There is a reasonably good chance that the summer of 2013, should it come to be remembered for any one thing, will be recalled as The Summer of Hate. From female journalists receiving death threats for having the sheer temerity to point out to an audience that we might have thought would be old enough to know better that being a vile misogynist online is, well, vile through to the English Defence League, whose idea of the defence of this country from Islam – whatever the hell that means – is to drink seventeen pints of cheap, fizzy beer and try and fight the police on Saturday afternoons, this has felt like a period during which Britain has, somehow, lost its mind.
Against such a background, perhaps we might have expected this summer’s football transfer market to seem a little saner than it might otherwise have done, but somehow or other top end of the professional game has managed to contrive a way to outdo the worst of its most recent excesses over the last couple of months, with behaviour from agents, players and clubs which can only really lead us to the conclusion that the very concept of loyalty in professional football – at least from the side of the game’s great divide which makes money from it – is essentially now extinct.
Of course, the concept of loyalty in professional football has always been something of an act of illusion that all sides of the game have been complicit in maintaining, ever since the first guns for hire moved south en masse from Scotland in the middle of the 1880s. For the professional footballer, the game can often be little more than a career decision, to the extent that some players – Davd Batty springs immediately to mind – have admitted that they have little interest in the game other than being able to play it to the standard of a professional. And, we might even suppose, why should they? Office drones aren’t expected to have a deep, abiding love of Microsoft Excel to be able to their job to the required standard, after all. They’re paid to provide a service, the same as anybody else.
This summer, however, we have seen, depending on your perspective, either new heights or depths of behaviour from players seeking to move away from their clubs. Whether we think of Luis Suarez agitating for a move away from Liverpool at the start of the summer using the press as a handy excuse and then – with no apparent sense of irony, although his behaviour over the last couple of years has been such that it is tempting to start to believe that he might be some sort of elaborate piece of performance put on by Gilbert & George with the intention of showing up exactly how absurd the idea of professional sport actually is – turning to a newspaper to plea for a move away from the club a couple of months later, or Gareth Bale being “distraught” and “in turmoil” because the poor little diddums is having a move to Madrid blocked by the club that he plays for at the moment, we have seen acts of shamelessness that have raised the bar in terms of their self-centredness.
Clubs, of course, don’t behave any better than this, either. Whether through using tame sources in the media to carry out exercises in wish fulfillment to their logical extreme or merely manipulating players’ agents to encourage players to break the terms of the lavish contracts that they have willingly signed, there are few clubs that have spotless histories in this grubby little game of cat and mouse, and just as players do, they have a tendency to cry injustice when they are on the receiving end of it all. Taken overall, it’s a phenomenon that feeds strictly at the bottom of the tank, from which there are no moral victors.
Supporters, of course, are the only people that do display any degree of loyalty, but that deep, ingrained sense of belonging can only, in the long-term, be damaged by the increasingly poor behaviour of clubs and players with regard to transfer market. We’ve always know that professional football has a food chain, and that players will usually gravitate towards where the money and the “glory” is, but the polarising effect that money has had within the game now means that there are few clubs – and therefore few sets of supporters – who won’t have to put up with a player or a group of players departing under a cloud as soon as that club – and, by extension, those supporters – have served their purpose.
Yet even supporters aren’t completely blameless in all of this. There will, for example, doubtlessly be plenty of Arsenal supporters who will welcome Luis Suarez with open arms because he is a very good player, even though they may well have berated him at various points over the last couple of years over the less appealing aspects of his character that we have seen. It’s all a means to an end, and if that end means a greater chance of success, then so be it. And this is in no small part because professional football is now even more of a moral vacuum than it ever was in the past. Success means everything, even if that means breaking every moral code that we might otherwise hold.
Perhaps we merely have to accept that this is the way of things these days, or walk way altogether. It may well be true that football has always had an aspect of moral equivalence about it, and that as success has become so closely intertwined with the accumulation of money it was perhaps inevitable that we mind ourselves where we are today. This doesn’t, however, prevent us from wanting to wish away this summer, for what happens on the pitch to overshadow everything else, and for the right reasons. And it doesn’t prevent us from wishing that, if footballers and football clubs don’t care about loyalty any more, then they might at least be honest about it. Cut out the badge-kissing. End the charade of saying that you care about the fans. If this summer has proved anything at all, it can only be that we are now more aware of the extent to which this is all a pack of lies.
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