As the midfielder strolls onto the Camp Nou pitch next week clad in a Bayern Munich shirt, it’s safe to say that the culer world will erupt. Should the player do anything decisive, the rumbles will rupture social media and the space-time continuum. The mind strains to think of a more polarizing transfer than this one, for so many reasons. And it will probably be forever thus, for no rational reason.
When people draw sides in the Thiago matter, it’s pretty much “Traitor! You took advantage of the club!” or “That stupid board screwed up and sold a gem for a pittance.” Neither is entirely accurate even as both are true. The player did take advantage of a situation that he engineered, and the club did screw up, and sell him for below market value. But it isn’t that simple.
At my day job we, like every other company in the market, have a difficult time retaining talented young employees. If anyone reading this is talented and young, you probably know exactly what’s going on. Offers. More offers. It isn’t that the gifted young’uns aren’t being treated and paid well, but rather that they are in extremely high demand. If you are young and talented, companies will make promises and throw gobs of money at you. And they should, just as you should weigh those offers in the context of your future and your ambition. Duh.
Is it logical to be any more or less bothered by a young writer leaving than Thiago? Sport breeds passion, and passion ain’t always calm and rational. Throw in a board that nobody likes, a president nobody likes, a season that nobody liked and it’s pretty easy for taint to spread. Thiago left for a better job. That is his right and frankly, obligation.
He isn’t a traitor, nor a mercenary. He is just a worker who wants what is best for himself. In one situation he had a team with a midfield that was stuffed with icons in Busquets, Iniesta and Xavi. Fabregas was also there. There was board instability, an ill coach and a team that didn’t know which way from up, that might have even needed some rebuilding, which delays the trophy acquisition process for a hungry young player.
On the other side of the scales he had a beloved coach who had just taken over a juggernaut poised for world domination, a coach who said to him, “Come here and play for me.” A starting role and more money beckoned, as well. Certainty over uncertainty. What athlete in his right mind wouldn’t choose this?
“He doesn’t love the club” is nonsense. We see players and coaches leave a club and sit at a press conference, weeping like a baby with a full diaper. They love their club but they love themselves more, and need to make the decision that is best for No. 1. That isn’t avarice. That’s common sense.
On the other side of the ledger, all the talk about Thiago being upset over playing time, not starting more, being played less than Xavi, a player that people now throw themselves at the feet of, weeping, isn’t supported by logic, either. You don’t make life decisions in a fit of pique. Thiago isn’t that silly, nor are his advisers. He knew what his path to the XI was at Barça, and that surely factored into his decision.
And forget about the board choosing to sell him or forcing the sale, because those don’t stand up to the test of logic, either. “Hey, I got a GREAT idea! Let’s sell the brightest midfield talent to come out of La Masia since Iniesta to a major European rival, for a below-market price. Genius, right?” This has become part of the Legend of ZubiZa, as well as he and his team being stupid enough to negotiate a playing time clause for an irreplaceable gem. Would they have transferred Thiago had they had a choice? Of course not.
Some culers will say that Thiago negotiated a low buyout in exchange for other considerations, then took advantage of the club. That isn’t logical, either. Every negotiation is a risk. Does anyone think that, had the team played him enough to activate his higher buyout clause, there wouldn’t have been an unhappy player and Maxinho saying stuff to the press? Is the difference between 25 and 40m, for a club that churns a half-billion in revenue, worth dealing with for that? Xavi wasn’t going anywhere. Neither was Iniesta. Fabregas’ situation was still unknown, but Xavi and Iniesta STILL weren’t going anywhere, and Alexis Sanchez was also capering about in that worldview. It’s still a regular spot in the XI at a better team in Bayern vs sharing time. (Yes, those players are all different but in the same pot. Is it Total Football or not?)
The club wouldn’t have acceded to the contract stipulation had it not been fully aware of the possibility of losing the player to a buyout activation. If a club wants to make sure a player stays, a buyout clause is attached to him that removes doubt because a clause can always be negotiated down if necessary. It was a calculated risk that didn’t pay off for the club, as much from a P.R. sense as a market value one.
“Thiago was easily worth 50m.” No, he wasn’t. Not to Barça. It’s also worth asking whether Bayern would have paid 50m for him. No idea. Situations dictate a player’s price as much as the market does. How much would Thiago have gone for at auction? Considerably more than 25m, which doesn’t make that price a terrible one. Yes, board members saying that the transfer was good business rankles, but the challenge is always to step back from the passion, filter out the noise and ask questions.
One might be “What is love?” The follow-up would be whether players “love” teams in the same way in the here and now? Not likely. Not if he’s young and talented. It’s easy to love Almeria if you’re a journeyman. For a player like Thiago, there is too much money in the game. It was Alexis Sanchez’s dream to play for Barça, his promise to a dying relative. “Wait … how much?” There is a reason that all of the club legends, the one-team players are old dudes, and it isn’t just a chronological accident. Players such as Maldini, Puyol, Xavi, Iniesta, Messi are unique, and not only in playing ability.
They are tied to their club in a way that makes that relationship special. I can no more see Messi, with prime playing time left in his legs, wearing the shirt of another club than I could imagine Puyol doing so. Taking late-career paydays is a very different thing. Those players love the club, grew up in the club, owe what they are to the club. The young, modern player often has a different view of his talent and obligation to a club.
“I played for them, gave them my all, now it’s time to move on.” And that’s a fair decision.
Thiago did what he had to do for the sake of his own ambition and development. So did the club. 25m for a talented youth player isn’t horrible business. Zlatan Ibrahimovic for 24m, in installments is horrible business. The prices of other players in the market are often cited, but they have zero bearing on Thiago’s situation, because a buyout is what a buyout is. When the clause is activated, that is the number. Bayern paid it and Thiago left.
To be sure, there is a fiscal cost and a sporting cost. When Xavi leaves, who will inherit the mantle of the greatest midfielder to ever play the game? Will the club have to buy a player, and if so, will that player cost more than it would have cost to keep Thiago, who it must be said is immensely talented, but isn’t Xavi, who is a once in a lifetime player. Too many questions.
Still other questions. Would the presence of Thiago have hastened the departure of Xavi? Thiago was the future, Xavi is the present. How would that have gone over? No idea, but worth considering. Kick Xavi to the curb, or take a risk on Thiago? Yikes. And imagine the muttering and grumbling in some quarters had Thiago been sitting on our bench for a year, rehabbing from various injuries while making the money it would have taken to keep him. Imagine lots of things.
Logic dictates that situations develop as they will. The club got a good amount of money and cruises on. Thiago got a better job, and cruises on. All the rest strikes me as rhetoric by people with a point to prove in an inflamed situation, exacerbated by idiocy such as “Sergi Roberto is just as good.”
When a talented young writer leaves for a better job, journalists celebrate with drinks, say “Congratulations,” and move on. Because that is life. No real reason for football to not be as complete a part of life as any other employment situation.