FIFA have missed an opportunity once again. In new rules introduced for the season, players are forbidden to wear sleeveless jerseys and there are to be no slogans or advertising on undershirts. The latter stipulation at least means that a seemingly very partial God will no longer be thanked by an evangelical Brazilian striker on scoring his side’s fifth against Venezuela. But once again, players who kiss their badge after scoring have escaped censure.
Yet there can’t be many more annoying sights in football. Just as an ex-player returning to a former club as a manager will often imply that he has a unique insight into “what these fans expect”, badge-kissers are telling supporters what they think they want to hear: “This is the only club for me. I’d play for free if I could.” Which is, of course, nonsense.
Booking a player for patronising the people who pay to watch him would help put a stop to this nefarious practice and might even encourage fans to let go of a popularly held delusion. There are exceptions, but most players are not and never will be supporters of the team they play for. Unlike most fans, who tend to stick with whoever they chose in childhood – leading in many cases to a lifetime of despair and crushed ambition – players’ loyalties have to change whenever they move on and they have no reason to entertain illusions about the security of their position at whichever club they’re with.
They know that manager would happily drop or sell them if someone better in their position came along. Supporters, too, are quite happy to see a popular favourite replaced if it is clearly to the benefit of the team – as with Paul Merson at Arsenal in 1997, say, when Marc Overmars arrived.
Now that doesn’t mean players should not try their best for whoever they are playing – they are paid enough to at least offer that. Nor should fans be expected to not identify with players to some degree. But they don’t deserve to be treated like idiots, which does rather seem to be the position Leeds fans find themselves in with relation to Harry Kewell, a player previously given to badge-bothering expressions of devotion to his now former club. “I’ve always been a childhood Liverpool fan, even when I was a kid,” is his new line.
Before signing, Kewell had been at pains to stress that he wouldn’t consider moving to Man Utd due to the distress it would cause his many personal friends in the Leeds area. So instead he opts to go elsewhere in the north-west but not before insisting on a loyalty bonus from his cash-strapped former employers. Kewell knows a move from a club in dire financial straits to one in Europe is a good one for him, so why insist on picking up every last penny?
The answer might be that he, or his agent, is simply doing what is permitted under current transfer rules. Absurdly, the player’s agent is entitled to demand a fee from the selling club for facilitating the transfer, which in Kewell’s case meant that 40 per cent of the £5 million fee paid to Leeds by Liverpool went to his representative, the voluble Bernie Mandic. In other forms of business, the agent’s employer is responsible for any such fees, but there is a reason why this has not become common practice in football – club chairmen need to maintain good relations with agents who can work on their behalf, as well as against them, in luring clients from other clubs. At present, clubs are obliged to inform the FA if an agent has been involved in a transfer, but they are not required to reveal how much has been paid, which in itself seems to have been at the root of the very public falling out between officials from Liverpool and Leeds over the Kewell deal.
The Australian is not responsible for the rules that allow this situation, but his claim that he was in some way being sensitive to Leeds’ concerns in the manner of his exit was astonishingly out of touch, up there with Jaap Stam’s comment when asked by Lazio to take a 45 per cent pay cut on his astronomical salary: “I cannot go to the supermarket and buy groceries for my family with shares.”
FIFA cannot, alas, outlaw agents, or stop footballers saying stupid things. But they could at least help to forge a more adult relationship between players and fans by making the badge kiss an unlawful practice, for the protection of impressionable people in XL replica shirts.
From WSC 199 September 2003. What was happening this month