Success, Loyalty and the Inherent Bias of Fandom

Robin van Persie’s statement last week conveying his decision to not extend his current deal created waves of discontent in the Arsenal community.  Naturally, the subject of loyalty and the direction of football were raised in the aftermath. Player-power has seemingly never held such a prominent role in the game as it does now.  These issues have weighed on my mind for some time and regardless of the eventual outcome of yet another summer transfer window saga in N5 I feel it’s time I met them head-on, so to speak. The cyclical nature of stars leaving for pastures new and the subsequent heartache endured by fans is hardly a novel occurrence but in this torrent of emotion the objective view is often discarded. The aim of this piece is to address that somewhat in rather general terms.

Strip down the beloved colours of whatever team it may be that you support and what is left? One man and his job. Footballers are human beings like you and I. They may enjoy a considerably more lavish lifestyle than us “norms” but they are still humans all the same. As the financial aspect of the game continues to reach frankly ridiculous levels, the perspective of both fans and players alike are stretched to the maximum. Whereas in the past there seemed to be a close bond between both groups, a real sense that obstacles were met as one, the continuing disparity in values has diminished that feeling. The overwhelming mood is one that football is losing, if it hasn’t already lost, its somewhat magical allure. Hopes and dreams that are slow cooked in life’s oven are burnt in an instant; Loyalty a value tossed by the wayside.

Football has changed, there’s no doubting that. What was once primarily a hobby, admittedly back in days of yore, is now a commercial cash cow with the sole aim of squeezing every last penny out of the very people who are the reason the game has such a standing in the first place. Football clubs have become businesses first and foremost with footballers their employees. Like in any profession it is natural, if one has an ambitious streak, to aim for the top. There are few feelings for a determined soul better than that of success. So, from a purely objective standpoint it makes perfect sense that an individual, especially a world class one in their field, should want to join an organization at the very top of their particular sector.

The money argument is an oft-used one and of course there have been numerous players in the past who have moved clubs simply to improve their wealth. I feel it’s important to stress, however, that these broad strokes shouldn’t be attributed to all players. Take Robin van Persie’s present situation. If indeed he does end up at Manchester City, yes, he will be increasing his wage by a hefty amount. Sure, the Sheikhs in Middle Eastlands have distorted the financial landscape of the game more than I imagined was possible only a few years ago but now, having benefitted from that injected wealth, City possess the “success” card too. It’s convenient that both monetary gain and success can be achieved at the Etihad now but it shows that these aspects don’t have to be mutually exclusive, contrary to the way they are often referred to in the modern day press. Bringing the situation back to the real world, one may love working in their present company but if a more successful company comes along offering you a better wage and a similar level of enjoyment I wouldn’t begrudge anyone from taking that option.

Of course, when emotions are involved it’s not always that simple. Our fandom brings with it an inherent bias; one that makes objectivity a difficult feat. We constantly demand that players show the same loyalty to the club we hold dear as we do ourselves, calling any player that doesn’t selfish. However, aren’t our own demands selfish in themselves?  The majority of fans are tied to the club of their choice for life. It’s a bond that is near impossible to break.  By default we bask in the glory days and wallow in the mire of failure. In contrast, a player’s sporting life near the top of their game lasts ten years maximum and that’s for the exceedingly fortunate. Yet we demand that they play out those years in our familiar dwelling rather than in the stadia of our rivals. We hold this desire regardless of the ability of our club to challenge for the silverware that many in the game crave. Again, this is merely natural human sentiment, but our own fanatical support can sometimes cloud the wider picture.

Contract duration: Life

“What of their contracts?” you may ask. “If they’ve agreed to stay for a certain time period shouldn’t they adhere to that?” A very valid question but an issue that is liable, once more, to bias. The fact is there are many occasions where the club can benefit from a contract just as much as the player. “Selling contracts” where a player signs for an extra year simply to give the club more leverage when entering transfer negotiations are rife and a clear example of this. A player signing a long contract may give them stability but it also gives the club a relative position of strength when facing bids from elsewhere.

Depending on a fan’s subjective opinion of a specific player they may or may not agree with the principles of their contract. Go back to the example of Robin van Persie for instance. A player whose standing in this present Arsenal team was immense before his statement. We, the fans, wanted nothing more than for him to prolong his stay in Arsenal colours, subsequently disagreeing when his own free will as a human being resulted in him coming to the opposite decision.

Take a player such as Sébastien Squillaci, however, and the call of the majority is to cut our ties as soon as possible. Fans who furiously demand loyalty of their favourites can be incredibly hypocritical when a player doesn’t take their fancy. On occasion, I’ve echoed similar sentiments so I’m certainly not in a position to condemn such behaviour. Unsurprisingly as fans, given the links to our club first and foremost, individuals of lesser quality are seen as surplus to requirements. In fact, that same stance is invariably shared by the club itself even though there are several occasions where the player in question may still have years left to run on their contract. The business-like nature of football makes this acceptable for most but again it highlights the two-faced nature of loyalty in the game.

Maldini, Giggs and Scholes: 3 names that are commonplace in any argument touching on loyalty in football and rightly so given their respective years of service to their clubs. These one-club men will go down in history and their performances on the pitch have been a credit to their profession. Despite this, it remains a fact that their careers either took place, or are still taking place in the case of the latter two, in a successful environment. The trophy cabinets at their clubs have been filled on a regular basis throughout their careers and for that very reason it’s difficult to attain a grasp of exactly how loyal they are. Would they have left for more successful clubs had silverware been more of a rarity? Any purist would like to think not but the hypothetical nature of the question leaves a lingering sense of doubt.

Loyalty isn’t simply black and white, though, it’s a spectrum. A sea of grey in which fans and players alike tread water. Every fan wishes they had a squad full of Matt Le Tissiers; players with their club truly at heart, willing to stay throughout the lows and spurning opportunities of potentially greater things elsewhere. The reality is that such loyalty is scarce but it’s a depressing reality that most should expect nowadays. After all, footballers are only human.



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