“My dear boy, the people who only love once in their lives are really the shallow people. What they call their loyalty, and their fidelity, I call either the lethargy of custom or their lack of imagination. Faithfulness is to the emotional life what consistency is to the life of the intellect—simply a confession of failures.”
– Oscar Wilde, the Picture of Dorian Gray
The last year has seen the conclusion of countless footballer’s careers. As is the same with every year. Some, amateurs playing in lower divisions. Others may have made it as a mid-ranking professional. These men may retire in an aftermath of overwhelming regret – what could have been; what should have been won; what should have been if not for a lapse of determination or self-belief. But despite this, their retirement is their own. They took the decision to enter the world of football on their own accord and likewise, have decided to end it as they see fit.
The last year has also seen the end of countless other footballer’s careers. But these have not been any ordinary footballers. No, these men have reached the legendary status of pure icons. The past twelve months has seen the retirement of Javier Zanetti, Ryan Giggs, Thierry Henry, Carles Puyol and most recently the announcement of Steven Gerrard’s future retirement.
Retirement is a funny word. Does retiring mean you stop working for a salary. Or does retiring mean you stop doing what you love. On one level Steven Gerrard is retiring. He is retiring from Liverpool football club. But not yet retiring from football altogether it seems.
The manner in which to treat an ageing icon is rather difficult. The contributions of a player such as Gerrard to his club far exceed that of the average footballer. Gerrard’s case is a far rarer breed that has culminated in its own cult-like legend that will be passed down from parents to their children in the quiet surroundings of a firelit living room.
Gerrard was forced to carry a Liverpool side that was crumbling under the superiority of Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United. Liverpool, once the forerunners of English football were Europe’s elite for the better part of a decade. But ever since the departure of Bob Paisley the club had been on the verge of downfall – a slow but nonetheless unavoidable downfall throughout the 1990’s.
The turn of the millennium had seen the overthrowing of Liverpool as England’s top football club by Manchester United come full circle in the treble win of the 1998/99 season in which United won the Premier League, the FA Cup as well as the UEFA Champions League – something Liverpool had never achieved. In this turgid time of unpredictable and somewhat desperate turbulence for Liverpool football club, a star was rising.
The manner in which to treat an ageing icon is rather difficult. In their prime such men ran the world. In Gerrard’s case he was the life and soul of an entire footballing institution. But now he is much slower. Murmurs of Liverpool playing better without him are creeping into hushed conversations. But such notions are blasphemous, no? Some may argue that Gerrard is Liverpool football club and should therefore start every game he wishes, regardless of whether or not it impedes his side’s performance.
But it is a conflict of moral conscience. Inside Gerrard surely must be wondering if you love something, should you let it go. And perhaps this was the reasoning behind his ensuing departure.
And for this Gerrard should be applauded. Could anyone have blamed him for going on another season at what at this stage has become his entire life. Is Gerrard’s scenario not identical to that of Arsene Wenger at Arsenal? One could make a convincing argument that Wenger is holding Arsenal back and that each season he goes on as manager is as frivolous as the last in a desperate attempt to rekindle past glories. The difference is that Gerrard has made the decision to leave.
But how do you treat such icons? They deserve respect in their departure. Their departure should be their own decision. But surely Gerrard would have wanted to end his career as he started it, playing for Liverpool football club. So even if the decision to leave was made by Gerrard, was it really his own?
To play for one club throughout an entire career and earn success of the highest degree in the process, that for many is the dream. There is a somewhat old-fashioned and conservative romance about it. Cults of personality of the best kind surround such players. Maldini did it. Zanetti did it. Totti is still doing it.
We love to love these players because one, there is no scandal attached to them that may have dragged their names through the mud, second because they remind us of some ancient world buried deep in previous decades of when football was “better”, and finally (tieing together with the last point) is because despite the modernisation of the game and the added cash-incentives that have come with it, such players as Maldini and Zanetti and Totti have said no to money for the sake of internal values of pride in one’s club, determination in times of turbulence and most importantly of all, an unfading and persistent sense of loyalty otherwise extinct to the modern game.
Can anyone deny that Steven Gerrard wanted to join this club. This assembly of elite pros that have said no, undoubtedly multiple times, to corporate incentives and big-money pay-offs to play in minnow leagues. But now when the history books write the page of one-club men, Gerrard, despite his persistent loyalty and tenacious pride in his boyhood club throughout the years, will not make the cut.
As our friend Oscar Wilde has already pointed out, loyalty can often times be an overrated value. It is easy to remain on the same path your entire life – should people be commended for it? But in the reality that is the modern world of football, where money wins you league titles and galacticos are chosen over the collective coherence of the team structure, the rarity of loyalty in this money-crazed beautiful game is a welcomed rose among the growing thorns of wealth-driven cash incentives.