Footballers don’t see the world as fans do. They aren’t stuck with one club for all eternity; they can leave when a better offer comes along. The defence of the mercenary footballer has always been that it’s a short career, but this has become a moot point when the Premier League offers such grotesque salaries: the average weekly salary in the Premier League last season was £30,000 a week. Now pause for a moment to think of some of the dross earning that sort of money. Sickening, but the simple truth is that footballers are interested in what’s best for them, which is pretty obvious.
However, despite this straightforward logic, fans place an expectation on footballers not to behave with brazen disregard for their club. We enjoy it when we can develop a bond with one of our players, and with good reason. It makes the sport feel more real, especially for those who regularly attend live fixtures. It’s that feeling someone on the pitch is actually representing you, the fans, in the sense that they care about the club almost as much as you do.
But, even when this bond appears to exist, it can pull apart as easily as if it had been held together by a very old Pritt Stick. Luis Suarez has been worshiped by Liverpool fans for his performances which, despite some fairly well noted flaws, have never lacked in effort or skill. Suarez appeared to love scoring goals for Liverpool, and the fans loved him for it, but now he wants to leave. This leaves his manager, Brendan Rodgers in a very difficult position. Losing Suarez would be a blow to Rodgers’ growing ego, as well as a blow to his team. But, despite receiving unwavering support, Suarez has brought shame on Liverpool. Rodgers needs to appease his star player, but too much grovelling looks weak. If Suarez does leave, then Rodgers needs to look tough in order to try and save face. Faced with such a dilemma, Rodgers has invoked football’s moral code, which is a bit like throwing boulders out of an extremely delicate glass bungalow.
There are two obvious steps that footballers and managers can take to avoid the risk of being identified as an enormous hypocrite. The first is not to make false promises that will only come back to haunt you. The second is not to moralise about the behaviour of others, no matter how tempting. But, Brendan Rodgers cares little for this advice. During his first job as a manager, at Watford, Rodgers responded to reports that he was interested in the Reading job by citing his integrity:
“When I am asked about other clubs, people are questioning my integrity and one thing I have mentioned is I always have integrity…I am loyal and find it disloyal when I am asked about other clubs when I am the Watford manager.”
Those quotes were reported on 22 May 2009. On 5 June 2009 Reading announced his appointment as their new manager. And, having committed the first sin, he recently committed the second. As soon as the Suarez to Arsenal story started to gather momentum, Rodgers was on the offensive, lecturing his striker about the need to show loyalty to Liverpool. Irony must be in short supply in the Rodgers household. We haven’t even mentioned his departure from Swansea and the ‘agreement’ not to sign any of their players, only to return shortly afterwards and trigger a release clause in Joe Allen’s contract, but that’s another story.
Of course, footballers and managers spouting hypocrisy is nothing new. For many years newspapers have been having fun with footballers’ meaningless declarations of love for their employers. No one should seriously begrudge Rodgers the opportunity to take the Liverpool job when manager of Swansea, but it seems loyalty becomes a much bigger deal when one of the big clubs are involved, like Liverpool or United. It is unthinkable that a player could dare to leave such a prestigious club without the blessing of their fans.
The problem with Suarez is that he’s worked himself into an indefensible position (he’s good at that) by first claiming he wanted to leave England because of the hostile press, then adapting his position when Arsenal’s interest became public. Footballers don’t have to say at one club for their entire careers, but you don’t have to defecate on your own doorstep, either. Bizarrely, Liverpool fans are still supporting their man, but that support will turn to hate if he eventually signs for a Premier League rival. If he joins Arsenal and performs well in the Champions League, it’ll be a good move for Suarez, and he’ll boost his chances of another move in a few years’ time, perhaps to PSG or Madrid. The importance of loyalty that is so frequently cited looks like a pretty weak argument in comparison. Loyalty will always matter to supporters, and it should. It helps to define the players that are revered as opposed to being simply remembered. If Suarez leaves Liverpool it’s unlikely he’ll be revered anywhere, but it’s also unlikely that he’ll care.