Tim Hall’s View From 101
There’s the classic hypothetical thought experiment question: which came first, the chicken, or the egg?
Then there’s the classic trivia question: which Rolling Stone came first, the band, the magazine, or Bob Dylan’s “Like A…”?
Somewhere in between the questions that can be answered and those not meant to be is this: which came first, the craven capitalist player, or the craven capitalist fan?
The question arises this week because of the scenes in Rome, where Roma captain and beloved son Francesco Totti called it a career. Everyone from Totti’s fans to Totti’s family to Totti himself was in tears as he took a final lap of the stadium. And that isn’t just a side effect from being in Italy where emotions are always worn on the sleeve; this was a pure and genuine outpouring of emotion for a man who was born in Roma, played for Roma, played only for Roma, and did so for twenty-five years.
A quarter of a century, one club. It really is an incredible feat in this day and age, and a throwback to a different time, and not even some halcyon age of ‘when men were men and loyalty meant everything’ which has never and will never exist despite your best wishes. But Totti is more a throwback to when men would be born in a town, work down the mines in that town, and then turn out for that town’s team, either as a player or a fan. Then it’s a gold watch and a pat on the back as they see the old timer out the door.
Francesco Totti punching the clock every day for twenty-five years reminds us of a time when that’s what happened for everyone simply because that’s the way it was done, for the miner and the footballer. Today, however, the miner, the lunchpail worker, would be quite thrilled to have that sort of job security, and those around him would certainly respect his loyalty. While Totti’s loyalty to Roma is not in question, the reasoning behind it is an outlier.
If you’re good enough to play top-tier football for 25 years, it stands to reason that you can do so almost wherever you want, and for however much you want, and the commonly held belief today is that if you can get more money, you should. This, as we know, has led players and their agents to pit teams against one another in bidding wars to extract the highest contracts possible. The more money being thrown around, the greener the grass in Monaco looks from Madrid, the louder the siren song to leave.
This is not to say that sport should go back to the draconian old days of restricting players’ free will when it comes to movements. Nor can any player be faulted for trying to amass as much money as possible as quickly as possible in a sport where one wrong step means one torn ligament, and can mean one finished career. But it is to say that given the stratospheric contracts we’re seeing now, the price and the cost of loyalty to those that have been loyal to you can more easily be factored in to negotiations. The difference between $28 million a year and $30 million isn’t going to put anyone in the poor house, and that then allows a player to consider more complicated matters like the difficulties of uprooting your family, learning a new language, or turning your back on the club and the fans that turned you into the player worth $30 million.
Let’s think about those fans though. The shots of Totti walking the track around the field and waving were interspersed with shots in the crowd of grown men and women in the stands crying. We know why they were crying, of course, as fans ourselves. Even if our love affairs with our favorite players may not have lasted as long as theirs, we still know the place in our hearts that those players come to hold. There are the special moments, goals, wins, and there are smaller moments, like a smile or a fight, charity work or simply being the last one there signing autographs for everyone that wanted one.
Somewhere along the way, however- probably right at the same time as soccer players went from local boys making good to international mercenaries making money – fans started to change as well. It’s all very heartwarming to see a young player earn their first mention in the lineup, the first minutes, the first start, the first goal, all the way on to becoming a leader, a veteran, the captain. Heartwarming moments do not fill the trophy cabinet, unfortunately, and unless that promising young fresh-faced kid wins their fair share of silverware on the path to becoming a hardened grizzled veteran, then their presence can start to feel like the proverbial albatross around the neck or the Sisyphean weight being pushed up hill.
In which case one of two things can happen. First, as the player is maturing, the fans start to wonder if they have seen the most they can hope to reap from their potential, and start to wonder about getting out of their investment while the getting is good. Otherwise, the player stays on, the weight gets heavier, and the fans begin to look around the league, around the world or just around the academy and wonder if there isn’t a better, faster, cheaper, younger option available.
The fans have all been smartened up to the realities of the business side of the game, and have become trophy hounds of the highest order. That means that we have neither the time nor the patience to truly craft a homegrown product, and as such we find that our heroes, the players that we believe come to represent our club and our traditions, are themselves merely hired guns who wear the colors for a handful of years themselves.
Every player wants a sendoff to an incredible career like the one Francesco Totti got in Roma, and every fan wants a player on their team that deserves to receive one. Unfortunately, the economics of the game do not allow for either patience or loyalty from either fan or player. So drink in the Totti retirement ceremony and think deeply on what it all meant to everyone involved, because you’ll likely never see anything like it again.