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On Loyalty

Posted By Brian Phillips On November 5, 2010 @ 4:40 pm In Featured | 20 Comments

Read, if you haven’t, my new Slate piece on Wayne Rooney, which is less ROONEY CONTRACT PANIC than a look at how the notion that he’s some kind of half-formed man-child, or an eternal adolescent, has followed his career. The gist is that for all the (sometimes justified) criticism he’s received for being immature or childish, what’s really infuriated his fans this year is that he’s acted too much like an adult, particularly in taking a view of his career that didn’t simply give everything up to the greatness of Manchester United. Obviously, that assumes that it’s not just his streak of poor form that’s alienated his supporters. But even there, you could make the case that what’s holding him back—injury; constantly having to adapt to different positional responsibilities—is disconcertingly grown-up for a player we’re more comfortable imagining as a permanent teenager.

Since I wrote the piece, I’ve been thinking about where the idea of loyalty fits into that argument. Simon Kuper raises the same point in his terrific FT Magazine piece on the Rooney situation, which argues along the way that loyalty is essentially irrelevant to modern players. Here’s a long quote, but the piece is worth reading in its entirety:

This dichotomy drawn by fans and media – you’re either loyal or greedy – misunderstands how footballers think. The word footballers use to describe themselves is “professionals”. Professionals—whether they are footballers, academics or bankers—don’t choose between love and money. They pursue success in their “careers” (another favourite footballers’ word). If they can get success, then money will follow….

Footballers regard clubs not as magical entities but as employers. Like most professionals, they will move if they can find a better job. The better job isn’t necessarily a better-paid one. Rooney could reportedly have earned more than £180,000 a week at Manchester City, and if he had put himself on the market, Real Madrid might have offered him more too. But United’s total package—the chance of prizes, the familiar surroundings, plus pay—seems to have appealed most. This is careerism rather than greed.

Footballers hardly ever come out as careerists. That’s because the game is pervaded with the rhetoric of lifelong love for club: players are always trying to keep fans happy by kissing their club’s badge or talking about how they have supported the club since childhood. Yet probably no professional footballer is “loyal” in the sense that fans use the word. Even Jamie Carragher, the Liverpool defender who is considered “Liverpool through and through”, supported Liverpool’s rivals Everton as a boy, and says he would leave Liverpool if he ceased to be a regular starter. Pundits sometimes rhapsodise about the old days, when players often spent their entire careers at one club, but that was because clubs could then simply forbid them to move. No longer.

Contrary to popular opinion, Rooney isn’t especially selfish. He’s simply typical of his profession. Nowadays he is often contrasted with teammates like Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs and Gary Neville, who have supposedly stayed “loyal” to United all their careers. But it would be more accurate to say that these men have a happy employer-employee relationship with United. Had United benched Giggs in his prime, he would surely have been out the door fast. Instead United was the perfect workplace for him. It didn’t suit Rooney as well.

When you see it spelled out in this way, this just seems obvious: players are professionals, clubs aren’t transcendent causes, the golden age never happened. So why is it so important, for many fans, to believe that none of that is true? The “loyal/greedy” dichotomy Kuper writes about is inescapable in soccer—especially English soccer—and seldom does a dissenter arise to say, “I, Herman Crump, am a dentist, and as I would not like to be burned in effigy for seeking better terms for my dental practice, I will not fashion and burn an effigy of Wayne Rooney holding a giant bag of cash when he seeks better terms for his football.” Wayne Rooney makes a lot of money, obviously. But then so do some dentists.

The simple answer here, which is also more or less the right one, is that fans want players to be loyal because fans are loyal, and because we don’t want the game to be reduced to mere technique. The difference between soccer and dentistry isn’t that soccer players and dentists think about what they do in fundamentally different ways, it’s that their audiences think about what they do in fundamentally different ways. Being a fan, particularly in the hardcore club-loyalist sense, is in many ways a matter of deliberately sustaining a set of fictions. When players let us know that they see the game as a set of skills they practice for money, rather than as a midnight war of meaning waged for the soul of the universe, or whatever the guy says in the latest Adidas commercial, it becomes harder to sustain some of those fictions, so we get mad.

But the fictions themselves are basically childish, aren’t they? I don’t mean puerile or selfish, exactly just basically congenial to the consciousness of a child. Childlike. After all, that’s the consciousness that many of us possess when we first become sports fans and that we frequently turn to sports to help us sustain. You can call the Fever Pitch model of fandom—the OMG ARSENAL ARE THE GREATEST CLUB EVER AND I HAVE THEIR POSTERS AND I LOVE THEM model—a lot of things, some good and some bad. But in its preoccupation with heraldry and its belief that the arbitrary group you happened to join possesses uniquely redemptive qualities as compared to other arbitrary groups that are self-evidently almost identical to it, it is paradigmatically nine years old forever.

So maybe that’s where the idea of loyalty fits into the “Rooney as eternal adolescent” narrative. As long as he’s acting in a way that makes him seem 16, as long as we can think of him as essentially locked in a teen melodrama (cheating on Coleen, sneaking out at night to drink too much, etc.), it’s easier for us to believe that he thinks of himself as Sir Alex’s loyal son and soldier, and thus that our sense of the meaning of fandom is real. But when he issues press statements and thinks about contracts and threatens to move to a different work environment, we’re confronted with professionalism in one the last places we expected to find it, and the meaning of fandom suddenly looks a little thin. Maybe that’s why, for all the tutting about today’s pampered players and spoiled children and the fences you built in your day, fans almost never really hate a player for acting like a reckless teenager. When they get to be kids, so do we.

There’s a comparison to be made here with the way American sports have evolved a sort of secondary mythology of “getting paid”—the kid from the projects winning the max contract and buying his mom a house. That might not make it easier for fans to take a star leaving their team, but it gives the star a sort of existential defense against charges of greed. The fantasy of the game is the dream of lifting yourself up and winning incredible riches. Obviously hip-hop culture has had something to do with formalizing that narrative, which is also obviously basically a version of the American Dream. But it’s still interesting it doesn’t seem to have any real equivalent in soccer.


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