Patrick Vieira's trip to Spain this week was not only an alarm call to the transfer sleuths whose job is to record daily the decline in the value of a football contract. It was also a reminder of an old story of Madrid which tells how a father, missing his mischievous but beloved son, placed an advertisement which announced, "Paco, all is forgiven – meet me in the Puerto del Sol at noon". Legend has it that thousands of prodigals showed up to jam the lunchtime traffic.
Arsenal's Arsène Wenger, at least that part of him which is about the dreamy imperatives of making an outstanding team, is not likely to display the same forbearance if it turns out that another of his football sons, this time Vieira, is already well down the road to defecting to Real Madrid in the manner of Nicolas Anelka. But perhaps we shouldn't weep too copiously for the Svengali of Highbury. If something is indeed afoot – and perhaps Marc Roger, Vieira's agent and the man who organised Anelka's move to Bernabeau, will understand if we do not leap to take his denials at face value – Wenger will have an even more spectacular profit-maker's notch on his designer belt than when Anelka sulked his way out of his Arsenal contract. It's a pity about that team-building, though, and also the fact that Arsenal fans must surely now be asking themselves if their manager is not so much the grand architect of football as the game's surpreme dealer.
Anelka was a diamond still, as subsequent events have underlined so heavily, in need of considerable polishing. Vieira is, as they say in America, 'the franchise'. He is the player Wenger unearthed, for a pittance, and made the central force of his team. Around him stars such as Thierry Henry and the increasingly impressive Robert Pires revolve. He is also two and a half years away from the end of his contract. Two and a half years! Think of it. It is that spread of time, huge in the life of any footballer and his club – perhaps a third of the prime of a great player – which creates shock and revulsion at the idea that Vieira was not in the Spanish capital on his day off on Monday to weigh up the Goyas in the Prado, but to iron out his future in a devastating midfield axis to be formed with Zinedine Zidane and Luis Figo.
What does it say about any lingering concept of loyalty in football when a leading player, not halfway through a four-year contract, cannot wait to hammer the details of the next phase of his career? What does it say about the value of a contract? It says that loyalty was what the old game used to crucify men like Tom Finney, who was laughed at by the Preston chairman when he expressed interest in offers from the Italian game, and the great Manchester United winger, Charlie Mitten, who died recently still mystified by the justice which brought him a Fifa ban for trying to better his family's prospects by playing in Colombia. The conclusion is surely unavoidable: loyalty is an anachronism, a joke, and those who see the modern player as the only culprit are plainly missing at least part of the point.
Certainly it is hard to argue with the perspective of the leading agent Jon Holmes when he says, "Everyone can see the problem, but it's not so easy finding a solution, not with the way of the world and the realities of the game today. Arsenal have complained long and hard about what happened with Anelka, but they're not so eager to remind anyone of how cheaply they got the player from Paris St-Germain and that they made a profit of something like £22 million. I just can't see how the situation can change short of some agreement by the leading clubs, perhaps some mechanism governing the value of players as they proceed through their contracts. That might be possible given that all the money being generated now in football is from within the European Union, but would that agreement be enforceable – and would all the clubs stick to it? I doubt it. Whatever side of the fence you are on, one thing is certain: it's bad for the customer, the fan."
What doesn't appear to be in any doubt is that Vieira, after a summer in which his apparent dissatisfaction at Highbury, and possible liking for a move to Old Trafford, was aired in a stream of headlines, is some way from being utterly preoccupied with the success of his club at a vital stage of their development. Whatever the purpose of his trip to Madrid, he cannot have doubted its impact on the media, the terraces and the boardroom. Tomorrow Arsenal face Leeds United at Elland Road in a match that could vitally influence their Premiership campaign. Vieira is the captain and the pillar of the team.
That he should make himself so easy to link with the most ambitious team in Europe a few days before such a match, that his agent's Spanish contact should go public with his belief that Vieira will become a Real player if that is the wish of the club, shows a lack of respect for his employers which might be stunning anywhere but in the current ethos of the game. But then Wenger has said that trying to hang on to a player with anything less than two years on his contract is to guarantee only confusion and eventual grief. The fact that Vieira has two and a half years to go is simply the latest measurement of the extent of the loyalty crisis.
How does a player give his best to a club, and its fans, when his future has been mapped out in another, more lucrative place? It is a question that was always going to be asked, sooner or later, once a high court judge listened to the terms of employment of professional footballers back in the sixties and agreed that they were effectively operating in a slave market. The Vieira situation has simply confirmed the worst fears of the old butchers and bakers who ran the game when Sir Stanley Matthews and Bobby Charlton went to work on the bus.
It was that the better the lot of the players, the more difficult it would be to run the game. Vieira may be the one to prove that it has become just about impossible.Reuse content