As the fight between Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho and Paul Pogba keeps getting more toxic, fans are understandably taking sides. Some back the manager, while others are backing the superstar midfielder.
Recently however, a third camp has broken out. This camp wants Mourinho gone. They recognize that he’s lost the dressing room and he’s not going to be able to turn things around. But they also want Pogba gone. They view him as part of the problem, they say he’s not giving all his effort for the shirt. Most importantly, they want to send a message that no player is bigger than the club.
That’s a message that’s been sent at Old Trafford many times before. Sir Alex Ferguson famously fell out with more than one of his star players. When he did, that player was sold and someone else stepped up to replace him.
That was then, this is now and I have some news for you. In 2018, some players just are bigger than the club.
Ferguson was just the latest in a line of coaches who were nearly synonymous with their clubs. United had Fergie, the Packers had Lombardi, the Cowboys had Landry, the Celtics had Auerbach. These days, the Patriots have Belichick, the Spurs have Popovich and, who else is there? These coaches were able to rule their teams with an iron fist.
It’s not just because their teams gave them leeway but because they earned that leeway. It’s not just that they won, it’s how they won. They built their teams, the superstars they had were superstars because they turned them into that. More importantly, when they found success, they didn’t flee for another team. When they fell out with a player, it was easy to take the coaches side because you had every reason to believe that in five years the coach would still be there.
Today, it’s not like that. Even if coaches aren’t leaving, the demand for success has become so high that teams are firing coaches after the slightest dip in form. Nowhere is this more true than in world football where managers rarely seem to last more than three years. Even if there’s success now, it’s hard to think the man will still be there in five years.
In today’s “winning is everything” culture, the power is all in the players. You need superstars to win, and when you have one, sometimes you need to do what it takes to hold on to them. Just a few years ago, Lebron James decided he didn’t like his coach anymore, despite being in first place, the Cavs fired him. They won the title that season.
These days, thanks in large part to social media, the top superstars are all their own brand. That doesn’t mean winning isn’t important to them, but they understand that their window to make money with their athletic ability is a small one and therefore it’s a smart idea to build something that can last longer than their playing days. Afterall, if owners run their sports clubs as a business, why shouldn’t the players treat their sports as one too?
With the ability to follow different leagues from almost anywhere on the planet, more and more people are fans of players rather than teams.
Nowhere is this more prevalent than in basketball and soccer. This model is youth driven. With personal highlights so readily available, a lot of young sports fans aren’t locking on to teams but just their favorite players. They aren’t Lakers fans, they’re Lebron fans. They don’t root for the Golden State Warriors, they root for Steph Curry. Soccer is no different. There are fans of Messi, Neymar, Mbappe, or Zlatan. One of my friends never liked Manchester United but, well he has to now because he supports Alexis Sanchez wherever he goes.
For most teams in the world, the ‘no one can be bigger than the club’ mantra is good, and it works. It’s great at the high school level, the college level, and frankly, for teams that are trying to punch above their weight class, the professional level too. It’s the idea that every player has to buy in to achieve the collective goal. Gylfi Sigurdsson is bigger than the Iceland team, but their success hinges on him checking that ego at the door and playing just like all the other Iceland players.
For the top clubs in the world, it’s a bit different. Sometimes you need to treat your superstars differently. After all, they give you your best chance to win, and winning equals money. Juventus need to treat Cristiano Ronaldo differently. If they expected him to just fall in line like the rest of their players, it will never work out.
In the present day, a superstar and their club is more of a marriage of convenience. The biggest players go to the biggest teams because it’s there that their brand will get the most exposure. On the other side, those teams put up with these players because they’ll help them win, keeping them relevant.
It’s hard to imagine that any player can be bigger than Juventus, Real Madrid, Barcelona, or Manchester United. These names are some of the biggest brands not just in football, but in the world. But without their superstars, they’re nothing more than just names. Since Sir Alex Ferguson retired, United have still been one of the biggest clubs in the world, but that name hasn’t won them any Premier League titles.
What the name does do is attract those big players. Those big players who come for better or worse with their own brand. If all of a sudden a club doesn’t let a player have his own brand, it’ll be a lot harder to get more players to come.
This is sports in 2018. It may not be better, but if fans want their teams to win, it’s a reality they need to accept.