There is a myth surrounding elite footballers today that they are only motivated by three things; money, money, and money writes Guillem Balague. 

Now this might come as a surprise to some but there are any number of players out there that despite the wealth, the social standing, adoration, fawning and any other number of these confusing imposters guaranteed to send the ego into the stratosphere – and incidentally, back to earth at an even greater speed – there are many players who play football for one simple reason; they love the game.

Did I say ‘love’? Add ‘need’ to that.

If I have learnt anything from writing books on three of the greatest and most influential people in football, Guardiola, Messi and guillem photoRonaldo, it is that despite the differences between them, there is a single thread that runs through their DNA like the letters through a stick of Blackpool rock.

And that is a total, unequivocal, unswerving obsession with the game; a passion that has nothing to do with money, but rather with the aim of getting to the very top of their profession and staying there for as long as possible.

Money does of course play its part but more often than not as an expression – an indication – of just how loved, essential, and highly regarded any one player or manager may feel he is by the clubs’ paymasters. Being paid more than another player is a club’s way of telling you that they believe you are better, worth more.

Behind every billionaire superstar footballer there is almost always a child that spent his entire formative years either sleeping with, playing with, or dreaming about, football. An obsessive individual, inevitably first man onto the trainng ground, last man off it, tirelessly dedicated through a mixture of ambition and fear to getting better, to being the very best he possibly can be.

And that aspect of the game has absolutely nothing to do with money.

While researching my book on Leo Messi I came across a marvellous book by Angel Cappa called ‘The Intimacy of  Football’. It tells the story of how Argentine international René Houseman, the then star of César Luis Menotti’s side, Huracán vanished from the training camp the day before a big game.

The search began but René was nowhere to be found. Then the penny dropped.  Menotti and his assistant made their way to the barrio where René lived. It was Friday and Friday evening meant the end of week kick about.

A relieved Menotti spotted Houseman sat on the bench. “What are you doing here,” asked Menotti in the context of “Why aren’t you at the training camp?”

Houseman misunderstood. He assumed Menotti was asking him why he was on the bench and not playing. “Can’t you see how that number eleven is playing,” he replied? On that day,in that match an unknown, anonymous winger from the barrio that was playing out of his skin was deemed to be a better option than a world rated international player.

At that moment to René and his team mates, money, fame, reputation counted for nothing.

guillem pieceAnd that fundamentally is why I love lower league football so much, simply because it isn’t about money but rather about the love of the game played in its purest sense.

As we approach this season’s ‘squeaky-bum’ time, that is the semis, finals, play offs, relegation, promotion and title battles etc I am reminded again of the legend that is Chris Swailes who at the age of 45 climbed out of a hospital bed to go on to help his club Morpeth Town win the FA Vase last year at Wembley.

Maybe it’s something they put in the water up there, but North Eastern clubs have lifted the FA Vase now seven times out of the last eight years. Whatever the motivation, I think it’s fairly safe to asssume that a winning bonus was very low down Chris Swailes’ list of priorities as he strolled out into the Wembley sunshine on the 22nd of May last year.

This year, South Shields, are the North East’s representatives – and incidentally red hot favourites – in the semi finals of this great competition that once again  has contrived to provide us with yet another of those ‘you couldn’t make it up’ stories.

In 2001 Julio Arca captained the Argentine side that beat Ghana 3-0 in the final of the FIFA Under 20 World Youth Championship alongside players like Javier Saviola and Maxi Rodriguez.

He was by then already playing for Sunderland, where he played for six years before moving to Middlesbrough when he played for a further seven years before niggling injuries forced him to quit at the top level. He retired as a legend at both North East clubs, a major feat in itself.

‘Retired’ of course until the likes of Willow Pond FC, a second division pub side from the Sunderland Sunday League asked him if he fancied turning out for them. Money, of course, was discussed and it was swiftly decided that he should pay the same £3 a week subs that the rest of the team had to stump up.

Needless to say, he kind of stood out somewhat at this level and a move to South Shields in September 2015 swiftly followed.

Promotion into Division One of the EBAC Northern League followed and the 36 year old veteran, Julio and his South Shields teammates are now just a two legged semi final away from a Wembley place with the Mariners.

Julio Arca will feel the same pride, passion and commitment when his side lock horns with Warwickshire side, Coleshill Town on the 11th and 18th of March as he has felt anytime he has pulled on the shirt of whatever club he happens to be playing for at the time.

If South Shields  prevail in their semi final, a final appearance at Wembley Stadium will be as important to Julio as it was when he led his country out in 2001 in the Under 20 FIFA Youth final. He will suffer the same nerves, probably go through the same routines, and just as it was back then, it won’t be about the money, it will all be about the game.

Article: Guillem Balague (@GuillemBalague)
Images: Reuters Media

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