The disconnect between the reality of the professional footballer’s relationship with the game and the package that we are sold is one of the greatest disconnects between the reality of the game and the mental image of it that we are expected to swallow. Much as we like to kid ourselves – and, indeed, it’s possible to argue that we need to be able to build this mental construct in order to maintain our interest in the game – otherwise, though, that love affair between fans and players is not an evenly-distributed two-way street. Footballers are professionals, and unlike the rest of us their retirement age is not only young, but also indeterminate and also comes with no guarantees of any other career paths becoming available once those leg muscles have become a little too tight to keep up with younger players.
There are exceptions to this rule, but it is their rarity that makes them so notable. These, on the whole, fall into two categories. On the one hand, there are those that either hit the top at an early age or are brought through by a big club’s youth system, and who decide to stick rather than twist in terms of their career decisions – the likes of Ryan Giggs or John Terry, perhaps. On the other, there are an even rarer breed, those who pitch up at more modest clubs and decide to stay there come hell or high water – the Steve Bulls or Matthew Le Tissiers of this world. Players like this were always a rare breed and the incredible increase in the amount of money that players can now earn by going where the money is means that they may, as a breed, even be close to extinction.
On the whole, however, they always leave you in the end and the polarising effect of big money means that this phenomenon will likely only become all the more accentuated in the future. It is visible across the whole of the professional and semi-professional – in this respect, we might consider it to be football’s equivalent to the food chain – but it is probably most noticeable at the dotted line which separates those that have qualified for the Champions League from those that haven’t. The list of players that, say, perennial near-miss experts Tottenham Hotspur have lost in recent years to other clubs in exchange for an explicit promise of a fatter contract and an implicit promise of trophies and glory could quite possibly account for a third or more of a Champions League winning team, and although many Spurs fans seem pretty sanguine about their club’s chances of retaining Gareth Bale in the face of the leering attention of Real Madrid, but Bale will leave the club eventually. What may come to matter more for Spurs in the medium term is likely to be how Daniel Levy can spin any future sale of this valuable asset to the club’s advantage and how well the money from any sale is spent.
For the average supporter, however, that annual reminder of your place in the overall scheme of things stings, and it does so all the more when supporters of the landed gentry seem to spend half of their lives casting an eye over opposing teams’ players with a view to the question of whether they are of a sufficient quality to be worthy of signing for the club that they support. Players themselves, either directly or through their agents – who, let us not forget, may well be vilified the but are ultimately only representatives of the players concerned and could be drummed out of the game altogether if there were any will whatsoever to do so (which, on the part of players, there doesn’t seem to be) – are wholly complicit in this, no matter what they say while they are with a club. Some are less subtle about it than others, but the overall majority are no more in love with their employers than you or I are with ours. In the twenty-first century, just as it was in the twentieth and at the end of the nineteenth, playing football professionally is, for the overwhelming majority of those able to do so, a business decision – little more, nothing less.
All of which brings us, in an extremely convoluted fashion, around to the subject of Luis Suarez, who hasn’t left Liverpool yet but now seems highly likely to this summer. As ever with this player, however, there is nothing about his week that hasn’t been given a dusting of disingenuity and been sprinkled with his persecution complex. Let us be absolutely clear, here. Luis Suarez has been treated extraordinarily well by Liverpool Football Club and its supporters, certainly better than almost anyone that doesn’t support the club believes he deserved. The club itself laid its reputation as a sporting institution on the line for him over the Evra affair, and the damage done to that reputation has taken a long time to clear, while that of the supporters themselves was similarly damaged by the convolutions performed in order to justify his behaviour at that time. This loyalty extended to last season’s faintly ludicrous biting incident, an incident that seemed more ludicrous and weirdly odd than being anything worth getting properly upset about.
Push seems to have come to shove for Luis Suarez over the last few weeks or so, though, and the disappointment of missing out on Champions League football next season is understandable for a player of his undoubted talents. In addition to this, whether it is ethical or not to tap players up in the way they clubs like this seem to continue to do as a matter of routine, from the perspective of the professional footballer a contract at the Bernebeu is something approaching the holy grail. Surely only the most swivel-eyed would look at where Liverpool are now and where Real Madrid are now, and reach the conclusion that leaving Anfield would be some sort of betrayal. So why, then, the need to frame his desire to leave the club because of the attention of the media? If he is telling truth in saying that, then he may be in for a rude awakening in Spain, where the sports press can be just as cruel as anybody on England could manage. In addition to this, there is the small matter of Real Madrid being under a considerably stronger microscope than Liverpool are under at present. What sort of reaction any antics might get in Spain is a debatable point, but going to Real Madrid would be a different challenge to the one currently presented at Anfield.
There don’t seem to be that many people about that are interpreting Suarez’s latest outburst through the prism that the player would like them to, though. We might have thought that the loyalty shown to him by Liverpool supporters might have been the cause of some sort of ‘special relationship’ between this player and his employers but, much as Suarez has played the role of victim this week, it turns out that it is likely that he is just the same as all the rest. When a better offer comes along, he will gravitate towards it. Ultimately, we’re all capitalists these days whether we like it or not, and it is during this point of the close season, when the air is heady with the smell of money and the possibility of shiny baubles next May, that this particular form of avarice is at its most obvious. Perhaps Luis Suarez will change his mind and pledge his future to Liverpool in a show of contrition hitherto unseen in the twenty-one years of the Premier League.
At the time of writing, though, it feels as if a man with a history of burning bridges wherever he goes is reaching a point of no return with a club that has gone above and beyond any call of duty in defending him at times when many others – and to say this is in no way indicative of an ‘agenda’ against either this player or this club; to seek to suggest otherwise is to value puerility over reason – considered his behaviour to be at the very least bordering on indefensible. At least, however, we may reflect that it is entirely appropriate that Luis Suarez, gifted but frequently a buffoon, every inch the modern footballer in both its best and worst senses, will – presuming that he does, of course – depart from Anfield in a manner that has come to characterise his time in this country – at the eye of a storm publicity, most of it self-inflicted.
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