Sunday 8 February ~
Robbie Fowler this week signed a two-year deal with the North Queensland Fury, meaning that once again an ageing English pro will condescend to take his dubious talents, at a price and at his convenience, to a developing league. Fowler’s pay demands were too high for Major League Soccer a couple of years ago, but he’s settled for the Australian A-League instead, citing the lifestyle advantages of Townsville-by-the-sea. The final-payday, past-it pro has become such a wandering international cliche, you have to marvel that they can still get away with it.
“Robbie is a legitimate international superstar of the game and there's no doubt he will give us every chance of winning,” said Fury chairman Don Matheson. Manager Ian Ferguson claimed that the signing of Fowler gives the team “instant credibility. People take you seriously when you announce someone like that.” He didn’t specify which people, but they’re presumably not the ones standing to Ferguson’s side with their faces twisted into desperate contortion like Pontius Pilate’s guards in The Life of Brian. Given that Fowler’s best playing days are the good part of a decade behind him, you have to at least admire his agent’s powers of persuasion.
When Fowler held talks with the New England Revolution in 2007, they reportedly offered him an annual salary of $1 million. Fowler, the story goes, in return demanded a wage at least three times more, and New England coach Steve Nicol was so disgusted that he’s been off the idea of taking a “marquee player” ever since. Both MLS and the A-League allow their clubs to take one (or two in MLS) such players to get around salary cap rules, in an attempt to make the league more attractive to new fans. Its success in the US has been severely limited. Either players are too good and want to leave again (Beckham, D), or they’re too old, decrepit or overrated to be worth all that extra cash and are jettisoned with haste – Denilson at Dallas and Marcelo Gallardo at DC United. Even on-field success-stories like Juan Pablo Angel at New York have done nothing for the team’s miserable attendances. Only the sloping, moody genius of Cuauhtémoc Blanco at the Chicago Fire has been an unqualified hit.
If Fowler, 33, succeeds at the Fury, it won’t necessarily do the league a lot of good, because critics will just say how poor the standard is if an old crock like Robbie can still score goals there. If he fails through either a lack of fitness or form (or a combination of both), he’ll be added to the list of players who tried to chance it long past their sell-by date, like Gary Lineker in the J-League. There’s something to be said for those who recognise the worth of retiring at the top – Zinedine Zidane and German striker Marco Bode both retired after playing in a World Cup final. Not everyone has that luxury, of course, and if a club’s prepared to part with the cash, players will naturally be happy to take it as long as their fading reputation allows. Even towards the end of a highly lucrative career, few players can see the benefits: retire young, retain your reputation. For low-budget leagues, though, the best and most prudent policy is patient growth without the aid of neon-lit names that ultimately leave them no better off than before. Ian Plenderleith