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May 19, 2015
A guest contribution by Rainer Kalb.
‘Until death do us part’ – already a risky formula in marriage. Let alone in professional football, where it is already a lie at the very moment of contract signature (which is limited in time anyway). Clubs, players and most of all agents know well that the document is not worth the ink it is printed and signed with. Which is probably one of the reasons players prefer ball-pens.
The end of the season is always an occasion to pause for a moment. Especially when a legend like Steve Gerrard celebrates his farewell in a place like Anfield. A good opportunity to remind all those mercenaries and legionnaires, birds of passage and profiteers that there are still some faithful heroes around.
Always for the Reds, never for another club. I am not a statistics fetishist, but the sheer number of over 700 matches for one single club is incredible. Among all these matches, I remember the UEFA Cup final of May 2001 in Dortmund , when Liverpool beat CD Alaves with a Golden Goal. Gerrard had scored Liverpool’s second goal, and the game remains one of the most beautiful of the hundreds I have seen live in a stadium.
In 2005 Gerrard also won the Champions League, but he never was English champion. Just like his German counterpart, ‘faithful Charlie’ aka Karl-Heinz Körbel, who also played over 700 times for Eintracht Frankfurt (with an unbelievable 602 Bundesliga matches between 1972 and 1991), who also won the UEFA Cup (1980) and who lifted four times the German Cup, but never the champion’s trophy.
Germany has had its share of faithful heroes : Fritz Walter, Uwe Seeler, Berti Vogts, Wolfgang Overath, Hans Georg „Katsche“ Schwarzenbeck, Sepp Maier. There are even some left today: Bastian Schweinsteiger, for instance, or Philipp Lahm. And other examples can be found in other European leagues. But the trend towards mercenary behaviour is unbroken and stronger each year.
An observer who has followed professional football over decades does not even manage to laugh any more at the cliché of the ‘new sporting and human challenge’ proffered by players at the moment of signature. Quite the contrary: one almost feels ashamed to see it in print. Is there still a single fan who believes that players like Kevin-Prince Boateng or, who knows, Sami Khedira, sign at Schalke for the ‘sporting challenge’? Or to appraise a ‘new culture’? If these players were not buried under heaps of money they would probably laugh at themselves.
Professionalism has always induced mobility. And it is understandable that the best are lured by the richest. In Germany we have helplessly witnessed over decades how Bayern Munich implemented its strategy of weakening their best competitors by seducing their major players: del’Haye, Matthäus and Effenberg from Mönchengladbach; more recently Lewandowski and Götze from Dortmund. Thank God they got Heynckes – another eternal faithful – only as coach.
Some developed a counter-strategy, selling their top players abroad, in order not to feed the insatiable hunger of Bayern: Günter Netzer or Uli Stielicke are good examples.
But today football has become a travelling circus specialised in blackmailing: ‘more money now or else I wait until I leave on free transfer and you won’t get anything’ – this kind of shameless greed makes the professional football of the 1970s and 1980s look like a ‘golden age’ of stability and gentlemanly behaviour.
In the brave new world of 21st-century European football, ‘until death do us part’ may be valid for the fans, but no longer for players. It’s like in marriage: the number of divorces has also been on the rise for decades…