Let’s call the whole thing off

September 22, 2011 § Leave a comment

Handshake, Radiohead style“And when she talked about her fall, I thought she talked about Mark E. Smith.
I never understood at all …” 
— Jens Lekman

When Cesc Fabregas left the club he loved for the club he loved even more, he was quick to point out that he would not have departed the Emirates were it not for his unique relationship with Barcelona. No other club would have done. The siren song of the Camp Nou chimed with that now-notorious DNA, and he was helpless to resist.

Yet this assertion is wholly contingent on the relative positions and strengths of Barcelona and Arsenal. Had the situations been reversed, would he have left the best team in the world for (maybe) the fourth best team in Spain? Or would he have heeded the calls of his DNA had they led him to Espanyol, or Real Oviedo, or the mighty Dulwich Hamlet? The answer, in both cases, is surely no.

Loyalty, affection, and other such intangible-yet-personal attachments do exist in football. Players are people, and people are, on the whole, messy bundles of feelings and sentiment and weakness, hating and liking and all that jazz. They do care for clubs that nurture and help them (just as they’ll dislike those that hold them back), for other players and managers that trust and assist (and the reverse for those that don’t), and for fans that worship them (etc., and so on).

But only as long as it’s useful to do so.

Supporting a football club is a pleasantly circular business; whatever the initial reason for becoming a fan of a team – location, family, random choice, pretty shirt, special player, peer pressure – it quickly settles into a self-renewing cycle of “I support my team because I support my team”. That can be broken in extreme circumstances, perhaps, but it is fundamentally fixed and simple. But the player-club relationship is not comparative; it’s not “I play for this team because I like this team”.

While unpicking the motives of any specific player is an exercise beyond the capacity of this piece (not to mention this writer), it’s not unreasonable to suggest that players in general have a reason or a motive to play football. That might be money, or it might be glory, or renown, respect, free boots, pliable women, pliable (if sub rosa) men, the chance to live in fun and foreign places, the simple joy of playing the game as well as possible, the drive to escape grinding poverty … obviously, it depends on circumstance and on personality. Not all players will have all possible motives, but all will have at least one; else why would they be a football player at all? To become a professional footballer even at a relatively modest level requires a personal and time-consuming commitment to the craft of the game that would seem to preclude anybody – setting aside the occasional outlying savant – getting there without trying. And people that try to do things without any reason at all are few and far between.

So we have a player, and we have a motive behind that player becoming a player. What determines where he plays is at first a slew of contextual accidents – place of birth, place of play, first club to scout, first club to offer terms, etc. – but soon becomes a matter over which the player has a certain amount of power, and here the motive becomes significant. Where the desire of the player cannot be satisfied by the club for which he plays, conflict is inevitable: this is the truth that lies behind the creaking maxim “the club cannot match my ambition”. Take Benoît Assou-Ekotto, or rather, take the caricature of Benoît Assou-Ekotto: The Player Who Plays Only for the Money. When Assou-Ekotto plays for a club that pays him as much as he (or his agent) thinks he can earn, he is happy; where he plays for a club that pays him less than he thinks he can earn, he is not.

Or take Wayne Rooney. By all accounts, Rooney is a genuine Everton fan in all important respects: grew up supporting them, idolised Duncan Ferguson, hates Liverpool the appropriate amount, and so on. (Once a Blue, always a Blue, after all.) But this didn’t prevent his move to Manchester United, because whatever Rooney wants from football – be that money, glory, endorsements, prostitutes, allegedly – he didn’t think it would come at Everton. He felt that he had outgrown the club. And, of course, he briefly felt the same about Manchester United, albeit he was soon persuaded by the Glazers and their wallets that staying would be in his best interests.

To formalise this, let’s invent an abstract value called Pp, which is any given player’s motive for playing plus the player’s notions of how and where to best satisfy that motive. Let’s invent another abstract value for that player’s perception of a given club – what that club can do for him, basically – and call that Pc. Where Pp = Pc, the player will be happy at the club; where Pp > Pc, then the player will want to move.

What is interesting about this is not that it is a secret truth – indeed, it’s fairly self-evident – but that it exactly mirrors the attitude of clubs toward players. Just as a player is using a club to achieve what they want to achieve, so the club is using the player for the same end. Clubs (here being a kind of unitary entity encompassing management and boardroom) know what they want to do, where they want to go, and how best to get there, and they buy or discard players according to how well they can help the club attain its goals (generally: winning). Every player that was ever sold or let go with the blessing of the club was the victim of the corollary to the above: “this player does not match the club’s ambition”.

To formalise that we need two more invented values, Cc, which is clubs on themselves, and, Cp, which is clubs on players. As above, where Cc > Cp, then the club will seek to move the player on; where Cc = Cp, the club will be happy to keep the player*.

* Of course, these values can be (and probably often are) profoundly delusional, players being helplessly victim to the pernicious mendacities of agents, family and ego. But they are expressions of perception, not expressions of fact: dissatisfaction arises from what players (and clubs) think they are worth, not what they are.

A harmonious relationship between club and player, therefore, requires both Pc = Pp and Cc = Cp; it needs the player to be happy with what the club can do for them, and the club to be happy with what the player can do for them. This amounts to equilibrium of mutual utility, a state that we can call professional symbiosis.

But it’s important not to mistake such professional symbiosis for loyalty. It resembles loyalty for exactly as long as it remains balanced, but no longer. Because the concept is flexible, the reasons the equilibrium might break down could be almost anything: an inflated sense of self-worth on the side of player or club, the machinations of agents or board members, other appointments elsewhere, injuries, the relentless march of age, whatever. Should loyalty play any role at all, it will be only such a role as the character of player or club allows, normally as a kind of garnish to a colder decision. When sentiment clashes with self-aggrandisement, there’s only one winner. Fabregas only went home because home just happened to be a ridiculously overpowered superclub.

This is because players have something riding on their relationship with the club that fans don’t. As long as a club continues to exist, then the worst thing that can happen to a fan – within the bounds of normal sporting experience, at any rate – is that they don’t win anything, which is pretty much irrelevant, or at least some way shy of the point. Whereas players have a finite career in which to achieve whatever it is they want to achieve, and they also know that only a small – and getting smaller – number of clubs are going to be able to deliver those big shiny silver pots that so obsess everyone.

The rewards of being a fan are, at a fundamental level, tied into loyalty. From loyalty comes the feeling of community, and loyalty validates the participation of the heart in the multifarious narratives of games, seasons, and lifetimes. England Till I Die; West ‘Am Through and Through; Fergie’s Red and White Army; 100% Blade; these are the votive expressions of that strange and glorious sense of belonging that keeps people coming back, again and again. And so disloyalty is a question of abandoning or altering identity: either a fan gives up on football in general or the team in particular, but does not adopt another; or the last great taboo of fandom is violated and allegiance is switched*. When the loyalty dies, so does the fan.

* There is an important exception here, or at least what looks like an exception: FC United of Manchester. They are an interesting case because the argument that underpinned the foundation of the splinter club was that the club – Manchester United – had changed to such a degree that the institution itself was unrecognisable, and as such had forfeited the claim on the loyalties of those who subsequently upped and left. While such clubs, and such fans, are obviously few and far between, this perhaps demonstrates that fan loyalty is not wholly unconditional, but requires a certain amount of consistency in the identity of the club.

Footballers work to a different definition of loyalty, a professional definition. Being a loyal footballer is about doing your job as best as you can, about keeping your end of the bargain. That bargain, of course, is the mutual utility touched on above: player and club working together to meet their own happily convergent ends. Since the ends are convergent – in short: winning – working for the club is simply working for the self, and so when a continued attachment to the club becomes detrimental to the player, it would be illogical to expect them to sacrifice their own ends to those of the club. They are secure in the knowledge that the club would never dream of extending the same favour to them.

Of course, there are examples of players seeming to sacrifice their own ends for their clubs, but they are so few and far between – Damiano Tommasi? Matt le Tissier? Gianluigi Buffon? Cristiano Lucarelli? – and generally come with such significant caveats that at best they serve to simply prove the general rule. Fabregas is a wonderful example, actually, given that he’s loved two clubs in his life and has “abandoned” them both: first he left Barcelona because he wanted first-team football, now he has returned because he wants to win things. In some ways, it’s a pity Ayn Rand missed out on modern football.

Fans are divided from players (and clubs) by the semantic consequences of their own nature, each constrained by an idiolect determined by their relationship to the club in the specific and the game in general. “Loyalty”, to the fan, is an expression of consistent and devotional fealty; “loyalty”, to the player (or to the club), is a limited and contingent concept dependent on the maintenance of mutual, professional symbiosis. Same word, different meanings. What doesn’t help, however, is the cynical manipulation of the fans by both player and club, who are happy to cloak their utility-based attachments in the trappings of genuine loyalty. That’s what kissing the badge is: it’s a pretence that they (the player) speak the same language as you (the fan). The language of love, not the language of use. It’s a lie designed to make you buy replica shirts.

Ultimately, the brute meritocracy of football means that players have no choice but to reciprocate the callousness shown toward them by clubs; the alternative would more than likely be heartbreak. For every player who leaves the club he loves in search of wealth or glory there are a dozen more who went through the same training sessions, the same drills, the same pain and misery, only to be called into the manager’s office one day and given a handshake, a pat on the back, and best wishes for a suddenly empty future. Players use clubs because clubs use players: that’s the natural consequence of the endless, restless pursuit that is football.

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