On a surface level loyalty can be seen everywhere; from the shirt a person wears to the badge a player kisses. But football is not generally conducive to the one-club player nor is it a field where loyalty exists as an absolute.
Even a cursory look highlights Italy as a country where the most prominent embodiments of football clubs can be seen in their captains: Maldini had a statistic defying 25-year top flight career at Milan, boasting 7 Serie A titles, 5 European Cups and more than 900 appearances. Alessandro Del Piero has virtually been an ever present for Juventus since arriving from Padova in 1993 and stuck with the Bianconeri through relegation post-calciopoli. Francesco Totti signed a contract that should see him playing for Roma until 2014, after which he will serve on the board of directors for 5 years. Javier Zanetti, despite being 36, completed over a half century of appearances for Inter Milan in last season’s treble winning team (reaching 700 club appearances in his 15-year career at Inter). These players (throw in Gerrard, Giggs, Scholes, Neville and Terry from our own league as one-club players who have also won honours) are proof that loyalty can exist in the game and that it does reap its rewards.
So why, after giving examples of high profile players loyal to one club, do I maintain football is a sphere not conducive to loyalty? Well, a prevailing sense of ownership fills the public when a player is nurtured and goes on to play especially well for a club. Looking at Ronaldo’s departure from Manchester United I was shocked to hear so many talk and write of what he ‘owed’ the fans and the club. Yes, the club nurtured his talents and afforded him the ideal platform to succeed but did he not repay that faith by becoming one of the best players in the game and providing the people with three seasons of sustained individual brilliance? I think so. Because these are the same fans who cheered his goals and hurled abuse if a step over went wrong or a long shot missed.
It’s not a condition of Manchester United fans but of people as a collective. Footballers provide the most unnerving gauges of the fickleness of the mob; they receive unbridled adulation when playing well but, irrespective of how good they have been, if their performances drop for a single game the same fans will openly voice their disdain. Had Ronaldo not been the best then his departure wouldn’t have mattered. Conversely had he chosen to stay and performed badly for a period, fans would not hesitate to have him replaced. The pressure involved in football has only been augmented by constant media coverage and the result of heavily scrutinising minute details is increased extolment and increased vitriol.
When Mussolini splintered off from the Italian Socialist Party to form the Fascist movement in Italy he stated to his old comrades, ‘you hate me with immense hatred because you once loved me.’ This exact sentiment resonates heavily in football. There is an emotional aspect to the game that distinguishes it from almost every other profession. No one would mind if a person leaves their office job for a better paid role in a country where the sun shines a lot more. But what football means to such a vast majority of people makes it a unique profession not suitable to the standards of others. And its players, like its fans, can be very loyal at any given moment and no so loyal at another.
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