In Praise Of The Journeyman

This weekend La Liga finally begins.  It should have started last week, but those fixtures did not take place because the players from the top two Spanish leagues went on strike.  Sid Lowe explains the reasons and demands much better than I can, so I recommend his column for the background.  At its heart, the strike was about wages, specifically player protections when their clubs have spent too much (which happens all too frequently in La Liga) and cannot pay the players’ wages.  This is an issue very important to players across the spectrum of Spanish football, and it is very telling that players such as Iker Casillas, Carles Puyol, David Villa, and Xabi Alonso–players who will never be in that situation–have given their visible and ardent support.  When it seems like the players of Barcelona and Real Madrid fight over everything else, they united for this.

Coincidentally, Italy’s Serie A is not beginning this week because of, you guessed it, a players’ strike.

A lot of people who might read about or hear about this issue may scoff at players demanding wages.  Certainly some of the more disingenuous club owners have done so.  I suspect that the average fan’s reaction was to scoff, thinking this has to do with inflated wages, contracts, and transfer fees.  I also suspect that the visible presence of famous players from Barcelona and Real Madrid did not engender much sympathy to the cause.

I fully supported the players’ actions.  Casillas, Puyol, Villa, Alonso, and the rest are came together not for themselves, but in solidarity with players from those clubs without hope of playing in Europe and without a Spanish (or other nation’s) National Team presence.  These players do not get paid exorbitant wages and do not receive millions in endorsements.  They are journeymen, and are treated as such.  If the journeyman suffers a career-ending injury, he does not have millions to fall back on.  Instead he has to find a different career, either within his sport (which in many cases is all he knows) or without.  One of the trapped Chilean miners is a former footballer.

When we think about football or any sport, we think about the stars both in the past and the present.  Messi, Beckham, Pele, Jordan, Gretzky, Rodriguez, Ruth, Manning, Montana, Tendulkar, Laver, Federer, Graf, Williams, Navratilova, and so on.  We do not however, think of the thousands of journeyman around the world who cannot win over and over again at the highest level, but are still good enough to compete.  You know of them; they are the athletes whose names we don’t know.  Like their famous counterparts, they have a very limited shelf-life, a small window of opportunity to ply their trade before age (around 30) catches up with them, and they fall into total obscurity.  Athleticism is a gift, but it is a fleeting one.

Greatness is subjective, and that is why the Pele/Maradona debate will rage on throughout the generations.  Yet there is also some kind of objectivity to identifying greatness.  There is only one Messi, and to deny that something sets him apart from his peers is to dwell in churlishness. Yet without the journeymen, a Messi could not show how special he actually is.  To prove his greatness, he needs foils, those mere mortals who cannot match his greatness.  Although in the case of Messi, even his most talented peers look average, the majority of his foils are players who are good enough to be professional, but not good enough to be stars.  Some of these lesser players can be the top dogs in mediocre leagues, but they choose to stay where the best game is.  Some of these players would be lesser no matter which league they play in.  This is not unique to La Liga.  Ever league around the world needs journeymen so that the true talents can distinguish themselves.  It seems like a cruel fate.

I have tremendous respect for journeyman players.  They have spent their lives dedicated to something they love, despite the fact that they are putting their bodies and health at risk, despite the fact that they will never get paid like their more famous counterparts, and despite the fact that some of them are only semi-professional and need outside jobs to pay the bills.  Journeymen continue to play, not for the wealth, but so that they can do what they love.  There is honor in that.  I am glad that they players got some measure of victory, because most of them are not making millions.  Like us, they have mortgages and families, and a lifetime of responsibility.  They only have a little bit of time to earn money from the game before they have to move on into an unknown future.