The relationship between football supporters and football players is multi-faceted and complicated. Once a player joins a club, the objectives of player and fan are briefly twinned. Supporter and player are invested in unified goals, but in very different ways and for very different reasons. Supporters are emotionally embroiled in a lifetime journey. For us, supporting a club is like a long train ride and the players are passengers that embark and alight at different stops. Some are distinctive, some unmemorable and others intensely annoying.
Players are emotionally invested in their journey too, as it crosses with ours. They are also physically invested in their careers. It takes a huge amount of sacrifice and determination to become a professional footballer. Clubs are vehicles for their personal ambitions. For supporters, players are conduits for our aspirations as fans, we live vicariously through them. It is a mutually usurious relationship. Fans will always possess the trump card that it is their money pumping the blood of currency steadily through the veins of the club and that finances the largesse of the top flight footballer.
As the price of football tickets and TV subscriptions swell, the relationship between players (and by extension, clubs) and supporters is increasingly filtered through a customer client lens. That said, fans are often dismissive of the sacrifices footballers make to break into elite level sport. It demands an unerring level of focus in one’s formative years, the kind of unswerving dedication most adolescents are not capable of. The mental faculties required to deal with the pressure to perform often go unappreciated by supporters. We cannot relate and therefore struggle to empathise with the physical and mental endurance expended by an athlete.
Footballers have a slightly better handle on the psyche of a fan, because they too were fans at some point. But young people that love football tend to make a choice in their formative years between watching and participating. I played a lot of Sunday football in my adolescence, through to my early teens. Gradually, the act of going to football began to supplant my participation. It was difficult to do both devotedly and I became a committed fan and casual player. Plenty of my peers chose the other fork in the road, including some that clearly had no genuine aspirations of playing professionally. They were and still are, committed players and casual fans.
Top level players do more than choose the alternative path that supporters select. They utterly commit to it, at the expense of all else- their contemporary friendships, even their education. As such, football players and football fans are extracted from the same zygote, but split into contrasting embryos. Two hearts living in just one mind. (I’m never going to be allowed to write for this site again, am I?) So it stands to reason that these delicate bonds are often ruptured and, in some cases, combust completely.
These ties are emotionally driven, but they are also very subjective and formed at distance, which makes for an interesting cocktail. Individually, we will take a shine to some players and others we never warm to. I understand why many Arsenal fans struggled to like William Gallas. Personally, I rather enjoy surliness in public figures and therefore, I took to his bouts of moon faced ennui, even when he was clad in Chelsea blue.
I was struck once more by the subjectivity that drives these relationships when Bacary Sagna was jeered by Arsenal fans on Monday evening. As one is wont to do at times of moral confusion, I “took to twitter” to express my confusion that Bacary Sagna had been booed, whilst Fabregas was largely applauded upon his return to the Emirates with Chelsea. The replies to my tweet were incredibly varied, which caused me to reflect on the satisfying conditions for a player departure. To me, Sagna gave Arsenal seven excellent years of service, often through relatively difficult times, and remained a fantastic player and ambassador. To others, he ran down his contract and joined a rival for a vastly inflated salary.
Both of those things are true, I suppose it is a matter of personal values that determines which one you prize over the other. Or perhaps they cancel one another out. It’s often said, somewhat blithely, that, for footballers “it’s just a job.” That undersells and oversimplifies the situation. It is true that it’s their occupation and they are likely to be just as malleable with their company loyalties as you or I in our jobs. But it’s more than just “a job” for footballers. It’s a career, a manifestation of something they have worked exceptionally hard for since well before adult years and that finishes before mid-life.
In general, I think most fans are adult enough to understand this. A player’s departure from a club is usually judged by the manner in which he leaves. Kolo Toure, for instance, is always afforded a generous reception when he meets with Arsenal fans again, be it in the blue of Manchester or the red of Liverpool. Kolo was, like Sagna, a fantastic servant that always conducted himself with great decorum. Whilst Sagna was hardly hounded three ways from Sunday, there is a reason for the difference in treatment between Bacary and Kolo.
Toure was sold to Manchester City at a time when he was a tad overweight and struggling for form. It was time for him to go; his performances had dipped with little sign of resuscitation. Though Bellerin has proved a sumptuous replacement, at the time Sagna left, most of us wanted him to stay. This illustrates the contradiction at the heart of this eternal contretemps. It’s not enough for us as supporters that a player serves us with distinction.
He must go when we are ready for him to leave, ideally to a location to our liking. Toure joined Manchester City in 2009, when, I would argue this move was viewed with less hostility compared to when Sagna made it in 2014. It’s difficult to form a moral high ground from this rather self-serving platform. Our loyalty to players is malleable and ultimately a little selfish. Given this uncomfortable logic, it is probably not surprising that both parties are prone to double standards.
Raheem Sterling is booed at grounds all over the country-presumably, because his move from Liverpool to Manchester City was viewed as an act of greed. The football media is awash with ex pros from Liverpool’s halcyon days and they have been keen to play up this angle. Yet moving from Liverpool to Manchester City was most likely a simple career choice for Sterling (that it was well rewarded fiscally is, of course, not totally insignificant), similar to the one that he made when he moved from QPR to Liverpool in his teens. Strangely, the ‘Liverpool simpatico’ elements of the football press did not view that move as an act of treachery.
The manner in which players depart is sometimes worthy of contempt. It’s painful to admit, but on a logical level, I perfectly understand why Robin van Persie wanted to leave Arsenal for Manchester United in 2012. But the naked vacuity of his “letter to the fans” engendered a great deal of ill feeling. It was a misjudged move from “the van Persie camp”, who believed that a disgruntled Arsenal fan base would sympathise with the star striker as he took aim at CEO and manager. Likewise, Emmanuel Adebayor’s exit from, well, just about every club he has played for is a case study in how to lose friends and alienate people.
Opinion on Francesc Fabregas continues to be divided amongst Arsenal fans, because the waters are so muddy. Personally, I understood his reasons for leaving, but feel that he engineered the move in a way that was manipulative. I think his continued public proclamations about the club are designed to conceal and excuse some of his behaviour during that summer. But unlike Robin van Persie, he didn’t brazenly try to fob everyone off with a transparently crafted letter. And unlike Emmanuel Adebayor, he didn’t set up a deckchair in the centre circle during a Champions League semi-final, before publicly comparing interested clubs with female popstars.
Perhaps to over rationalise this relationship is to strip football of one of its attractions. It’s entertainment and escapism rolled into a tightly curled ball and nothing lubricates a pantomime quite like a villain. On a basic level, fans just don’t want it to be easy for a good player to leave their club. It’s futile to appoint oneself an arbiter of crowd reaction because so much of it is based on spontaneity and what a crowd “feels” rather than what it “thinks.”
Yet feelings are easier to manipulate than thoughts, which is why the likes of Fabregas and van Persie invested so much time in doing just that upon their departures (with varying degrees of success). It’s a moral jungle that is difficult to negotiate, but one that lends texture to football’s never ending story.
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