There was a time, not so long ago, that footballers belonged to teams. Today, the same teams chase the stars, just so that their kit gets brighter.
On the afternoon of September 15th, Michael Oliver blew the final whistle, rolling out the carpet of relief for the Liverpudlians. Liverpool had just conquered Tottenham Hotspur 2–1 at Wembley Stadium, with goals by courtesy of Georginio Wijnaldum and Roberto Firmino.
The atmosphere among the Scousers should’ve been that of contentment but, oddly enough, one group of people found their tongues tinged with bittersweetness. The reason being Mohamed Salah’s inability to have his name on the scoresheet.
That group of people were in need of a scapegoat, and eventually found one in Sadio Mané’s decision-making.
On one prominent occasion, Liverpool broke three-on-two, with Mané in control of the situation in the centre. Guinean Naby Keïta was free on his left-hand side, Salah on the right. Mané looked up, gave the moment some consideration, before opting for Keïta who then saw his shot parried away by Michel Vorm.
On some other occasions, Mané improvised and tried to surpass Vorm himself, instead of serving Salah. How selfish. Hence the frustration among those who stood by the Egyptian. Hence the not so supportive messages that poured into Mané’s social media.
An increasing number of modern football fans attach themselves to players as opposed to teams. Behaviour of this kind has not been received with open arms and served meals, as one gets the feeling that watching the game through the cult of personality is insubstantial, and that it fights against everything the sport fundamentally stands for. It’s a taboo that many are afraid to admit to be guilty of.
And here I am, trying to explain to myself, why so many do it nevertheless.
Who are you? Who, who, who, who?
For an outsider, big clubs with a capital B can seem thin on complexity and depth. Barcelona’s official website states that “respect, effort, ambition, teamwork and humility are the five principal values that define the spirit of FC Barcelona”. Chelsea, on the other hand, pride themselves on having core values of excellence, style, leadership, integrity, pride, unity, success, style, passion and loyalty. When values are put like that, they do seem nice…
… but also a whole lot of jargon. In all candour, big boys are not that different from one another.
“You’re actually rooting for the clothes, when you get right down to it. You’re standing and cheering and yelling for your clothes to beat the clothes from another city. Fans will be so in love with a player, but if he goes to another team, they’ll boo him. This is the same human being in a different shirt, they hate him now! Boo! Different shirt! Boo!” — Jerry Seinfeld
Yes, Paris Saint-Germain are hip with the pop culture and fashion stuff, and Real Madrid have their own way of doing things, but so do Atlético Madrid and Arsenal. Manchester United are a corporation of the highest order, drawing their support from around the globe, not just from the mass working-class population of Manchester and its surrounding urban sprawl. While, Manchester City have undergone a metamorphosis over the past decades, and Chelsea have moved from stubborn resilience and defensive organisation to Sarri-ball.
Moreover, Barcelona are printing money by their reputation and faded ideology, with their symbolism as an allegory of Catalan culture and Catalanism gradually flaking off. Last year, they felt it was inappropriate to play against Las Palmas on the day of the Catalan independence referendum but did so nevertheless — albeit behind closed doors.
The vice-president Carles Vilarrubí and the commissioner of the Barça Innovation Hub, Jordi Monés, resigned the following day.
As it stands — and will stand — super clubs are intercontinental and ergo don’t want to scare away any consumers by being too stirring in terms of politics. Therefore, Barcelona were content with taking the Catalan derby to Miami, content with forbidding Esteladas and yellow ribbons from entering Hard Rock Stadium.
These clubs can lack the surface upon which one can project one’s own desires and core values. A dilemma, which players don’t usually share. Individuals have the freedom to be more intricate than the clubs they represent, and take stronger stands. Say, Gerard Piqué for example. The man who was vocal during the Catalan independence referendum.
Players (and managers) possess the liberty to be more authentic, to show unique emotions (“José Mourinho,” I hear someone whispering in the stands). They can take more drastic points of view.
Individualism at its finest
The singularity of Thomas Müller; the playful, social demeanors of Michy Batshuayi and Benjamin Mendy; the polished but inherently dark picture of Cristiano Ronaldo; the seemingly childlike but oh-so vicious world of Messi; the pop iconish life of Neymar; the Philip Marlowe-esque swagger of Sadio Mané; the odd, mirroring presence of James Milner; the pious and apolitical figure of Mohamed Salah; the totem of benevolence, Juan Mata; and the hypersocial, sometimes complacent ways of Dani Alves.
All these and other personae have distinctive flaws and discernible features that make them impossible to be bottled up in a few words. They are characters who emerge from different backgrounds and believe in different philosophies. Some value aesthetics over substance, whilst the behaviour of some is akin to dyed-in-the-wool pragmatists. Some don’t concern themselves with any of this.
From some footballers, you get the feeling that the game is merely their profession. That they are practitioners of soliloquies. Fatalists, who’d rather be perusing Kafka; who’d rather be listening to delicieuse musique under the dimming lights of the 16th arrondissement. Stopping only when an apparition of wild deer flies through the streets, and red painted fingernails scratch their thigh.
From other footballers, you get the feeling that the game is all they got. That the game is their test of sanity, defining the subject’s identity. That when they are on a holiday, they absorb games and fill dozens of notebooks with observations to themselves. If you ask them, lascivious, cosmic and saturated nights of cold dirty money are only reserved for the weak-minded.
And for no justifiable reason, you and I despise some of the aforementioned characters. They could build schools for the deaf in Niger, and I’d still find myself scoffing. Antipathy.
Contrariwise, foreign fans might find it difficult to develop any real hatred towards rival clubs. Without sufficient research, it might be hard to understand why Inter is “Inter merda” for Juventus fans — and vice versa. Or why the alleged (and probable) affair between the Franco regime and Real Madrid still chafes the relationship between Real and Barcelona.
Understandably, Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, Mohamed Salah, Eden Hazard et cetera have cast their hex on a lot of people. What can one do, if the only way to slake one’s desires is to get infatuated with a vista of the chosen player walking along their maverick career path?
Banter, eye-rollings: The club comes before all else?
Inspired by both ulterior and financial motives, major leagues — especially in North America — wield stars in efforts to market their product. By sitting down by the kitchen table, and looking on at how much fun the kids are having outside, they water individualism and polish money faucets. On the other hand, and for example, the National Hockey League is more reserved and traditional in its approach, and should act as a deterrent for an outdated way of conducting business.
The NHL think that the goodies come by locking the kids inside and throwing away the key. They are wrong.
I have no data on this subject, but I’ve come to learn that it’s eerily common to fall for a player, and after that, fall for the team they play for. They are the gateway and foundation for everything related to them. Overseas, Messi and Ronaldo are such behemoths that their web of power outreaches Western clubs.
When Ronaldo switched his place of residence from Madrid to Turin in the bygone summer, Juve’s follower count on Instagram rose by some 25% in the two weeks following his move. And overall, the Italian club saw a six million increase in the number of followers across its social media platforms in the month since the transfer of the asset.
Contrariwise, the news were circulating that Real Madrid had lost nearly one million followers on Twitter alone during the twenty-four hours that followed. (Social Blade, however, did not register such a slump.) And so it became obvious, the mass-migration of Real Madrid “fans” to Juventus’ social media presence was a fact, with many Twitter users proclaiming: “If you think I’m going to be supporting Juventus from now on, just because of Ronaldo, you’re goddamn right.”
By letting multimillionaires infiltrate our everyday lives, we breed (bogus) intimacy and attachment to the attractions of football’s carnival. After all, it’s harder to stray away from, say, Hazard than it is stray from Leonardo DiCaprio whose latest movie was released in 2015 (next will be in 2019), and who only uses social media to raise awareness on environmental issues.
Thanks to everyday exposure, the Generation Z fans feel an unforeseen level of closeness and connection to the players of their liking.
When Juventus and Paris Saint-Germain obtained Ronaldo and Neymar, respectively, they didn’t just obtain Ronaldo and Neymar, the players. They bought themselves millions of fans, willing to engage with the club, buzz about the club and — most importantly — pour money and financial value into the club. Little did it matter that Ronaldo wasn’t what you’d call a “stereotypical Juventus player”. He wasn’t (and isn’t) exactly known for his defensive work ethic nor descending to the level of his colleagues.
Nevertheless, Juventus gambled on him. Partly thanks to his obvious talents — partly thanks to those who follow and hype those talents.
Maybe one day, those who prefer laundry to the players who wear them can reach détente with modern football fans. Who knows if someday we’ll have fans of individuals up for the glorified FIFA Fan Award.
After all, it wouldn’t have been that difficult to imagine Mohamed Salah fans voting themselves the winners of the 2018 Fan Award, seeing that they voted the Egyptian no. 10 to win every possible award they could (the only fan-voted award he didn’t receive was inclusion in the FIFA World Cup Fan Dream Team, and that’s only because he was absent from Egypt’s group-stage opener).
“There’s a million reasons why I should give you up / But the heart wants what it wants”
— Somebody told me this quote is from a Selena Gomez song but I refuse to believe them