Amid Robin van Persie’s transfer from Arsenal to Man Utd and Luka Modric’s imminent move away from Spurs to Real Madrid, questions are again to be raised over what exactly motivates footballers and the choices they make. The life of a top level footballer seems pretty surreal – taken out of school early to end up being paid hundreds of thousands of pounds to play a game two times a week in front of thousands of spectators with their lives lived in the glare of the paparazzi, it’s hardly your average life. More intriguing still is how people, the fans, react to each of their decisions when it comes to their footballing career. Looking at Arsenal you can see varying responses to their players’ fleeing – fans respected and supported Cesc Fabregas in his long dreamed of move to Barcelona but castigated Samir Nasri for a perceived mercenary’s lack of loyalty to the Gooner cause. With van Persie’s departure comes a genuine despondency and slight anger – the man who admirably lead the Arsenal from the doldrums of despair at the start of last season to the relative success of third place this season all of a sudden reveals his ambitions do not match those of the club, the club who spent only around £40 million to buy three international attackers. Arsenal fans seem more perplexed by van Persie’s now infamous statement than understanding or aggrieved. So what actually was it that motivated van Persie to leave? What is that motivates players in any of their decisions these days? It surely can’t be as simple as money can it? Don’t they earn enough?
Whatever it is that motivates van Persie or Modric, it’s certainly not the same thing that motivates the often lauded and increasingly rare ‘one club men’ who play out the entirety of their careers for clubs that they have either supported from youth or clubs that they simply feel comfortable, loved and at ease at. Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs’ devotion to the Man Utd cause has become legendary, while Barcelona and Real Madrid, for all of the transfer activity that goes in and out these great clubs, can always rely on club stalwarts like Xavi and Iker Casillas to always be around to lead their great teams onto perennial glories. But the reality is that most players are not ‘one club men’.
Most players aren’t fortunate enough to be able to play out such careers. Take new Arsenal recruit Lukasz Podolski. He began his career at Cologne and his loyalty to the Cologne cause has been evident throughout both of his stints there, but the reality was that his talents outgrew the capabilities of the club and such talent would have been wasted had they not been able to be exhibited on the Champions League stage. Thus his first move to Bayern Munich. For his second move Cologne’s relegation from the Bundesliga certainly precipitated his move to Arsenal – Podolski, the youngest player to reach 100 international caps, could hardly be plying his trade in the second tier of German football. His contract had only one year to run and so the clubs, able to negotiate a fee that satisfied both club’s needs, were able to facilitate a move that would match his ambitions.
So why can’t van Persie’s ambitions be treated with the same level of understanding? Arsenal as a regular competitor in the Champions League and a club with seemingly genuine aspirations for a title challenge (note their new signings) are a club with pretty lofty ambitions themselves – they’re hardly in Cologne’s position. But having not won anything for 8 years now, van Persie must have some justification for believing they won’t win another trophy next season. So it’s about medals? Ultimately winning is the aim of the game but the question I’d like to ask is who the greater player is: former Man Utd player David May (who carries a treble of medals from 1999 alone) or Premier League legend Matt le Tissier? Most people would say the latter, but you would hardly deny that Ryan Giggs, a player with seemingly an infinite supply of trophies, is one of the greater winners of recent times.
What motivated le Tissier then? Well he was another one of those one club men but for a smaller club who didn’t have much of chance at winning anything. Devotion to the club was certainly a major part of his motivation, but the fact that he was a club hero because of it surely would have been a motivating factor. Had he left to Man Utd in the early 90s and won loads of trophies as merely part of the team, he would have had a more successful career in terms of trophies, but he wouldn’t have been the Southampton legend that he is and always will be.
And what about a player like Steven Gerrard? That a player of his quality hasn’t won a Premier League medal is peculiar. He could easily have moved to Chelsea in the mid-00s and have won plenty more trophies, but instead he has been the club leader, the club legend and the player responsible for the few trophies they have won – notably the 2005 Champions League triumph for which he was performances will always fondly remembered by Liverpool fans. Surely as an individual feat, this personal triumph far outweighs any of the many many medals won by bit-part players like David May (sorry Mr May this all probably seems a bit harsh as you were a decent player but you are a decent example here, as another decent player Oleg Luzhnyi also would be).
So in the case of van Persie, couldn’t he have been motivated by the goal and opportunity to lead his team to an historic trophy win? It seems not. Although van Persie would undoubtedly be massively important to any Utd triumphs this coming season, winning with Arsenal would have definitely surpassed such achievements – he would win as a club legend rather than as part of an already successful team. The same goes for Samir Nasri and countless other players who have left upcoming teams for the guarantee of trophies at already successful clubs.
But who can blame van Persie for choosing an easier way to victory – if Man Utd win multiple trophies this season and Arsenal win nothing again, his decision is immediately vindicated and he’ll have more to show for his outstanding talent at the end of his career. It may be the easy road to victory, but it would be victory nonetheless. And it’s hardly as though he would have taken the decision lightly – he would have known the role that Arsenal have played in his development and the patience they paid him during his injury woes, but he only had one year left on his contract and it was his right to refuse to sign a new one. The same goes for Nasri. And while van Persie’s controversial statement and Nasri’s perceived petulance may irk fans, the actual decisions themselves are fair.
There will also be accusations that these players move clubs to receive more lucrative wages. Money as a motivation is something that particularly irks fans. What’s the difference between £100,000 and £120,000? Isn’t £100,000 enough? This complaint is an odd one though when you consider that in any other profession, it is perfectly acceptable to make career choices that maximise earnings. Why should football be any different? It is a job after all – Tottenham’s Benoit Assou Ekotto notably remarked that his motivation for football has little to do with the joy of the game itself but he plays it because it is his job. This seemed to betray the luck and fortune that such a man would have to have the sufficient talent to be able to play the game professionally that millions worldwide will pay significant amounts of their own money to play and watch out of such ‘love of the game’. But why should particularly footballers share this passion?
What motivates footballers is a complex matter and one that causes much anger and debate among fans, but ultimately they are entitled to their own wishes as long as they fulfil the obligations that their contracts entail – the castigation of Tevez for refusing to play while contracted to Man City and Modric for refusing to train at Spurs are more justified than the denouncements of disloyalty paid to the likes of van Persie and Nasri. While fans of all clubs will hope for all their heroes to live up to the noble one club legends of the clubs history, often the players have no reason to match their motivations – van Persie was not born an Arsenal player and owes the club nothing beyond contractual obligations. Arsenal ended up getting £24 million for a 29 year old striker who didn’t want to play for them and had been injured for a significant amount of his time there. For all of the despondency that many Arsenal fans will be feeling, that is a pretty decent bit of business.