How long will being steadfast last?

In today's world of big money and fat transfers, players' loyalties are easily up for sale. At the surface level loyalty can be seen everywhere, the zealous support of a 10 something boy for his favourite player and club, and the crest his hero kisses after every success. But, over the years, though the boy has continued to grow up sharing the same unbridled pride and passion for his team, the same can hardly be said of his idols, writes Ayon Sengupta.

Football's no longer the beautiful game it once was. The overpowering scent of money, power, fame and lifestyle has pulled it down from its preeminent plinth. The new-age adulations that the players receive every day have turned a fairly large number of them into egoistic monsters. But what has affected the genuine football lovers the most is loyalty, or the apparent lack of it, amongst the greats for their teams.

In today's world of big money and fat transfers, players' loyalties are easily up for sale. At the surface level loyalty can be seen everywhere, the zealous support of a 10 something boy for his favourite player and club, and the crest his hero kisses after every success. But, over the years, though the boy has continued to grow up sharing the same unbridled pride and passion for his team, the same can hardly be said of his idols. Why is the fans' unhinged dedication not regularly seen in our football stars, too?

Whenever a top player signs for a new club the souvenir shops are swamped with requests for his jersey. The Chelsea fans, a few months ago, rushed out to pile up on Fernando Torres' jersey while the player's red ones in Liverpool were going up in flames, lit by every kind of Zippo lighter. The phenomenon has become relatively common over the last two decades as more and more players choose portlier pay cheques over everything else. Football, indeed, is no longer the beautiful game it was.

But, thankfully for us, when all others are trading places and making more money, there remains a breed that would never consider leaving their familiar territories. But, Jamie Carragher, Steven Gerrard, Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs, to name a few, might well be the last of this lot. Examples of players growing up from a club's youth system to ply their trade throughout their career with the same club would also certainly become rarer.

Scholes retired at the end of the last season, after a 15-year career with the Red Devils. Despite being the most prolific of midfield marshals not only in England, but also Europe, the once freckle-faced boy was never tempted by bigger contracts or greener pastures. The current trend of earning a last plump pay day, either in the oil rich Gulf States or the MLS in the U.S. had failed to capture his interest. Scholes, who joined the Manchester United Academy in Carrington when only 14, has now decided to join the coaching team of Sir Alex Ferguson to keep giving back to the club.

Giggs, cast in a similar steadfast moral character on a football pitch, has actually outlived Scholes and continues to rule the upper echelons of British football. The Welshman, too, a part of the same academy, has already played a league record of 615 games, scoring 110 goals. Still active, the 38-year-old's record would be almost impossible to match for any future United “loyal-star”.

The name of another of their mates, Gary Neville, though less flamboyant on the field, should be taken here in the same breath. At least, Scholes, Giggs and Neville had the benefit of playing for the top club, both in the country and continent. During the days of the trio, Manchester United won a multitude of trophies, both in England and Europe.

But for Liverpool's two current universal soldiers, the path travelled has been less fortuitous. The only silverware of worth they laid their hands on was the rather unexpected UEFA Champions League trophy in 2005. Steven Gerrard, for long the fulcrum of the Merseyside club's midfield, has been the sole enforcer for them, playing equally passionately for England. Often over the years he has been linked with moves to many of the top clubs of Europe, but the talismanic captain has so far managed to stay away from the lure of temptation.

“If I never won the league title (with Liverpool), there would be regrets and an empty space, I admit it. Yet even if Liverpool were no longer challenging I would still find it difficult to leave. I could win 90 per cent of my medals here and one league championship elsewhere, but that last medal would not mean as much,” he says. “I've been part of this club since I was eight. I remember my first final, the Worthington Cup against Birmingham in Cardiff. It was at that moment I felt I was part of something more than a football team. I felt responsible and I still do.” Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich's millions too couldn't change this thinking of his.

Jamie Carragher, equally fanatic, coming from a rough neighborhood near the Liverpool ground, emphatically brushes aside any idea of leaving the club. “I'd never do that,” he says. “If you offered me the chance, just once, to win the league with Liverpool before the end of my career, I'd bite your hands off. If you win the league here once, that's worth winning it three or four times at any another club. When I say life, I mean it. It's not talk. I want to stay here.”

Words hardly heard from a modern footballer's mouth.

There are instances elsewhere too in the continent. Like the long-standing love affair between Real Madrid and two of its favourite sons Raul and Iker Casillas. Though Raul towards the end of his career has moved to Germany, he will always remain a Real boy.

In Spain again you have the La Mesia graduates in Barcelona.

Moving over to Italy, the awe-inspiring 25 seasons spent by Paolo Maldini in AC Milan deserves a special mention. Recently, however, the limelight has been stolen by his former international teammate, Alessandro Del Piero. “I do care to point out that my ties with this jersey (Juventus) and to my fans cannot be measured in numbers,” he writes in his official website.

“I signed my first Juventus contract blank, and I will sign blank the last contract of my career wearing this jersey.”

The best gift by a player to his fans is his total allegiance to his club, which is perhaps even more meaningful than the trophy itself. But the question is how long will these men continue to survive in this greed-for-money world?