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Who Comes First — The Player Or The Club?

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Is every player not bigger than the club, or maybe there can be exceptions?

Cristiano Ronaldo. Illustration by Sofi Serg.
Cristiano Ronaldo
Sofi Serg

“No player can be bigger than the club” — we’ve heard this phrase very often by different people in the football world. Sir Alex Fergusson, Kenny Dalglish, Arsène Wenger, Jose Mourinho and many other highly respected managers have mentioned it in their interviews about the transfers of their team’s key players. Lately, Real Madrid’s captain Sergio Ramos has also pronounced this phrase to respond to the question about Cristiano Ronaldo’s departure from the club.

This phrase sounds incredibly posh, without any doubts, but the meaning of it might be not fully correct. Is every player really not bigger than the club, or are there exceptions? Let’s try to find out the answer to this philosophical question, even if it may be as complicated as the famous dilemma, “Which came first: the chicken or the egg?”

The club’s players or the players’ club

Real Madrid is one of the greatest clubs in the history of football — the winner of the most important trophies, and also the best club of the 20th century. It seems obvious that this club is much bigger than any player, right? Players come and go, while the club is always there, and it’s always on top.

But the truth is that this club was founded by the players. It was 1897 when a group of young students from Madrid’s “Institución Libre de Enseñanza” decided to create their own football club. Their leader was 17-year-old Julian Palacios — technically the first ever president of the club which nowadays is known as Real Madrid.

It means that the club appeared because of the players but, at the same time, those boys were just students and became players only when they created the team. In other words, the club and the players are like components which form each other, they make each other ‘existent’.

The club is the players and the players are the club. So how can one of these two components be bigger than the other one? The situation will become even more complicated when we add the third component — the fans.

Mesut Ozil. Illustration by Sofi Serg.
Mesut Ozil
Sofi Serg

From admirers of a player to fans of a club

For many football fans, the story of supporting a club started with just admiring a certain player. For example, someone was a fan of Raul and then decided to watch every match of the club because of him; while another saw Zinedine Zidane’s goal against Bayer Leverkusen, or Iker Casillas’ saves, or Cristiano Ronaldo’s free-kicks, or Guti’s assists, and fell in love with football and Real Madrid.

The players lead the fans to the club. My story of being a football fan has begun with admiring Mesut Ozil’s performance at Euro 2012. After the end of this tournament, I started to watch Real Madrid matches.

But why did I decide to stay with this club even after Ozil’s transfer to Arsenal in 2013? Well, probably because I’ve become a Madridista, and because I thought that no player is bigger than the club. So, my story as a football fan can be summarized as someone who started as a supporter of the player but then turned into a fan of the club.

Someday the players will walk away, but the fans will stay until the end. Raul, Guti, and Zidane have retired as players and Casillas has moved to Porto in 2015, but the fans are still with Real Madrid.

And the fans have stayed with this club even when Cristiano Ronaldo joined Juventus this Summer, even though the transfer caused a confusion inside the Real Madrid fanbase. First, the fans agreed with Sergio Ramos’s opinion that no player can be bigger than the club, but soon after that they said the team will be in trouble because “Cristiano is irreplaceable”. But wait, how can a player be irreplaceable if he’s not bigger than the club? Something isn’t right here.

Cristiano Ronaldo. Drawing by Sofi Serg.
Cristiano Ronaldo
Sofi Serg

Nameless puppets or history makers

The politic of the phrase “no player can be bigger than the club” is that all the players are equal for the club and also that every player can be replaced with another in the team’s structure. So why do the fans keep thinking that Cristiano Ronaldo is irreplaceable? Let’s figure it out.

Legendary players usually have a very powerful personality. With all those awards, important goals, popularity, and influence on the team, it may seem that the stories of the star players’ careers surpass some parts of the club’s history. On the one hand, it’s just an illusion; but on the other hand, sometimes there are moments when a player really can change the destiny of his club in a moment.

One of these moments happened in the Champions League final in 2016 when Cristiano was going to score the crucial shot of the penalty shootout. The result of the final match depended on that shot. How much pressure for one player! As we all know, Cristiano scored this penalty and Real Madrid was named the 11-fold winner of the tournament. At that second, Cristiano definitely wasn’t a ‘pawn’, but a player who ruled the destiny of his club.

The players write the history of the club. And this history is so interesting just because each player who writes it is unique and puts his own triumphs and mistakes in it. The phrase “no player can be bigger than the club” can have a lot of different meanings, but one of them is that the players are like identical details of a machinery. This idea kind of deletes the human factor out of football and makes us think that players are nothing but nameless puppets.

However, even if each player is unique and has its own role in the team’s system, it’s still not hard to replace him. For example, there always will be 11 players in Real Madrid’s starting line-up for every match of this season, which means Cristiano Ronaldo is already replaced by someone. Replacing a player is not a problem, but it can cause some changes — decline or improvement — in the team’s style of play and in the quality of its results.

So, it’s not very correct to say that Cristiano can’t be bigger than the club, but calling him an irreplaceable player isn’t right as well. The truth lies somewhere in between — the club wouldn’t be that great without its legendary players while those players wouldn’t be that legendary without playing in this great club.

Sergio Ramos. Illustration by Sofi Serg.
Sergio Ramos
Sofi Serg

A phrase to avoid

The club and the players are interdependent and equal in many aspects, and their existence is based on cooperation. They appeared in the same moment of time, so first comes not the club or the players, but the club with the players in it.

Also, the phrase “no player can be bigger than the club” really has some truth to it, but sometimes it’s like an eraser which deletes all of the player’s achievements with the team. So, to describe Cristiano Ronaldo’s move to Juventus, I think it would be better to avoid this phrase and say something else.

For example, “No changes can ever break this club”.