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As Diego Costa and Payet Hog Headlines, Should We Expect Loyalty in Football?

Alex Dunn@@aldunn80Featured ColumnistJanuary 16, 2017

A mural of Dimitri Payet had its own security at West Ham United on Saturday.
A mural of Dimitri Payet had its own security at West Ham United on Saturday.IAN KINGTON/Getty Images

Death, taxes and a January debate about the moribund state of loyalty in football are the only certainties in life. Eyes may be the windows to the soul, but football tends to use more conventional means to work these things out. 

Peering through the looking glass of a transfer window is often enough to separate the badge-kissers from the bulls--tters in an industry that employs more smoke and mirrors than a David Copperfield magic show. The only thing that tends to disappear is the dignity of players, managers, chairmen and even, on occasion, supporters.

If, at any point over the next month, you find yourself making a homemade effigy of a footballer who has spurned your club, it's probably time for a little sleep.

Talking of magicians, when considering the appeal of the Chinese Super League, it's hard not to recall perhaps the best interview question of all time when Caroline Aherne, as Mrs Merton, posed to Debbie McGee, the wife of the late Paul Daniels: "So what attracted you to the millionaire Paul Daniels?"

If English football's dark heart is ever operated on, it is likely any blocked arteries will be clogged with £50 notes. Finding it may prove as problematic as mending it. Slice into the game's chest and there's a chance all that would be discovered is a hollow cavernous void, a perfect echo chamber to just about make out a disorientated Diego Costa asking the way to Tianjin, China. In pidgin Mandarin. 

He will not be a lonely traveller. A purported escape route out of England may involve being a stowaway in whatever vessel is chartered to smuggle Dimitri Payet back into the ports of Marseille. For Chelsea and West Ham United supporters, not to mention team-mates of the aforementioned duo, it has been a trying week.

The Costa situation is less clear-cut than the one involving Payet. It's worth reiterating he was left out of Chelsea's 3-0 win at Leicester City, as opposed to refusing to play, which was the case with Payet against Crystal Palace. There may yet be a way back.

It seems Costa has less had his head turned by the riches on offer in China, a reported £600,000 a week, than had it spin 360 degrees in the manner of Linda Blair's Regan MacNeil in The Exorcist. He currently earns in the region of £185,000 a week. Don't be surprised if he eventually returns to Chelsea's first team sporting a neck brace.

According to widespread reports, Costa fell out with Chelsea boss Antonio Conte on the club's training ground last week over an argument with regards to the player's fitness. The Premier League's leading goalscorer has been complaining of pain in his lower back, a claim dismissed as not being serious by the club's fitness and medical staff. To be fair to Costa, carrying all that money around must put quite the strain on it.

B/R Football @brfootball

When things reportedly got heated between Antonio Conte and Diego Costa… ✈️️🇨🇳 https://t.co/TNdufI4555

Conte, who was happy to take the £52 million Shanghai SIPG offered for his midfielder Oscar in December, has rolled his eyes at the unrivalled spending power coming out of China.

"I think we are a great club and it's a great honour to play for Chelsea and for this reason I don't see [China] as a threat for my players," he said, per the Telegraph's John Percy. "The money is not everything. When you play for a great team like Chelsea, you must be pleased."

It might be worth giving the Italian, and anyone else associated with the Premier League currently aghast at the level of money being spent in China, a quick history lesson on how English football's top flight in its current guise was built. An influx of top-quality foreign players to the Premier League in its formative years essentially shaped its brand.

Foreign talent did not arrive on English shores en masse having been lured by the promise of pre-match meals consisting of lager and gravy. Funded by stratospheric broadcast rights, English teams paid transfer fees and salaries that made club owners in La Liga, Serie A and the Bundesliga wince.

Sound familiar? That dull hiss you can hear is the sound of hypocrisy escaping from the Premier League's deflating bubble.

As the ever droll Jan Aage Fjortoft put it when the Brazilian star Juninho joined him at Middlesbrough in 1995 (via the Guardian): "Juninho will need to learn only three words of English: pound, thank you and bye‑bye."

On BT Sport at the weekend, the pundit Owen Hargreaves bobbed his head above the parapet of widespread disgust expressed by the majority of ex-professionals, who have largely re-enacted Peter Kay's garlic bread sketch whenever the topic of China is mooted, when he conceded the appeal of the money on offer. 

"You're talking about £30m-a-year for a Costa, that changes that guy's family's life for generations," Hargreaves told BT (h/t the Daily Star).

"Not only just him, I'm talking family members who maybe don't have a lot of money, so it puts a lot of pressure on these players, agents and families to make a choice even though morally it's probably not right."

Though as Socrates (the philosopher not footballer) said: "He who is not contented with what he has would not be contented with what he would like to have." 

BBC Sport @BBCSport

"Diego Costa doesn't strike me as the kind of person who's bothered about what other people think" #MOTD #CFC https://t.co/rn0hWzcnQU

When Chinese broadcasters attempt to entice Paul Merson to their punditry team, football really will have eaten itself.

It was only four months ago in September that Payet received a £1 million loyalty bonus from West Ham. He only joined them in June 2015. It's like giving a husband a loyalty bonus for agreeing not to have sex with other women in front of his wife.

That such golden handshakes even exist is almost as depressing as him trousering it and then refusing to play against Crystal Palace on Saturday. Still, it will come in handy when placing a deposit on a new chateau in Marseille.

Footballers have every right to play wherever they like, but when they refuse to play for their current employers in a bid to facilitate such desires, they cross the line of common decency, let alone that of the professional variety. While it's true football clubs treat their players as commodities, in the same way players think of their clubs as employers first and foremost, such grotesque petulance can never be excused.

Not to put too fine a point on it, footballers are paid handsomely for essentially agreeing to being owned by their clubs. You can't claim to be Terry Waite when you're willing to put on a pair of solid gold handcuffs.

In February 2016, West Ham rewarded Payet for some spellbinding displays in his first half season at the club with a new five-and-a-half year deal worth a purported £125,000 a week, earning him around £30 million in wages. There would be no need to call in Kofi Annan so often if players didn't so readily tie themselves down to such long periods with the same club.

At the time, Payet said of his new deal, per the Evening Standard: "For me it's a big step, an enormous show of faith from the chairman and from the manager. I thank them for that.

"I am proud and I'm happy to prolong my adventure with West Ham. ... All is well. The love affair continues."

If he ends up staying at West Ham, when asked about the Marseille hiccup, expect a Bill Clinton-esque, "I didn't inhale" explanation for his flirtations. In fairness to footballers, it must be difficult to avoid coming out with hollow platitudes when holding a contract in one hand and a club shirt in the other.

As Albert Camus wrote in The Fall: "I used to advertise my loyalty and I don't believe there is a single person I loved that I didn't eventually betray."

It's difficult, but it is possible for a player to win back the allegiance of a club's supporters upon being caught in an uncompromising position with a third party. Cristiano Ronaldo was forgiven for agitating a move away from Manchester United and is still revered despite eventually moving to Real Madrid. On the flip side, Wayne Rooney's wandering eye has never really been forgotten, despite the fact he ultimately stayed and went on to become the club's joint-record goalscorer.

Liverpool fans seem genuinely happy Luis Suarez has become an even better player at Barcelona than he was at Anfield. Selective memory seems to have come into play here with regards the reverence he is still afforded, given he once cited a desire to get away from the paparazzi as being a motivating factor behind a desire to leave Liverpool. He then tried to engineer a move to Arsenal. The old myth is that you're never more than six feet away from a rat in London; you could probably half that figure with regard to the proximity of the nearest paparazzi.

It always feels undignified to the point of being crass to write about how much footballers earn, but when the two strands of loyalty and greed are so intrinsically linked, to fail to do so would be to ignore the elephant in the room to the extent the RSPCA would probably be called.

Even if Payet will probably have earned more in the time it takes to read this column than I did to write it, there's something tediously pious about holding footballers to account for the money rich men put in their hands on account of making money off the back of their talent.

Of course the money is obscene, but are £6 million wages per season any worse than an actor being paid £6 million a film?

It's a depressing trend that, as consumers, we seem to be almost as obsessed with how much footballers earn as they are. If I had it, I'd gladly pay £120,000 a week not to have to listen to pub bores dissecting why a player is definitely not worth paying £20 million net a year, but £18 million would be fine, as if there is some tangible algorithm for working these things out. 

Football club owners present themselves as paragons of virtue, but West Ham's joint chairmen David Sullivan and David Gold have been in the industry long enough to know cutting off your nose to spite your face is a costly indulgence, and that ultimately, you still have to sow it back on again.

If they are overly righteous in demanding Payet stays, someone might remind them that in the summer of 2015, Marseille issued a statement to express "surprise that negotiations with another club has opened" after Payet and West Ham had purportedly spoken without due permission, per Oliver Kay of The Times.

In a similar vein, the Observer's David Hills has found a delicious parallel between Slaven Bilic's own situation when, as a West Ham player, he wanted to quit Upton Park for Everton nearly 20 years ago.

B/R Football @brfootball

Slaven Bilic doesn’t want to talk about Dimitri Payet 😂 [NSFW language—🎥 via @HaytersTeamwork] https://t.co/HVIBcQ6yqn

Then-Hammers manager Harry Redknapp said in March 1997 of the current West Ham boss: "He's on a fantastic contract, the highest paid player in the club's history. He signed it. ... Now he wants a move and feels Everton are a big club, so there's nothing we can do. West Ham are a big club in our eyes, but he feels otherwise."

Bilic said of Payet last week (via David Hytner of the Guardian): "He's definitely our best player and that's why we gave him a long contract. We gave him everything, we were always there for him. I expect him to show commitment to the team, like the team has shown commitment to him."

When a footballer says he wants to better himself, essentially he's looking every one of his team-mates in the eye and saying: "I'm better than you."

Andy Carroll is the type of man who calls a spade a spade to the extent it doesn't seem unfeasible he might use one on the subject of his scorn, were the occasion to call for it. In typically refreshingly blunt fashion, on the back of a goal against Palace the equal to any Payet has ever scored for West Ham, he barely concealed his disdain.

"I don't think any player is bigger than the club. That's what the lads believe, the manager, all the staff and the fans. We showed we're a tight group and got three points for it," said Carroll, via the Daily Mail's Matt Barlow.

"We have answered a few of the critics, with everything that has been going in during the week and everyone talking. I have received a lot of calls and messages and it has been the same for the other players. It has been tough, especially as the lads are close to one another."

B/R Football @brfootball

West Ham fans changed their tune *slightly* with the Dimitri Payet song at London Stadium... 👀 https://t.co/8RNLvN18EL

As ever with these things, it's less the motivation than the timing that grates. Given the Chinese Super League made Graziano Pelle the fifth best-paid player in the world when he moved to Shandong Luneng from Southampton, there would probably still be a decent offer left on the table for Costa come the summer.

Even if money is the biggest motivator factor in his career, what possibly goes through Costa's head when he thinks now would be a good time to quit Chelsea, with the club five points clear at the Premier League summit, in no small part due to his own magnificent form?

Similarly with Payet, could he not have waited until the summer to allow West Ham due time to bring in a suitable replacement? Had he quietly informed the club and its supporters at the end of the campaign that he would like to return to France for the sake of his French wife and their three children, who he says have struggled to adapt to life in London, there's a fair chance he would have left with the blessing of the fans he has so enchanted.

Everyone romanticises their formative years as a football supporter, but looking back, it's hard not to lament a lost bond between players and fans forged through a shared sense of belonging.

As a kid, my boyhood hero in the late '80s was Oldham Athletic striker Roger Palmer. In the first football match I ever attended, he scored a hat-trick against Stoke City. Instantly smitten, thereafter I carried a passport-size photograph of him in my wallet, as a son might an absent father never met. It's since been removed amid fears it could have led to awkward questions should it ever have been discovered by my own son or social services.

Many years after the Stoke game, I attended Palmer's testimonial. We'd grown up together and it felt like a fitting time to say farewell, as by then my own loyalty was well and truly split. The new infatuation was Andy Ritchie. I would in time attend his testimonial, too.

Back then, testimonials were scoffed at as every man and his dog were rewarded with one. These days you'd have to be working out loyalty in dog years to see fit to give one to a modern player.

To put it into context, Oldham's longest-serving player today has made 63 appearances for the club. Only three of the current squad were there last season.

Amid talk of hearts being broken, solace should be found in the fact the organ football most resembles is the liver. Even after being abused, it can regenerate itself to become whole again—albeit with a little care and attention.

Watching Everton teenagers Tom Davies and Ademola Lookman score their first Premier League goals in Everton's remarkable 4-0 defeat of Manchester City on Sunday, it was hard not to fall at least a little back in love again.  

Life may be like La La Land only in the movies, but there was a moment at Goodison Park when after Davies scored the most precocious of goals to put Everton three up, it would somehow have felt apt had grey skies turned blue, the sun peeped from rain-filled clouds and Ronald Koeman on the touchline broken out into song.

Davies had already received the rapturous congratulations of his team-mates when after being momentarily left alone, as they made their way back to the centre-circle, he was unable to stop himself from going again. He swept into the crowd for what seemed like a private celebration between him and them. As a viewer, it felt almost voyeuristic to peer in at the moment the Gwladys Street end embraced one of its own.

At that moment, Davies could have been offered all the money in China to leave Everton and the only thing that would have come out of his mouth is "do one!" in a unique hybrid of Scouse and broken Chinese.

Maybe one day he'll be lambasted for professing "once a blue always a blue", but that's fine because football will have regenerated itself by then. Another kid, even if it's only fleeting, will allow us to slip back into our dreams and live it vicariously through them.

Tom Davies @1TomDavies

What a performance today, special moment to get my first goal! Thanks for all the messages. #COYB https://t.co/Xi8eOymQyV

That's why we love it, dark heart or otherwise.

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