From hero to zero: How some players such as Lyon ace Mathieu Valbuena and former Real Madrid star Luis Figo become turncoats to fans
Two matches played in port cities on Sunday saw the contrasting ways returning players can be treated by those who once idolised them. The respectful welcome Morgan Schneiderlin received on his first visit to St Mary’s since departing for Manchester United was in contrast to Mathieu Valbuena’s hostile reception from the Marseille fans.
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In Valbuena’s case, it would appear financial motives, that trusty stick with which the commentariat reaches for most readily to assault modern footballers with, would be the key driver in the raising of hackles in France’s deep south.
Marseille’s fans – a combustible bunch at the best of times – have not taken kindly to the winger’s last two career moves: a one-season spell at Dynamo Moscow suspected to be for financial reasons preceded his return to France in the summer. He joined Lyon, a competitor at Ligue Un’s sharp end.
So offended were some L’OM fans, they hung an effigy of Valbuena in the stands before the game and then pelted him with glass bottles during it. Compare this with Southampton fans’ treatment of Schneiderlin, who they have obviously forgiven for his summer 2014 Twitter strop at not being allowed to become the 87th central midfielder in Tottenham’s squad in the summer of 2014.
Valbuena’s move is not as taboo as some others have made. When Luis Figo was one of the world’s best footballers prior to his current incarnation as a Just for Men salesman and would-be Fifa President, he made the move direct from Barcelona to Real Madrid in the summer of 2002.
Blaugrana fans, indignant that their belle du jour had abandoned their symbol of Catalan resistance for the club seen as an instrument of General Franco’s subjugation of the Catalan people, marked Figo’s return to the Camp Nou by hurling, among other things, a pig’s head at him as he took a corner.
The vitriol heaped upon Figo in the early noughties echoed May 1989, when an even more infamous transfer saga played out. Mo Johnston, a former Celtic player, returned to Scotland after two seasons in France, but did not return to Parkhead despite being unveiled to the media saying “there is no other British club I could play for apart from Celtic” in a press conference.
The twist came after the transfer deal broke down over Celtic’s failure to meet tax payments on it. Johnston, a Catholic, signed for Rangers in the aftermath of the collapse. The Hoops board chose not to pay the full balance of the transfer fee, which would have annulled Johnston’s move and rendered him inactive, as Fifa insisted his signature of paperwork during talks with Celtic was a legally binding agreement.
This was too much for some on both sides. Some Rangers fans, ignorant of the fact other Catholics had played for Rangers, returned season tickets and burned scarves outside Ibrox. A Celtic fan reacted to one Johnston goal against them at Ibrox with a pie to the face and others threatened to boycott a charity game in 2005 if Johnston were involved; in an indication of how much this volte-face continued to sting years later.
The examples here are admittedly at extremes, and contain the two most toxic ingredients you can bring to this context – money and politics. Most returning players, particularly now transient labour is widely accepted as being a part of the modern game, tend to get pantomime booing at the worst, with a few exceptions. Seen through that prism, it makes Valbuena’s treatment look more absurd. Valbuena may have had a fiscal motive for leaving the Stade Velodrome, but to hold that against a player in his 30s who might have felt he had one big move left to the extent that you react so violently, is, to coin a common accusation levelled at players, completely detached from reality.
Which former players do you feel have betrayed your club? Do you remember any players getting a particularly rough reception?
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