Footballers like Wayne Rooney don't choose between loyalty or money
"I've kept it quiet for the last 13 years," Wayne Rooney revealed on rejoining Everton from Manchester United this week, "but I've actually been wearing Everton pyjamas at home with my kids." The message to Everton fans who had reviled him since his departure for United in 2004: he has always remained a fan of "the club I have supported since a boy."
Let's hope the pyjama story was the last word of an absurd debate. Asking Rooney (or any other player) to behave like a lifelong "fan" of a club makes no sense. But nor should we write off players as simply greedy. Fans would suffer less disappointment if only they would accept that players belong to a different species. Practically the day a player walks into a professional club, he stops thinking like a fan. So, in his shoes, would almost all of us.
Rooney was born into an Everton-supporting family and only narrowly escaped being named Adrian, after the 1980s' Everton player Adrian Heath (now, incidentally, manager of Minnesota United). He first went to watch Everton at Goodison as a six-month-old in nappies -- probably a fraction too young to break into the reserves -- and at the age of nine, he wrote a letter to the club's center-forward Duncan Ferguson, telling him he shouldn't be in prison.
"In all the photos of when I am little, I seem to be wearing an Everton strip of some sort," he notes in his autobiography. He even wore his Everton kit to his trials with Liverpool. He didn't do it to be defiant; it was just what he wore after school.
Liverpool liked the look of him regardless and asked him back the next week. But in the meantime, Everton offered him schoolboy forms. Rooney signed for the club he loved yet he admits: "Had Liverpool asked me to sign first and not have another trial, then I'm sure I would have signed for them and been a 'Red.'"
Other local Everton fans like Robbie Fowler, Steve McManaman and Jamie Carragher had done exactly that. In other words, even as kids they weren't thinking as fans but as players. They didn't dream of becoming professionals. It was their career plan.
The young Rooney still sometimes behaved like a fan. After scoring while leading Everton to the FA Youth Cup final in 2002, he celebrated by revealing a T-shirt bearing the words, "Once A Blue, Always A Blue." But even a player who starts out as a fan swiftly becomes an employee. To quote Ashley Cole, who underwent that process at Arsenal: "What do they say about not getting too close to the club you support because you learn too much and it ruins the mystery essential to blind hero-worship?"
Professional soccer is usually a cruel and insecure working environment, in which clubs treat players as objects to buy and sell. When the gauche teenage Rooney signed his first professional contract at Everton, he was aghast to find that "over a hundred press people and 12 different camera crews" had been invited to witness the moment. He sipped water straight from a bottle on the table and Everton's manager David Moyes beside him whispered "Use the f------ glass!"
The young prodigy's breach with his boyhood team is a constant of professional soccer. It tends to be painful. Frank Lampard, for instance, took so much abuse from West Ham fans that he says he has no feelings for his boyhood club anymore. Of course, there are some players who never leave: think Paolo Maldini, Philipp Lahm, Xavi, Paul Scholes or Ryan Giggs. These men are often lauded as "loyal servants" of their club. But it would be more accurate to say that they were in good employee-employer relationships. They were playing for Europe's best and highest paying clubs. Why would they leave?
It's true that Giggs didn't squeeze every last pound out of the game but he made the best career choices he could have. United gave him a role even during his decline, and another after he retired. As for Scholes, if he had chosen to play for the club he supported, he would have spent those 20 years at Oldham Athletic.
Had Rooney started out at a top-class club, he would probably have stayed there all his career and would now be lauded as a "loyal servant" too. But by the time he was 18 he was too good for Everton, so he left. Imagine the reverse: if he hadn't been good enough for Everton, the club would have discarded him no matter that he was a boyhood fan. United has just dumped Rooney because he's no longer good enough to play there. No wonder players dump clubs too.
Yet few Everton fans accepted his departure. One day soon after joining United, he sat at home watching a British TV program that showed texts from viewers castigating him as a rat, a greedy traitor and more. He became so fed up that he texted the program a message of his own: "I left because the club was doing my head in -- Wayne Rooney." It took the TV producers a while to realize that the text was genuine.
When he first returned to Goodison with United, Everton fans jeered his every touch. This went on for years. Players are human too, so Rooney took to retaliating by kissing his United badge in front of the Everton crowd. After that, it seems, he'd go home and sleep in his Everton pyjamas but this isn't as weird as it sounds. A part of him was still a fan connected to his roots but most of all, he was a professional athlete.
Fans often write off pros as mercenaries who will sign for whichever club offers them most money. If that were true, Rooney would have moved to China long ago and for a salary he couldn't earn in Europe. In fact, the failure of the Chinese league to attract today's prime-age stars shows that very few players are primarily motivated by money.
Fans and media often frame the issue as an either/or: either a player is loyal or he's greedy. But that misunderstands how players think. They aren't choosing between love and money.
Just listen to how they talk about themselves: they are "professionals" who have "careers." Like professionals in all industries, they pursue success. If they get that, the money will then follow.
Instead, they regard clubs as employers. A player joins the employer where he thinks he will be happy, needed and best able to fulfill his ambitions. That's his project. The fan's very different project is lifelong identification with the imagined magical institution that is his club.
If only players would simply come out and admit their careerism. Too often they recite the expected rhetoric of love for club. They try to keep fans happy by kissing the club's badge or claiming to be a lifelong fan. Then fans berate them for leaving and that turns the players against fans, who just don't understand them.
The usual drama almost played itself out again in 2010, when Rooney threatened to leave United for Manchester City. He could have earned much more at City but in the end, United's total package -- the chance of prizes, the familiar environment, plus excellent pay -- appealed most. Instead of greed, read careerism.
Many United fans couldn't forgive his flirt with City. One group unfurled a "Join City and Die" banner outside his house. Fans contrasted him unfavorably with Sir Bobby Charlton, who was supposedly a loyal servant of United, but the comparison with past generations is unfair.
Before the Bosman ruling of 1995 that gave players great freedom to move, they were not so much loyal as captive. There was barely an international transfer market from which they could benefit. Modern players aren't worse people than past players. They just operate in modern soccer. Yet Rooney has spent so much career being abused for supposed disloyalty that English fans sometimes barely seem to register that he's the country's most gifted player in 40 years.
On his return to Everton, the club tweeted, "Once a Blue... #WelcomeHomeWayne." It was a false message. If soccer could give up the fairytale notion that a player must love whichever club he happens to work for, then fans could stop being constantly disappointed.
Simon Kuper is a contributor to ESPN FC and co-author, with Stefan Szymanski, of Soccernomics.