The January transfer window has served to, yet again, highlight the double standards we inevitably apply when we criticise players for a lack of ‘loyalty’. Whether it is in treatment of players choosing to move to China, or the vitriol directed to Dimitri Payet by those involved with West Ham and even neutrals in the media, we hold players to standards we do not expect to see in employees — including ourselves — in any other industry.
If I was unsatisfied at my place of work, perhaps feeling underpaid or experiencing a lack of opportunities, I would logically and understandably look to move on. Similarly, if I was approached by another employer offering improved wages, or if I successfully applied for such a position, I would take that opportunity for myself just as anyone else would. There would be no fear of being criticised by those at my place of work or elsewhere. Yet, for some reason, football players are expected to be loyal to clubs even to their own detriment.
Much of the anger directed at players seeking to move clubs, especially in the case of those moving to China, is fuelled by a perception that for those already earning astronomical wages, a desire for more money is symptomatic of an all-consuming greed surrounding the sport. While I object to this on the simple ground that I believe that anyone should be able to earn whatever they can for their work, there are also several factors particular to football that should be mentioned.
For one, the vast majority of players are earning not just for themselves but for their family and childrens’ futures and, particularly in the case of South American and African players, support their extended families and even home communities with their earnings. The pressure placed on a player by this consideration, both by himself and those around him, will be considerable and will likely outweigh his feelings towards his employer. I also find it objectionable that the same people criticising modern footballers’ earnings are seemingly not troubled by the similarly high earnings of F1 drivers, golf players, and boxers despite their lack of worldwide popularity compared to football.
While I understand that issues surrounding Payet’s transfer, such as the £1 million loyalty bonus paid to him prior to his transfer request, are perhaps distasteful, his desire to leave West Ham for Marseille was done not for materialistic reasons — he is accepting a pay-cut to move — but for the sake of his wife and children who were struggling to settle in London.
The lack of understanding of this from his critics reveals an attitude widely-held towards players: if they’re being paid millions to play football, they must not have any issues in their life whatsoever. We all adjust to our own realities, and as a result we will all experience problems in our lives that may seem catastrophic to ourselves but are trivial in the grand scheme of things. If players are unhappy at their clubs, and feel a move will improve their lives, it is their right to do so.
Even if those reading this entirely rejected my above arguments, and argued footballers should be loyal to their clubs in a way other employees are not, I would like to highlight the blatant hypocrisy that this attitude reveals in the clear majority of cases. Where are the calls to loyalty when a club chooses to sell or release a player who has served them for years? Where were the champions of loyalty when Payet left Marseille to join West Ham initially? Where were the pundits and ex-players demanding he remain in France and ‘rot with the kids’ for even daring to cross the channel for the ‘best league in the world’? As a fan, I have no problem with a foreign player leaving his childhood club to join my team, so why should I expect a player born in another country or even continent to be loyal to my provincial English club in the same way I am as a fan?