News filtered out a few days ago that Adriano’s contract would now run through the end of next seasons, and several commenters on Twitter appear to think that that’s a bad thing even as several others can gin up a few reasons why it’s a good thing. The reasons range from “He’s as valuable on the field as lump of dog mess,” to “He adds much needed depth and veteran leadership.” In between are a variety of nuanced opinions regarding the club’s economic stability, what it means to be part of a championship-winning squad and what the goals of an athlete should or shouldn’t be.
It’s not at all weird to find differing opinions on the Internet, but Adriano’s case is one that encompasses basically all of the options. Those options are worth discussing in detail because they shed light on the greater fan base, and general approaches to the club and team. So here, then, is a discussion of Adriano’s place within both the squad as it is and the club’s greater economic forecast.
First, the player himself. Any discussion of Adriano Correia Claro must begin with where he’s from and what he’s done. He’s 31 years old, after all, 14 years into a professional career that began where he was born and raised, in Coritiba, an international city of 3 million on the southern coast of Brazil. His debut with Coritiba came when he was 17, his career blossoming from the start. He bagged his first trophy in 2003, just a year after his debut, in the Copa Paranaense. He was quickly called up to Brazil’s U-20 squad for the 2003 U-20 World Cup, duly collecting his first international trophy there and doing well enough to get a call up to the full national team in time for the 2004 Copa America. He won that one too, though he doesn’t appear to have played a single minute of the tournament—it was the other Adriano that made headlines at the time, scoring 7.
When you’re a 19 year old taking part in an international tournament, surrounded by the likes of Luis Fabiano, Maicon, Julio Cesar, and Juan at their height of their powers, you’re always likely to be overshadowed. Still, he continued to win domestic trophies, capturing the 2004 Copa Paranaense and earned looks from European clubs. He signed with Sevilla in January 2005, and that’s where things got interesting. Adriano’s move to Spain coincided with Sevilla’s increased success in Europe, with sporting director Monchi’s genius shining through. In one of those twists that can only be considered interesting in hindsight, Adriano’s league debut with Sevilla came a few days after his transfer against a certain FC Barcelona at the Sanchez Pizjuan. It was not a great day for Sevillistas as the blaugrana ran out 0-4 winners. Check out Adriano (#16) taking on Juliano Belletti in the first minutes of the match in this video(and check out Dani Alves’ cornrows—he’s wearing Sevilla’s #6). And he’s back at 1:50 to show you what everyone saw in him, though he didn’t finish off the move—Oleguer is probably still hiding in shame from that Antoñito nutmeg too. Then Adriano is skinning Belletti only to be taken out. Remember, he’s only 21 and this is his first league match in Europe and he’s taking on the guy who will score the Champions League winning goal in a year’s time. The second half is all one-way traffic, but the first half gave glimpses of a bright future.
And so, 5 years later, Adriano left Sevilla with 2 UEFA Cups and 2 Copas del Rey to his name. He played in 214 official matches over 5 and a half seasons and scored 19 times. In the 5 and a half years since then, he has appeared in 189 matches and scored 17 times. While he has a reputation for being regularly injured, he has never made fewer than 27 appearances in a season (this season he has 19, so he could very well end up with fewer). He has settled into a routine of sorts, making substitute appearances and earning a few starts in the Copa del Rey; it’s his league appearances that make people question him—he has 8 appearances so far this season.
Second, the club. Any discussion of FC Barcelona personnel decisions must begin with the various stories concerning club finances, bylaws, and youth development. For a squad that has been all-conquering of late, there is an odd perception of gaps in its depth; listen to Barça Twitter and you’ll hear strong cries for a new CB, a new midfielder, a new striker, and even the occasional mention that we’ll need a new backup goalie soon. The question isn’t whether Marc Bartra is the future or whether Arda Turan will settle in (he isn’t; he will), it’s what can be done about any of it anyway. If we accept the premise of this article on why Barça didn’t sign Nolito, then we’re already talking about something that can factor heavily into the squad’s look: the value of what you’ve got versus the value of what you don’t know. If the club truly is up against the wall in terms of adhering to the bylaws, signing new players can be trickier than simply slashing costs through lower salaries.
In extraordinarily simplified terms, if you’re paying Player A a salary of 100 and Player B will accept 50, what sort of transfer fee are you willing to pay for Player B? In real-world terms, though, transfer fees are pretty much always higher than a player’s wages unless they arrive on a free. If they do arrive on a free, they are either a ridiculously lucky find for the team or not as good of a player as the original player in question. If all else is equal, going with what you know makes a lot of sense—Player A has been with you for a spell already, after all, while Player B is a risk. I tend to think that if Player B is, on the whole, cheaper than Player A, Player A is probably the better player. This may not be true given the transfer systems in place, but from the perspective of a different club, if Player A arriving on a free would be the equivalent of a lucky find, then that’s just another way of saying that Player A is better than Player B and should be kept around.
One wrinkle in this, of course: what if Player C is from the youth setup and meets both the requirements for being cheaper and already knows the club’s system and can achieve the trust and understanding of the team through inclusion in training and small numbers of match appearances? That would be the best of everything, unless, of course, Player C simply is not good enough. It seems fairly obvious that no one in the Barça youth system meets Lucho’s needs at LB, so while it would be fantastic to find a gem suddenly, that seems unlikely. Another possibility is that the next year will be instrumental in the development of a few players. Note that Alex Grimaldo, generally considered the next Jordi Alba by many a fan and writer, was transfered to Benfica for just €1.5 million; his replacement in Barça B is, well, okay, I had to look this up and I’m not sure I got this right, but is it Moi Delgado? Whoever it is, they’re not obvious first team material (yet), so there’s little reason to jettison a player of Adriano’s quality just to replace him with a player of lesser quality unless there is extraordinary financial pressure to cut costs in the bottom half of the squad.
Other options—whichever up-and-coming LB you would like to see in the squad—require large transfer fees, but those players aren’t guaranteed any real playing time, so it is both a financial investment on the part of the club as well as a career investment on the part of the player. Given what we know about the Nolito signing, we’re looking down the barrel at several signings coming up for the squad, especially if you consider the CB situation to be as dire as some—Marc Bartra, Thomas Vermaelen, and Jeremy Mathieu are all on their way out, supposedly.
Third, the position. Left back is one of those positions where the relative paucity of world class players seems most notable. Just as one example, Leighton Baines has been regularly touted as worth his weight in gold on the left side of a defense, but he’s only 2 months younger than Adriano and has made few enough appearances for England that it’s hard to take his inclusion all that seriously. He’s good, but when we define “world class” as basically equivalent to “meets expectations” we’re in rough territory. That’s not to say there are not up-and-comers or outright stars, it’s just that listing off left backs that can step into any team in the world and improve them is harder than doing so for any other position. Take Jordi Alba, for instance—he is generally considered one of the best left backs in the world and he’s constantly making errors on defense. Sure, these errors are magnified by Barça Twitter’s crazy electron microscope that can pick up the wrong way to roll up your socks from thirty thousand meters, but that merely shows just how difficult it is to find a player at the top of his game on the left side: there are few teams that wouldn’t welcome Jordi Alba because he’s basically the best in the business. Seriously, what’s the list? Jordi Alba, Marcelo, David Alaba? Alex Sandro? Luke Shaw before he broke his leg? Ricardo Rodriguez? That’s 6 players and we’re already shooting towards “we’ll see whether he’s for real over the next few seasons.” José Luis Gayá is really good too, but, well, yeah, we’ll have to wait and see. As recently as last year, Fabio Coentrao was being touted as a great left back, which is clearly insane, but shows you what the crest on a jersey can suggest.
A question: why do players play professional football? It’s a sport that requires dedication and whose results are rarely the upper echelons of European elite football. The answer must come in all shapes and sizes, ranging from “didn’t have anything else to do” to “I’m totally obsessed with the sport.” In there is “I like to make money” and “I’m super talented.” Whatever their motivations, they’re probably similar to the ones you have or the ones your coworkers or fellow students share. It’s easy enough to categorize players as “mercenaries” when it appears they’re out looking for the most money—nicknames like Ca$hley Cole, for instance—and lavish praise on those who are “one club men” as having “too much loyalty”. Such oversimplification of Right and Wrong is the beginning for an explanation of why partisan loyalties manifest themselves against individual players in the context of contract negotiations, even for those who in all other facets of life will roundly condemn companies for failure to give their employees a fair shake in either the open market or through increased salaries.
Contrary to some opinions, FC Barcelona is not a charity and does not owe loyalty to players. The purpose of the team is to win trophies. The reverse, however, is also true: players do not owe loyalty to the club any more so than I owe loyalty to my employer. Yes, there’s a contract with professional athletes, but they should be to protect the player’s best interest, not the club’s. A club can absorb the loss of a player to injury far more readily than a player can absorb the loss of a livelihood through similar circumstances. It is also noteworthy that there are very few examples of “too much loyalty” on display in teams that don’t have deep pockets. The tweet I mentioned above references Andres Iniesta, Gigi Buffon, Philipp Lahm, and Francesco Totti, all of whom play for teams with excellent fan bases, large stadiums, and lots of money. It is probably noteworthy that Buffon played for Parma for 6 years prior to joining Juventus, but that, apparently, is lost to the sands of history, so we’ll let it go too. Lahm and Totti were born in Munich and Rome, respectively, but isn’t that quirk of fate, not a remarkable achievement? For players like Adriano who are born thousands of miles from the sport’s centers of power and money, it’s not so much a choice to remain loyal to a club—in his case Coritiba—and moving to Europe’s big stage (with its big salaries) if the chance comes as it is a virtual duty to yourself and your family. Does that make Adriano a mercenary or a rational actor?
I would argue that Adriano is and should be working in his best interest when he considers his future. The same can be true of the club, who, as I’ve said, do not need to act as a charity. There can be two parties negotiating in good faith and yet failing to find an agreement that benefits both sides mutually. One of the parties in the negotiation may require something that the other side does not deem worthy of consideration or of sufficient value for inclusion in the deal. Adriano is a 32-year old footballer whose career is no doubt winding down and whose skills are slowly deserting him; Barça is a club with massive resources and fan base that requires trophies each and every year. It would be understandable if they parted ways given what Adriano’s wage demands may be and what the team’s physical demands may be.
Instead, we’re hearing that he is going to exercise a player option in his contract to extend with the club for another season. Our very own Blitzen tweeted this out on Monday: “Look, I like Adriano, but he’s just gumming up the works now. He should take his trophies and walk away like a gentleman with our gratitude.” I am usually right along with Blitz in her thinking, but Adriano needing to walk away didn’t sit correctly with me. Of course he doesn’t need to walk away, he should stay if he wants to. If he decides that he’d rather have more playing time elsewhere, by all means, the door is open, but since when was it a moral obligation for him to call it quits on his own time in a Barça shirt? What does he owe the club? What does any player owe the club?
The point isn’t that Barcelona should keep Adriano around because he deserves it out of some blind loyalty to his past years of service, but instead that Adriano should be afforded the right to decide that which is put in front of him like we all do. I am of the opinion that Barcelona should not renew Adriano, but apparently the front office failed to give me the chance to approve his contract terms before signing him with a player option. It’s also true that I argued prior to Xavi’s departure for a renewal at almost any cost, more as a tribute to his past contributions than as emblematic of his continued skills, but unlike Xavi, however, Adriano’s options were fairly minimal. At least according to this tweet, referencing a report on Cadena Ser, Adriano had an offer from a Chinese team that would have increased his salary, but otherwise he would have had to take a pay cut.
Whatever your own opinion about whether players should or should not value playing time over money, Adriano is well within his rights to chose whichever he prefers, especially since he has a player option. One can blame the club for allowing that in the contract—and I do because I think Adriano’s time with Barça should be over at the end of this season—but it’s basically absurd to accuse Adriano of anything for exercising that option. While there are some who would argue that they would make a similar or different decision in their personal lives, it’s hard to compare Adriano’s situation with any other state of affairs outside of sports simply because athletes have shelf lives while realistically most others do not. Adriano is almost exactly a year younger than I am (yes, I’m ancient) and yet his career is often described as “winding down” or “in its twilight.” Really? He’s 31 years old, not 71. But it’s true that he will not be able to maintain his physical level for much longer, regardless of the level he chooses to play at, so, indeed, his career is winding down.
I suspect, though I’m by no means positive, that like many professional athletes Adriano is ill-prepared for a career outside of sports. It’s not that he’s incapable of finding a job, returning to college, or has no skills, but rather that he has specialized in an area that will soon be out of reach to him as an occupation. He’ll have to adapt to that and I certainly hope he will do so easily, but if there is a timer ticking down ominously in the background of every one of your decisions, regardless of whether you want more playing time, more limelight, or more respect from the fans, you might be inclined to take the largest offer on hand since it may very well be the last. Given that Adriano has a family, both financial and geographical stability can factor into the decision as well. I argued in my Dani Alves piece last year that with renewal, Alves “not only retains his spot in the team with, one assumes, a good salary, but he is also able to keep his family in Barcelona, something that cannot have been far from his mind throughout the negotiation process.” The same can apply to Adriano. Very few of us would choose uprooting our families and taking a pay cut just to get a better view from a corner office for a few months or years; I consider Adriano to be making not just a rational choice, but the only real rational choice available. To leave, even if for perfectly valid reasons, would see less coherent than to stay and reap the rewards of doing so.
Furthermore, Adriano’s position in the dressing room is not necessarily bad. There are plenty of players across lots of sports who recognize that the training ground is where they earn their meal tickets. There are countless stories of players who act as the training ground foils to the more talented starters; those players are a very valuable part of any team’s makeup. The manager’s ability to designate certain players to act as opposition players in training depends largely on the skills those “practice squad” players have and their ability to study and mimic opponents. Studying film is great, but being able to test theories and strategies against players is extremely important and Adriano’s place in the squad may very well be as a good training ground participant, friend to other players, and mentor to younger players.
Now, that doesn’t absolve the club of having created this situation in the first place. I do not want Adriano to stay because I do not feel that, in a 25-man squad, his contributions are greater than a replacement player (to borrow a baseball stats term). Still, he may be of more value than a transfer simply because he is already here and his contract (and its associated cost) is a known entity that can be planned for in Bartomeu’s time of financial need. If we’re flouting bylaws through salary and transfer numbers, then players of Adriano’s quality and relative cheapness can be seen as huge assets. He doesn’t take up a disproportionate amount of playing time and he doesn’t complain about that, so he could be seen as quite valuable to the squad and the club as a whole.
Overall, fans are quick to jump on a player simply because they’re not as good as one would hope, but world class backups will rock the boat in an attempt to get more playing time. This can be a good thing—think Ter Stegen and Bravo—or it can lead to poor relationships with the manager and the club—think Ibrahimovic. If push comes to shove, I will side with a player over a club, regardless of that club, simply because players are people who deserve the best they can get from any given situation. If a team is willing to offer a player a sweetheart deal, the player can take it without any moral qualms—it’s the club that should be considered foolish. We value players differently depending on how we feel about them: Thomas Muller has a Backpfeifengesicht—a face in need of a punch—so it’s easy to dismiss him as a cranky jerk, but he’s also an incredible footballer. Almost any club would be lucky to have him on its payroll, it’s just that I want him nowhere near mine simply because I hate his face. That’s a dumb way to approach the question of how to win league titles, so it’s probably better that the board doesn’t ask me my opinion on things. We’d still be playing Yaya and Ronaldinho in midfield while Luis Suarez got rained on in Merseyside. And Adriano would be gone, with Alex Grimaldo and Martin Montoya sitting on the bench at the Camp Nou.