve been here too long and I can get more money elsewhere.” As soon as the player arrives at his new club, he will be pictured with the new shirt, kissing the badge or thumping his arm on his chest to imply his heart is now “red and white” or “blue and white”. The fans fall for it almost every time, or at least they did in the past.
The trend for social media open letters is pretty much consistent with this era of “thoughts and prayers” facebook flags and everyone ”feeling blessed”. Players that are telling the fans, with all sincerity, how wonderful they are and how it is tearing them apart to leave are also thinking about their golden handshake, their new contract and the fringe benefits that may emerge from his move.
But some fans will feel betrayed, will call the player a “traitor” and be disgusted that player X has moved to a rival club, or to one that has more resources. “He’s only interested in the money,” will be the common narrative. Yet wouldn’t you be more interested in a job that doubles your salary? Let’s not forget that the vast majority of footballers are not particularly well educated. They’re mostly working class lads who have had a humble start in life. Football has lifted them out of the drudgery and, if they are sensible, they can earn millions. But it can all end tomorrow with a bad tackle.
This scenario is what makes football the irrational, illogical and addictive pastime it has become. Football has become a quasi-religion, it is the ultimate “you’re either with us or against us” belief of blind devotion. Therefore, the fans feel the players belong to them, but nothing could be further from the truth. A player does not feel he belongs to the fans, or indeed the club, they are all effectively mini corporations that employ people, carry their brand and market themselves. They are almost self-employed for even a contracted player can push to break his deal and misbehave in order to get the move he wants. How crazy is it that the star centre forward, quite publicly, will talk about whether he’s staying or leaving even though he’s in mid-term?
Quite simply, supporters have to realise that a player’s time at a club is merely a stopping-off point that may last two or three years, often much less, rarely any longer. They are not “traitors”, they should not be called “Judas” and they are no more money-grabbing than you or I. They are, in most people’s eyes, astronomically overpaid, but as mentioned earlier, it is a free market that operates on a supply and demand basis. Can you really blame a player from taking what’s offered?
Football fans are victims of their own passion to a large degree, they are in a relationship that is largely one-way – the lover that expects the same level of frantic affection from his partner but is invariably disappointed. Isn’t that really what the fan experience is generally all about?