Originally published on Business of Soccer, July 2013.
If you’re fortunate enough to support an elite European soccer club for which money is no object, July is a wonderful time. The summer transfer window should be an occasion brimming with optimism, when fans can follow their team retool its personnel and load up on assets for the upcoming campaign.
If you’re a Manchester City fan, you’ve just hired a highly-regarded coach and armed him with a couple more vanity buys like Jesus Navas, a Spaniard who would start for any international side in the world if he wasn’t Spanish, and teamed him up with en vogue talents like Alvaro Negredo and Stevan Jovetic. If you support Real Madrid, you’ve brought in a coach, one even more highly-regarded than City’s, to succeed the scourge of Jose Mourinho and signed a pair of young players who may just forge the spine of their nation’s next generation of football dominance. Even if you’re a PSG fan, and you just lost your coach to Madrid and your sporting director to, um, nervous exhaustion, and your best player won’t return your new coach’s calls, and your club’s leadership appears to be operating with all the control and deliberation of a Javier Pastore cross into the box – hey, your team just signed Edinson Cavani for the fourth-highest transfer fee of all time! And if you’re a Chelsea fan, well, we don’t really need to talk about it.
Yes, July is a wonderful time if you support one of the Soccer Illuminati, teams with such financial muscle and influence within the game that it’s laughable to suggest UEFA even could prohibit them from playing Champions League ball if they failed to adhere to something as trivial as Financial Fair Play. If your allegiances lay elsewhere, however, and if your team falls on the other side of the spectrum – the one where your star strikers routinely follow up incredible seasons by handing in transfer requests – July can be the annual occasion when you see your dreams crash and burn in a grueling heap right before your eyes.
For Liverpool fans like myself, it’s very much the latter.
The experience of being a Liverpool supporter over the past five years is probably best described, fittingly so given the events of two weeks ago, by one of the most memorable lines from one of the most memorable hip-hop songs of the last 20 years: “…Then I wake up to more bullshit.” I’ve seen the squad – once flawlessly constructed by the genius of Rafa Benitez and driven forth by two of the ten best players in the world, a team that reached two European Cup finals in three years and came four points shy of winning the Premier League in 2009 – slowly dismembered as the blatant lechery of owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett almost bankrupted England’s most successful club. I’ve watched Sir Alex Ferguson finally “knock Liverpool off their f—ing perch,” his Manchester United sides tying and then breaking Liverpool’s record of 18 league championships – and adding one more this past season to make it 20 titles before Sir Alex rode off into the sunset, shit-eating grin and all. I’ve witnessed Champions League football go from a realistic, annual expectation for Liverpool to an organization-defining goal, something striven for in vain every year, and, in turn, seen the club’s inability to secure European football rob it of the opportunity to attract the best players in the world. There are few things more infuriating to sports fans than other sports fans who milk past, historical successes for all their worth, and that’s just what Liverpool fans have been reduced to these days.
Transfer season has been part and parcel of the entire, self-effacing experience of Liverpool fandom. First, Xabi Alonso bolted for Real Madrid in the summer of 2009, after Benitez hurt his feelings by stupidly suggesting that Gareth Barry was a superior option. Alonso’s departure robbed the team of its creative engine in midfield, while Barry subsequently signed with Man City during the club’s initial “Richer Than God” period, leaving Liverpool to resort to the then-inexperienced and overwhelmed Lucas Leiva as Alonso’s replacement. (There was also Benitez’s impulsive purchase of the crocked Alberto Aquilani to replace Alonso, one of contemporary English soccer’s most ignominious transfer window follies. I, for one, was really looking forward to the Alberto Aquilani era.)
The following summer – after a seventh-place league finish resulted in Benitez’s departure and the club’s precipitous financial near-collapse – Roy Hodgson was appointed manager and Javier Mascherano, arguably the best defensive midfielder in the world at the time, decided to peace out for a life winning trophies as a third-choice center back for Barcelona. What followed was one of the most surreal, melodramatic periods in the club’s exceptionally dramatic history, which included: a brief, early-season stint in the relegation zone; Fernando Torres’ emo phase; John W. Henry and the Red Sox guys saving Liverpool from administration; Hodgson’s dismissal; King Kenny Dalglish’s triumphant return and ignominious sacking ; and an absurd 24-hours at the very end of the January 2011 transfer window that saw Torres depart for Chelsea for £50 million and Andy Carroll and Luis Suarez arrive from Newcastle and Ajax, respectively.
While Carroll just moved to West Ham this month for less than half the £35 million that Liverpool paid for him – cementing his status as one of the biggest transfer flops ever – Suarez turned out to be a bargain at roughly £23 million. Uruguay’s all-time leading scorer has become the mercurial talisman of the Fenway Era at Anfield – the quintessential flawed genius whose numerous on-field indiscretions have blighted a reputation as one of the game’s most dynamic talents. No player in England, with the possible exception of Tottenham’s Gareth Bale, meant as much to their team as Suarez did to Liverpool last year, when he scored 30 goals in all competitions and functioned as the fulcrum of manager Brendan Rodgers’ attack.
There’s little-to-nothing that Suarez isn’t capable of as a forward; he’s a complete player who operates effectively in any attacking role, though he proved absolutely devastating last season as a lone striker waging a one-man war against Premier League defenses. Suarez’s furious style and indefatigable commitment to the cause endeared him to Liverpool fans, who gave him his own inescapable tune ripped from a Depeche Mode song. Most importantly, when Rodgers’ tactical plan for a possession-based, short-passing game similar to the Barcelona model would fall flat on its face last season, Liverpool could rely on Suarez to somehow, someway bail them out.
That’s why it’s only fitting that Suarez has spent much of this summer transfer window trying to force a move away from Liverpool, doing everything short of handing in a formal transfer request. His reasoning for such a move, which he’s given to virtually any journalist willing to listen, revolves around the persecution he’s suffered at the hands of the English media in wake of the Patrice Evra incident and Bitegate, and the effect that scrutiny has had on his family. Until, of course, it emerged that he also wants to play Champions League soccer. Once again, the deep-pocketed vultures of the European game are hovering above Anfield, with Real Madrid a rumored destination as always and the possibility that Suarez could play for his agent Pere Guardiola’s more famous brother at Bayern Munich.
At this point, Liverpool fans have become somewhat desensitized to the routine, their club once again a victim of its own inability to match the ambitions of its players. But the Suarez saga, like the Torres conundrum before it, is particularly infuriating for a unique set of reasons.
First, virtually everyone associated with the club, from ownership to the coaches and players to the supporters, defended Suarez to the death after both the Evra incident and Bitegate. Liverpool, like most soccer clubs, is the sort of institution that prides itself on unquestioning loyalty under fire to those who wear the badge, blind as such loyalty may be. Still, it’s hard to imagine any other club and its supporters – myself included – go so far out of their way, to the point of looking foolish, in defense of a star player’s transgressions. Not that Suarez, as a professional athlete, actually owes his employers anything – they pay him money, he scores goals – but it’s understandable why the club and its fans would feel slighted by Suarez’s unwillingness to repay their faith in him.
Second, the timing of Suarez’s attempt to leave and the manner in which he’s done it – positioning himself as the victim in the situation and stressing his desire to escape the bloodsucking grasp of the English media, only to turn around voice his approval of an Arsenal bid for his services – has undoubtedly unsettled Liverpool in its preparations for a critical season. A top-four finish in the Premier League this year, and the Champions League slot that comes with it, is of utmost importance to the club’s ambitions, if for no other reason than to prevent the 6th Annual Anfield Summer Exodus near year. Rodgers’ transfer business so far this summer has revolved around the departures of underachievers like Carroll and Jonjo Shelvey, and the arrivals of reinforcements like forward Iago Aspas, midfielder Luis Alberto, veteran defender Kolo Toure and goalkeeper Simon Mignolet. All of these players, with the exception of Mignolet (who will replace Pepe Reina in goal sooner or later), were brought in to function more as squad players adding depth to the team than as game-changers capable of instantly impacting Liverpool’s fortunes.
It was Suarez, a proven Premier League commodity and Liverpool’s best player, who was supposed to spearhead Liverpool’s campaign, in Year 2 of the Brendan Rodgers Project, for the promised land of fourth place. If Suarez leaves and the club is either unable or chooses not to find an adequate replacement, Liverpool will start the year relying on the currently injured Daniel Sturridge, the underwhelming Fabio Borini and the unproven Aspas to replace one of the game’s most unique talents. These are all players meant to complement Suarez, not supplant him.
Thus far, it seems that Rodgers appreciates all of this. Arsenal have been continuously linked with the player after reportedly making an initial, $46 million bid last week; since then, they may have boosted their offer ever closer to his much-debated $61 million buyout clause. Rodgers, meanwhile, has only played his cards right, talking up Suarez’s value in light of the recent $84 million Cavani deal and sounding like he genuinely expects him to be at the squad’s disposal this season. Still, the club’s recent transfer record has only shown that when a player wants to leave Anfield for bigger, richer prospects, he usually get his way – and Suarez has expressed nothing but his desire to do just that.
This week, it was reported that Liverpool are considering a bid for the young Ajax duo of Christian Eriksen and Toby Alderweireld. Like Suarez, both players honed their craft for the Amsterdam side, which now looks to lose them to a bigger, richer club. I have no illusions about Liverpool’s own place within the transfer window hierarchy and the sport at large; I have a friend, a Stoke City fan, who laughs incredulously in my face at the mere mention of my club’s struggle to attract and keep its best talent. Yes, my position as a Liverpool fan – conceived after the club’s remarkable Champions League final comeback against AC Milan in 2005 – inherently makes me a frontrunner, just like my friend the Stoke City fan must either be a hipster or a masochist.
But as Liverpool’s status as one of Europe’s very best teams has gradually diminished, perhaps the most painful aspect of the whole process has been the club’s inability, every summer, to appropriately strengthen the squad by bringing in new, quality players while retaining the quality players already at the club. While the likes of, say, Chelsea or Man City fans need not even consider such a dilemma, it’s become a constant reality of Liverpool fandom during these off-season months – an annual occasion that always starts hopefully, before you wake up to more bullshit and find yourself rationalizing that, yes, the team can overcome the loss of its most valuable player and somehow break the top four in Europe’s toughest league.
I hate July.