The dark side of the transfer window sees players powerless over moves
It was mid-January when the manager called the striker into his office and told him to leave. No "sorry," no "thank you": just go. But where? There had been no plans to go; the only plans were the ones his partner was making for the weekend with a friend, but she could forget those. Time to move, again. Leave it behind, six months after arriving, just as she, just as they, had started to settle. So off he set to see what they had to say. A couple of days later, she packed up the car and drove more than 600 kilometers across to the other side of Spain.
He was lucky; he'd found a club. Quickly, too. Not one he really wanted to be at, and not in a city that she wanted to be in either, but at least he had work. Not all of them do: Every summer and every winter, the Spanish players' union put together a team of unemployed footballers, and every summer and every winter, they are oversubscribed. It was the eighth club they had become part of in four-and-a-half years. There have been four different countries as well, none of which are hers.
A team in the same division awaited, but lower down the table. A nondescript budget hotel awaited too, and another trip back to pick up more of their things. In six months' time, they'll probably have to do it all over again, just like so many others. Beyond the elite, it is worth the occasional reminder that football is like that, and even among the elite it is far from perfect.
"The goal at Barcelona does not measure what it measures," Víctor Valdes once said. He talks eloquently about the psychological burden on footballers and the way it affected him. There is a reason why, when he finally retired this month, he walked away entirely, deleted his social media accounts and disappeared. He had said that he likes to surf, being out there alone where there's no one except the occasional fish swimming past. The pressure is just part of it, a part that the media and supporters have begun to engage with. But there are more prosaic problems too, a basic reality there that's too often overlooked, and one that comes to the fore every transfer window.
Something simple: Work. Life.
Footballers are not immune to that, especially not below the first division, and it's not always as easy as it seems. There it becomes more like any other job, sometimes even when it comes to the salary. It is no sob story, no, but their reality can be precarious and temporary. They're often at the mercy of those who control their destiny. Just because we're talking about a football club doesn't make them any better behaved or any more concerned with their employees' well-being.
Valdes' former teammate Dani Alves has insisted, "I was happier when I lived in the countryside with my dad than I often am now. Why? Because I didn't know how prostituted the world is." One former player jokes about the day that he writes his autobiography. He says he might call it: "Football: great game, full of c--ts." And that's at the highest level.
As the ex-Barcelona and Osasuna striker Oriol Riera put it: "At the top, maybe it is the way that kids see it, the way the media treat it, but beneath that, the reality is different. I love football, but. ... People see Instagram, Twitter, the bubble, that's not the reality. There's a lot of crap in football, and you have to live with that." For those seeing it for the first time, it can be startling as those illusions are undone.
And the January market offered up more examples, as ever.
A young player came through the youth system at a third-tier club who had drawn one of the country's biggest teams in the cup. In his first few games, he impressed, a rare talent, still a kid, still in his teens and getting attention from teams higher up, but he hadn't yet signed a first-team contract. When he hesitated, he was threatened and told that he wouldn't play in those cup games, the opportunity of a lifetime taken away. He hasn't played since. He hasn't even been allowed to train. The version of the story sold by the club, justifying their approach by blaming him, is not the way he tells it. And while he will probably make his way elsewhere one day, if anyone has paid for it, it is he.
At the end of the market, you look back at the moves and try to work out who the winners and losers are. We did it yesterday. Which clubs did well, which did badly? But what of the players? It's easy to cast your gaze towards the top, and there, the big winners are the players, of course: Much has been made of the money Alexis Sanchez will make. That word has returned again: mercenary. There have been more laments for lost loyalty. But this is like other businesses; not everyone makes that much money and not everyone controls their destiny. Often the losers are players too, especially beyond the top flight.
Plenty of players have found that when they look set to leave, the machine cranks into gear, and their character is assassinated as part of the deal: lazy, uncommitted, a mercenary, never that good in the first place. Even at the top level, that happens; it's especially fierce, too, as clubs have to save face and presidents protect themselves, where their interests are what they are. The clubs' version of the story is taken on board readily, and loyalty becomes a leitmotiv, a recurring theme.
But, wait, loyalty? It is only ever presented from one side, but while it's true that players look after themselves, that they can be selfish, that they kiss the badge and soon walk out the door, that the man who says he will never join his team's rivals may well do exactly that one day, clubs aren't loyal to players either. Thing is, the clubs are, well, the clubs; even though they're run by people too, the fans who sit in judgement naturally lean their way.
If a player wants to walk, he is criticised; if a club makes him, they rarely are. And if they're not playing, what can they do? If they stay, if they see out the contract signed, that too is looked upon negatively, but that's the deal they signed.
Careful what you sign though, and not just because anything more than a year is rare below the first division, where real life has a nasty habit of getting in the way. At another club in Spain, a sub-clause (the small print in an appendix) allows a club to unilaterally release players with two months' pay. So they do. And they do it on the last day of the market, with literally hours to go to find a new job and a new life. Never mind the bonus. That salary you were counting on? Gone. Oh, and you'd better find yourself another club. If you can.
Midway through the season, another player spends his weekends watching from the stands or on television. It's no one's fault, exactly, just the way it goes: Players were signed to play ahead of him. He trained harder than ever, but it didn't change. There was little choice but to go; as January progresses, there are no offers. Well, there is one, but the money is, he says, a "joke," a 75 percent pay cut. The total amount is less than the average salary nationwide, but the days pass and the deadline approaches, there's nothing else and, eventually, he goes. What else can he do? Go to another club in another city.
"I'm just sick of moving," he says.
Sid Lowe is a Spain-based columnist and journalist who writes for ESPN FC, the Guardian, FourFourTwo and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter at @sidlowe.