Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me

by Pavan Mano

It’s quite bewildering that we still continue to cling on to the notion that loyalty exists in football; the fact that players switching clubs for greater salaries, leaving for greater win bonuses, withdrawing from their national squads continue to shock us and make headlines reflects a widely-held belief that loyalty is something we expect from professional footballers. We’ve seen this narrative replay itself so many times, so why is it still sensational and shocking when yet another footballer makes a cold, money-motivated decision?

Perhaps loyalty existed in the decades gone by, but in modern day football, it’s quite safe to say it is absent. A few years ago, Ashley Cole engineered a move from Arsenal to Chelsea because Arsenal were not willing to pay him enough; some time after that, John Terry cast envious glances in the direction of Manchester City when they waved cash at him until Chelsea persuaded him to stay with a new deal; why, just two years ago, Wayne Rooney famously wanted out of Manchester United until they offered him more money to stay.

And this phenomenon of changing clubs for greater rewards is certainly not unique to English footballers either. Benoit Assou-Ekotto admitted in a surprisingly candid interview with The Guardian in 2010 that he moved to Tottenham Hotspur because of the money on offer; Mathieu Flamini left Arsenal for AC Milan because they weren’t willing to pay him what he wanted – this list could go on for quite a while yet, but the conclusion is not difficult to make: everybody has a price.

Paolo Maldini of AC Milan – one of the rare one-club men

The notion of enduring loyalty in football is something that can perhaps only be described as romantic. It is romantic to think that our footballing heroes are supporters like us, comforting that they too love the club that we so adore, so much so they are seen as highly-talented supporters, essentially. And it is this misconstrued perception that must lie at the heart of the disappointment and betrayal we feel whenever professional players make decisions in the name of pure monetary gain.

The unavoidable truth seems to be that playing football is a mere job to most footballers, an occupation, nothing more – they move when better opportunities present themselves. Of course, this works both ways – clubs see footballers as mere employees too. It isn’t uncommon to hear CEOs or managers use the phrase “he will (only) be sold at the right price” when discussing player transfers. The very fact that there exists a price already points to the fact that everybody has a value and if somebody can match the value, the player can leave.

Assou-Ekotto believes there is nothing wrong with being a mercenary as long as it doesn’t affect on-field performance

None of this is wrong, of course. As with any other job, the employee has a responsibility towards ensuring that he is able to perform his duties and responsibilities to the best of his ability. In this case, the employee’s duties and responsibilities are playing football and winning matches for his employer. Similarly, the employer is single-minded in a quest for greater profits – anything that enables the club to profit is worth doing, regardless of values like loyalty, which are very much intangible.

The best players do their duties well and take care of themselves meticulously, often devoting hours outside of regular training to recovery and recuperation; players who sacrifice more become better players who can then go on to play for better clubs and are, therefore, better paid. So it makes sense for employees – footballers – to devote their careers to their employers – their present clubs – because if they do their job well, there is a good chance they will better their lot, financially or otherwise.

This doesn’t quite apply to representing one’s country. It also creates a bit of a Catch-22 situation where players have an incentive not to play for their countries – playing carries the risk of injury and added fatigue that might affect his performance levels for his club – what really counts.

Top managers like Sir Alex Ferguson, Arsene Wenger, and Harry Redknapp have also been very vocal in criticizing international matches and it is quite clear they see them as a burden even if their own players don’t say so themselves. With managers thinking this way, it is hard to believe that this attitude doesn’t rub off on their players, with whom managers spend a significant amount of time.

Over the past few days, Rio Ferdinand has been slammed from pillar to post for his acrimonious withdrawal from the English national squad. Much of the criticism centers on him being unpatriotic and disloyal towards his country. But then again, what’s new? This is not the first time highly-paid, elite footballers have turned their backs on their countries in favor of their clubs – and I am certain it is not going to be the last.

Of course, we hear it a lot in the media: many stars claim in interviews that they would do anything for their countries; they say they will sacrifice everything for their nations. Yet when it comes to putting their money where their mouth is, a good number of the top players fall short. All the talk about love for country and pride in donning the national jersey is well and good, but for as long as the Ferdinands of this era continue acting as they have, it will remain lip service.

In modern day football, it is quite clear that players’ allegiances lie firmly with their clubs – they pay them (astronomically, in most cases), and in return they expect their players to be in tip-top condition at all times, ready to perform as an when required – the player’s duty is to perform well and win matches for his employer – the club that pays him to play for them. This transactional relationship between player and club often overshadows (and maybe even transcends) the more emotionally-driven relationship between player and nation.

Maybe that is what we need to accept, to save ourselves from being disappointed time and time again: professional players do not have a special relationship with football or the clubs they play for; it is simply an employee-employer relationship in which money, not loyalty, is the currency.

And if we stubbornly refuse to silence our inner romantics and accept this hard truth, we only have ourselves to blame for the ensuing heartbreak the next time one of our beloved clubs’ stars chooses money over loyalty. Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.

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