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Iker Casillas and the Price of Loyalty

Loyalty is a real thing. It can also be a made up thing, too. See, it’s real when it involves genuine, deep connections and relationships; within longtime family and friends is where you typically find this kind of loyalty. But very often, when it involves business and, most specifically, money — people’s money — it becomes a lofty and insincere goal that’s rarely achieved. Even when all of the storybook plots and hyperbolic statements seem destined for true unabashed loyalty, the nature of humans and their desires usually always amounts to greed and self-preservation. The hungry shark is loyal to itself only.

It was announced on Saturday that Iker Casillas would be leaving Real Madrid for FC Porto. The move brings as end to 16 years of service for the Spaniard at Madrid. Casillas has agreed a two-year contract with the Portuguese club with an option for a third. For Casillas, this move has nothing to do with money, but football. For Madrid, this move has to do a little with money, a tad with football, a lot with power, and nothing with loyalty. When your club’s president is Florentino Perez, loyalty falls somewhere in between match programmes and visitors lounge hors d’oeuvres.

Casillas gave a tearful press conference on Sunday, where he thanked the club and its fans: “Thank you to the Madrid fans for their support, helping me lift every cup, every triumph, for being with me in the good moments and the bad moments. For giving me a hand when I needed lifting up. I don’t want to be remembered as a good goalkeeper or a bad goalkeeper. I just want to be remembered as a good person, with my faults.”

“Wherever I go, I will always shout ‘Hala Madrid’”

The subdued nature of the exit presser caused much fervor amongst fans and media, causing Madrid to attempt to recorrect their efforts just a day later by throwing an official Bernabeu going-away party. A couple of thousand fans showed up to the stadium on Monday to see San Iker take the pitch and pose with each of the trophies he won during his tenure. Because of the occasion’s hurried and obscured handling, the show ended up being stolen by supporter songs calling for Florentino Perez’s resignation. If there was ever a question about where the fans’ loyalty resided in regards to this transfer, they were answered clearly and with great passion here.

As professional and cordial as Casillas’s statements were at both events, his friends and family had more scathing words for Madrid and Perez. First was his mother, Mari Carmen, who claimed, “Iker has put up with a great deal, he has suffered psychological pressure and they treated him differently to other players.”

“It is Florentino who is pushing him out, because [Casillas] wanted to end his career at Real Madrid.”

Carmen even threw a jab at Casillas’s new club by stating that she “wouldn’t have cared if it had been Barcelona,” because “a world champion can’t end up at Porto.”

Then it was Iker’s longtime friend and Spain teammate Xavi Hernandez, who believes the move “leaves a bad taste.” Xavi admitted, “In recent years, I have seen that he is not enjoying himself like before. He even seems bitter and everyone in this country should think about this.”

He elaborated: “It cannot be that maturing Spanish athletes are not shown sufficient respect, that people neglect to value everything they have done for their sport and instead focus on their defects, sometimes with malicious intent.”

 

Despite these post-reactions, Casillas’s Madrid exit has been in-the-making for years, or at least the seeds of it have. Much of it goes back to 2012, when then-manager Jose Mourinho dropped Casillas for longtime reserve keeper Adan. Shortly after, it was heavily reported that both Casillas and Sergio Ramos were demanding to be transfer-listed unless Mourinho was fired, which turned out to be an unsuccessful mutiny. The Portuguese boss then brought in Sevilla keeper Diego Lopez, a move that the Portuguese boss asserted he “should have [done] after my first year.”

Mourinho left Real Madrid in 2013 with Casillas out of favor, although the damage had been done. Helping Real Madrid to a record tenth Champions League title in 2014 did little to ease the pressure that had piled up on Casillas. The club signed keeper Keylor Navas after a stellar showing for Costa Rica at last summer’s World Cup, while rumors of courting David De Gea at Manchester United have continued to build over the last year. Perez and company have been practically writing on the walls of Iker’s locker in neon highlighter: Please leave, so we don’t have to make you.

So, to say that Casillas was sold to Porto “out of nowhere” would be patently untrue. But to say that it’s incredibly unbecoming of Real Madrid to do so, even after years of foreshadowing, is rational. Such is the clout that Casillas had built up around the world as a pillar of today’s footballing world. It turns out that that clout may have existed everywhere except the one place where it would’ve counted most to him.

A not-so-similar but relevant quarrel has been going on in England over the past week as well. Many Liverpool supporters have called for the head of Raheem Sterling over the last couple of weeks over his reported refusal to travel with the Reds to America for their preseason tour. Of course, we now know — and always suspected — that his denial was really about a planned move 30 miles east to Manchester. As expected, Sterling signed for Manchester City on Tuesday for a reported £49 million transfer fee, making him the most expensive British player ever.

This isn’t really about Sterling’s supposed value — and whether or not Liverpool ended up skinning City in the deal, or vice-versa. This isn’t even about whether or not Sterling, a 20-year-old, actually owes anything to millions of Liverpool supporters around the globe. This is rather about who truly owes what to who, in any capacity, in the treacherous land of global football. After all, that is, without any doubt, the land in which Liverpool and Real Madrid currently operate.

For whatever reason, fans believe a degree of loyalty is owed to them from players. We pay your salary! We’ve all heard it before. But let’s think about that for a moment, specifically in regards to Sterling. His move to City is obviously the biggest decision of his career so far; a decision that ultimately will dictate the financial future of generations of his family. The stakes of that decision are life or death, professionally speaking: going to the proper club could mean the difference between him becoming a boom or a bust. He could either be Gareth Bale or Shawn Wright-Phillips. Yet, amidst all of this, he’s now demanded to consider Ian, who has a season ticket in the Kop. That last bit sounds very romantic: the millionaire sacrificing for the seatgeek. It’s also sounds completely unrealistic.

The only loyalty that seems practical here is a vague sense of loyalty paid to the individual player, from everyone. Loyalty to a football business, especially one that generate hundreds of millions of dollars, feels immoral. And the loyalty expected from a single man or woman to each and every individual sports fan of his or her club feels wildly unfair. Even the loyalty of a sports-obsessed fan to an admired player is a shaky proposition that involves loads of inconsistent, haywire emotions. However, the loyalty of a money-making machine disguised as a soccer club to its most recognized and faithful servant feels simple and even obligatory. That may be a naive notion, but at least it stands to reason.

A deal as earth-shattering as this one — at least within the Capital’s borders — comes with lasting consequences. Now that we know Real Madrid’s loyalty does indeed have boundaries, you wonder — maybe even hope — that Casillas’s does too. Are we going to see San Iker patrol the grounds of the Bernabeu after his playing days, the way Luis Figo, Emilio Butragueno, and Zinedine Zidane have? Will he still think of himself as a “One Club legend” as he grows old? Or will he retain the discontent that he surely has right now, forever harboring ill will towards the place and home that shunned him? You cannot emphatically say either way, but it definitely seems that if it were to happen, Florentino Perez would have to be out of the picture completely. The manner in which Madrid have chopped and chosen their employees recently doesn’t make you confident that anyone will hang around long. If Casillas didn’t make it the whole way, Perez certainly won’t; and anyone else for that matter. It’s a harsh truth: loyalty is personal, and business is never personal at the Bernabeu.

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