Loyalty Bonus and all that

Published : Sep 08, 2001 00:00 IST

THERE exists in football today something called a Loyalty Bonus, but it's a bit of a misnomer. By and large it is something that players or their agents demand when they deign to stay with their clubs; or sometimes even when they decide to leave them. Can loyalty truly exist in the financial maelstrom of modern football, in which salaries and - for the moment at least - transfer fees have never been so high, and the likes of Luis Figo and Zinedine Zidane are praised away for vertiginous sums of money from clubs which seemed rich and determined enough to keep them?

Curiously enough, I think the answer is yes, and here are examples to prove it. First, that of Michael Ball the young Everton and England (once, so far, as substitute) left back. At the end of the summer, the Liverpool born local development went to say goodbye to his colleagues. He had been at Everton since boyhood, and had to cut short the farewells - he was due to sign for Glasgow Rangers - because he was in tears.

And, as fate would have it, while Ball left the club, another player joined them, thus fulfilling a childhood ambition to play for what, in his case, too, was his local team. This was Alan Stubbs, a Liverpudlian who in fact was found, signed and made his career with another Lancashire club, in the shape of Bolton Wanderers, an elegant, technically adroit centre-back. Celtic took him to Glasgow, where the poor fellow was found to be suffering from testicular cancer. But late last season he was found to be cured, resuming his place in Celtic's defence: but then leaping at the chance to return to his native Liverpool.

At still another Lancastrian club, the most powerful of them all, we find David Beckham who is, in fact, a Londoner. There is not doubt that had he wanted, Beckham could have moved to any of the top Continental clubs and probably earned still more than United have now agreed to pay him. He insisted, however, that he had never wanted to play for any other club, and this rings true. An East Londoner, it would have been natural enough for him to sign for Tottenham Hotspur, with whom as a boy he trained. But Manchester United were his ambition, and it was there, so far from home, that he went; and has stayed.

United in fact have a very good record of developing and keeping young players. Of the present squad, Nicky Butt, Paul Scholes, Wes Brown and the Neville brothers have all come up through the ranks at Old Trafford and show no sign of wanting to go anywhere else.

But loyalty is surely a two edged sword and too often there seems little incentive for players to show it to clubs which tend to treat them as so much merchandise. Look for instance at the case of Bobo Veiri, the tall, strongly built, prolific Internationale and Italy centre-forward, who seemed recently on the point of leaving Inter, to return to Juventus. A club which had sold him almost surreptitiously a few years ago. Cue "the Nice Pinocchio of Italian Football," alias Luciano Moggi, general manager of so many big clubs, the great wheeler dealer of his Italian time.

Moggi, Pinocchio like, had sworn blind that Vieri was going nowhere, which to the sceptical Italian Press meant that Vieri was bound to be sold, despite the many goals he had been scoring. Sure enough sold he was, to Atletico Madrid. Vieri was horrified to find that the contract had actually been agreed some three months earlier, the previous March. Can anybody blame him, son of the talented Bob Vieri, brought up in Australia, for playing for such a host of different teams?

This summer, the gifted Portuguese attacking midfielder, Rui Costa, who had a fine season with Fiorentina, by then in financial melt down, was furious to learn that they had agreed to transfer him to Parma. He dug his feet again, proclaiming that footballers were not a mere commodity, and in due course got his way, moving not to Parma but to Milan.

Before the last war, and for some years afterwards, there was indeed a kind of loyalty bonus for English professionals. It took the form of something called "accrued share of benefit," was payable after some five or six consecutive years but, please note, though it amounted to what was then a substantial 650, was optional. This meant that the clubs did not have to pay it!

Subjected to any kind of logical analysis, loyalty in professional soccer hardly makes sense. Football, after all, is essentially a business, though as the grand patron of Juventus, Gianni Agnelli, remarked to me many years ago (and his words for all the money flying around still ring true), "If it's a business, then it's a losing business."

But the situation isn't as simple as that, for football can never be wholly a commercial phenomenon any more than, once it is professionalised, it can be seen purely as a sport. Soccer is after all a team game and this in itself demands that a player, at least while operating for any given club, must bury his own interests in favour of the team as a whole. Moreover, if you see the delight manifested by a player whose team wins a major tournament, or even something as synthetic as the Football Association's Charity Shield, you will see that emotion can take precedence over materialism.

Recently, when Celtic came down to play Queens Park Rangers in West London in a pre-season friendly game, Eyal Berkovic, the Israeli international midfielder, was booed by the thousands of Glaswegian fans, when he came on as a substitute. When I asked Glaswegian journalists why this was, they replied that Berkovic was seen as "a mercenary." Which made me wonder, not least as I'd spent time in his company and found him a sympathetic figure, as well as a gifted, adroit player.

He's played successful for Southampton and West Ham before Celtic told me he was so happy with his family in London that he never wanted to go abroad, clearly failed to settle down in very different Glasgow and has now made a spectacular start with Manchester City. Does all this make him a mercenary any more than other foreign players in the English League who have been tarred with that brush? Are not British players who surely aren't playing for nothing just as "mercenary"? How loyal must a loyal player be when he knows that his club, whether for money or on form, could part with him at a moment's notice?

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