In the face of soccer's stratospheric financial rewards at the top level, loyalty has by contrast become a negligible virtue for players and coaches. An 'identification player' who spends a decade or more at a single club becomes a deified figure, but they're as common nowadays as Zlatan Ibrahimovic talking about anything besides himself. Meanwhile, coaches prone to being fired after a few weeks of poor form understandably look out for themselves when it comes to career planning. When they do a good job at a smaller club, however, few fans resent them moving on to a grander stage.
Yet there are good ways and bad ways of leaving a club and managing a move, as illustrated in the Bundesliga this season. When Borussia Dortmund fired Lucien Favre just before Christmas, they appointed his young assistant Edin Terzi to replace him until the end of the season. In the meantime, they announced, they'd be looking already for a long-term appointment.
In February, Dortmund duly announced that its next coach, effective this summer, would be Borussia Mönchengladbach's Marco Rose. Last season Rose had taken Mönchengladbach to fourth place, and thus a Champions League spot for the 2020-21 campaign. Now he was taking advantage of both his enhanced reputation and a get-out clause in his contract to leave early. Next question for the speculation-addicted sporting media: who would replace Rose at Mönchengladbach?
Step forward Adi Hütter of Eintracht Frankfurt, whose summer departure was announced in April, just a few weeks after assuring fans that he planned to stay. Hütter's contract also includes a get-out clause. Lucky for him. At the time of the announcement, many wondered why he was leaving a club poised for a place in next season's Champions League. Eintracht were in fourth, seven points ahead of fifth-placed Dortmund with just six games left.
Predictably, both Mönchengladbach and Frankfurt suffered an immediate and drastic loss of form as soon as the announcements were made, even though both coaches still held on to their posts. Mönchengladbach lost seven games in a row, and now sits in eighth place with only an outside chance of qualifying for European competition next season. In Frankfurt, four points out of a possible 15 have seen a resurgent Dortmund snatch that Champions League place away. The Eintracht team that beat Bayern Munich, Wolfsburg and, indeed, Dortmund in early spring suddenly look wan and lifeless, culminating in a sorry 4-3 defeat this past weekend at relegation-doomed Schalke.
Over at Leipzig, coach Julian Nagelsmann had also given notice that he'd be leaving the club for Bayern Munich in the summer. Last Thursday, his team was trounced 4-1 in the German Cup final. By Dortmund, no less, which is perhaps wishing that it had offered Edin Terzi more than just a temporary gig. If only they'd waited to see how things turned out ...
Coaches Julian Nagelsmann, Adi Hütter and Marco Rose kept coaching their current clubs after committing to new clubs for next season.
Clubs, though, now sacrifice patience for short-term gain as a matter of entrenched policy. Dortmund did not have the decency to wait until the end of the season before approaching Rose. Rose did not have the decency to hold them off. Exactly the same applies to Mönchengladbach and Hütter. The get-out clause itself has become the get-out clause -- if you've got one, it's OK to come and go like a sailor in a brothel, no matter what you promised your club and its fans just a few weeks prior.
You can argue that the team's players should have given their all in the games remaining, and that the future departure of their respective coaches is a poor excuse for sub-standard play. Up to a point, yes, but that view excludes the psychological nuances always at work in the heads of professional players. Even as the Eintracht squad publicly vowed to stay focused on their Champions League goal, inner thoughts nagged: "Who are we playing for here? If the man holding all this together doesn't believe in the club, in the collective goal, in us as a team, then perhaps it's not worth fighting for after all. I wonder if there's a get-out clause in my contract."
When we mortals hand in our notice at work, we're often asked to leave straightaway. It's to protect the company, of course, but the company also knows that once you've departed in your head, you are no longer much use as an employee. Frankfurt fans are now wishing that their club had given Hütter his leave as soon as he announced he'd be off this summer. It's not just the usual wisdom born of hindsight. In 2018, a similar slump in form cost Eintracht a Champions League spot when Coach Niko Kovac -- who'd also just promised to stay -- announced he'd be leaving at the end of the season for Bayern Munich instead (he only partially redeemed himself by beating Bayern in the cup final in his final game).
As it is, Frankfurt fans will be fervently willing Mönchengladbach to fail next season, while the latter's fans will be looking at Dortmund and wishing much the same. There will be a lot of useless, negative emotion, but it's the only payback supporters can extract for having their loyalty trodden on yet again, while greed, personal ambition and a complete absence of honor have become the game's operating norms.
That's just the way the business works, comes the condescending dismissal. Loyalty is for the naive, and every club, every paid player and coach (and their agents), are out to grab what's best for them. No one's in this any more for the love, just we fools who buy the tickets and care about our town and our team, useful only as a marketing tool to pitch trite, repetitious images of 'passion.' It might even be said that SC Freiburg -- with three coaches in 30 years -- is just the exception that proves the rule. Or is it the exception that proves there really are other ways to run a club?