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Angry at Robin van Persie? Root for Bilbao

Robin van Persie – original photo by youthme on Flickr

Loyalty is a funny thing. The word gets tossed around ad nauseam in football circles, with each team’s supporters claiming that their players, their fans, their “family” are the most loyal—the most “faithful.” And this tendency isn’t surprising in the slightest bit; why shouldn’t endurance be a criterion for excellence in this sport or any other?

What makes Steven Gerrard’s accomplishments so much more distinguished is the fact that he racked them up while playing for the same club, and indeed he even grew up in the area and played in Liverpool’s feeder system as an earnest, working-class lad. It actually matters that he plays for Liverpool, which makes his story endearing and compelling.

But Steven Gerrard is the exception, not the rule. Most players and coaches (including, aptly enough, Liverpool’s) bounce around like lottery balls during their careers, as those from smaller clubs look upward, those from bigger clubs look to the Champions League, and those in the Champions League look around for the best deal possible. All of this migration is of course fueled by profit. Trophies look nice in their cases, but their real appeal is the doors they unlock—doors to prestige and wealth. This fact should be very conspicuous, considering just for starters the large corporate logos that dominate every jersey. (Let’s go Emirates, er, I mean, AC Milan, er, I mean, Arsenal!)

Let’s take a look at Manchester City’s current roster, shall we? Of the 32 players listed, only nine are English. Of those nine, none are from Manchester, and four have previously spent their senior career playing for other, rival clubs.

Unlike Gerrard, City is the rule. Most clubs across all the leagues look like this, except for perhaps Real Sociedad and Athletic Bilbao, who until very recently only fielded Basque players. Still, both teams’ rosters are 99% Spanish.

So why is the news of soon-to-be ex-Arsenal striker Robin Van Persie not renewing his contract, well, news? The sense of betrayal conveyed by the team’s twitter followers is astounding, if simultaneously predictiable; he’s apparently now “dead” to a lot of people, or a comtemporary “Judas” (as Bob Dylan was in Manchester in 1966?) for leaving the club due to his reported disagreement with management as to “the way Arsenal should move forward.”

I completely understand the disappointment as Robin van Persie takes his talents to what he perceives to be greener pastures (there’s no football club in South Beach, is there?), but I don’t understand the shock. How many teams will look drastically different on day one next season than they did on the final Sunday of the last one? As a Swansea bandwagon jumper, I want to tell the Gooners to at least be glad they will enter 2012-2013 with the same manager (and two shiny new strikers).

So relax everybody. “Honor” and “loyalty” in sports are antiquated notions; they died as soon as megacorporations slapped logos on the jerseys. Cheer on your city or village or open fields as best you can, despite the ping-pong of the players, and give extra support to those who stick around for any amount of time. And if the reshuffling gets too much for you, then root for Bilbao.