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Nov 27, 2011

Categorically Speaking

A couple of weeks ago, this column explored the decline of the 'Club Stars', those players who, nurtured and developed by one specific team, end up pledging most of their career to their side while achieving significant success - be it silverware and/or international caps - and recognition in the process.

The concept (of my own design) confused a few, so some clarification is needed before exploring some of the other types of player around. For instance, Sevilla's Jesus Navas and Athletic's Fernando Llorente seem clear-cut examples, but what about Villarreal's Marcos Senna, Sevilla's Freddy Kanoute and Deportivo's Juan Carlos Valeron?

Neither of those three learned their football with their current teams, but their long spells and deep emotional attachment with those clubs and their fan bases make them look like archetypical 'Club Stars', even if they belong to what we could term the Adopted Child subsection. Despite their distant origin, fans love them as though they were family.

Indeed the fact that, among the current profusion of agents, investment funds and broken clubs, the 'Club Star' category bears the threat of extinction (not only in La Liga, but worldwide) prompts a relevant question: what are the other player categories that will occupy its space in the pecking order?

Some others that may exist begin with the Global Icons. Due to their achievements for one or more clubs and/or their country, these players have conquered the status of football ambassadors internationally. Looking at La Liga, Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Iker Casillas and Xavi Hernandez (among a select few others), fall into this category nowadays, while legends Raul Gonzalez, Johann Cruyff and Alfredo Di Stefano also come to mind when reflecting about past times. A few of them could have been classified as 'Club Stars' at some earlier stage of their careers, but now they've evolved to become icons of the beautiful game.

A category which may be seen more in the global game is the Hired Guns. These players, usually forwards or strikers, guide their choice of club mainly by its financial upside; decision often impacted by the player's agent and, in some cases, of the various partial owners of the player. The early stages of Carlos Tevez's career (the Corinthians/West Ham/Manchester United transfers, with MSI and Kia Joorabchian playing a pre-eminent role) are a good example of this, although the Argentinean recently complained about the lack of restaurants in Manchester, showing that 'money' left the driving seat to 'food variety' in his ever-evolving hierarchy of needs.

In La Liga, Julio Baptista and Ruud van Nistelrooy (in the current Malaga side) are excellent specimens of this category. At the end of their careers, Hired Guns may eventually find a club where they settle down and develop a stronger link with the fans, as could become the case with 26-year-olds Roberto Soldado (Valencia) or Alvaro Negredo (Sevilla). In the past, the Brazilian Ronaldo represented a fantastic example of crossbreed between Global Icon and Hired Gun, epitomised in the final part of his career by his lucrative agreement to play for Corinthians - a contract which he signed while he was still using Flamengo's training ground to 'keep himself fit'.

Hired Guns should not be confused with Globetrotters. While the former possesses a higher profile and impact, the latter, the classic journeyman, very often accepts a pay cut to keep playing. In the past, Jordi Cruyff (seven teams, from the high-profile Barcelona and Manchester United to the less impressive Valetta FC of Malta) became the quintessential Globetrotter. Nowadays, this season's La Liga sensation, Levante, own a large collection of those, such as Valdo (four teams in the last five seasons), Javier Farinos (seven teams in his career) or Asier del Horno (six, including Chelsea and Valencia).

In the low profile world, what we could term Club Players are the opposite of Globetrotters. Osasuna's Patxi Punal (13 seasons with his club), Valencia's David Albelda (15 seasons) and even Deportivo's Manuel Pablo (also of the 'Adopted Child' variety, as he started his career with Las Palmas to then spend the last 13 seasons with Depor) embody the spirit of the 'Club Player', that loyal employee who plies his trade for decades with the same club that saw him start his first match in La Liga, while never setting the world alight.

As it does in nature, crossbreeding also happens in the football ecosystem. Prodigal Sons constitute a rare mixture between 'Club Players' and 'Globetrotters': they finish their careers playing for the same club that made them famous, although during their professional career they switched sides at least once. Racing's Pedro Munitis (also played for Badajoz, Deportivo and Real Madrid), cult hero Sergio Ballesteros (discovered by Levante, played with Tenerife, Rayo Vallecano, Villarreal and Mallorca before going back to Levante) and Osasuna's Raul Garcia (a five-year interlude at the Vicente Calderon) showcase this category, together with Atletico de Madrid's Antonio Lopez (who played two seasons for Osasuna) and Real Madrid's Alvaro Arbeloa (back after spells at Deportivo and Liverpool).

Finally there are the rarely found Comets. These one-season-wonders star in an outstanding debut season, but then quickly fall into oblivion. You only see one of them every 10 to 15 years.

Take Jose Luis Morales, international with Spain in every junior category, tipped by many as the new Emilio Butragueno and scorer of a fine goal in his first match for Real Madrid against Deportivo in February 1994. At that point, the world was at his nimble feet, an endless succession of hyperboles coming his way from media, coaches and fans. However, Morales wasn't able to live up to the promise and ended up playing for eleven different clubs in ten years, in a downhill spiral that finished in the Spanish Third Division (which, despite its name, is actually the Fourth).

Even if, for the sake of argument, one could picture some other, less representative categories, a disproportional percentage of the Primera Division players should be reflected in those depicted above. Having said that, the able reader will easily infer that the business side of football is taking us into a world with no 'Club Stars' or 'Club Players'.

The growing loss of emotional links between fans and clubs appears to be one of the few downsides of an otherwise overwhelmingly positive professionalisation of football in the last couple of decades. As a major factor of that loss, the challenge of keeping both categories alive shouldn't stay unaddressed by the Spanish game if we want to avoid an entertaining, but excessively business-like, world of football mercenaries.

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