If you were on twitter last night after the news of Christian Benteke handing in a transfer request broke, you certainly came across
a few scads of people tweeting something like this:
I can understand Benteke wanting to move to a bigger club, but what's the rush? Villa are not a small club and fans deserve more loyalty— Lee Clayton (@LeeClayton_) July 9, 2013
And to some extent, I can understand the reaction. Upon hearing the news first - and after already having a few drinks - I was furious. I made several stupid claims about what should happen to Benteke, what the club should do, and more. Luckily for me, we keep a daily email thread between writers on this site, so I didn't say these things publicly. And I say luckily because the sentiments I and many other expressed were gut reaction emotional ones. So if you talked about loyalty immediately after hearing the news, or said some dumb things, fine. It was an emotional moment, one that we've dreaded all summer.
But if you're still talking about loyalty today, you're being naive. Now that we've had an evening to drink our anger away, it's time to be rational, and any talk of loyalty in today's footballing world is entirely irrational. As Gareth pointed out in our emails last night, Benteke is essentially doing to Aston Villa what he did to Genk last year. Where were the cries of loyalty then? Did Aston Villa fans protest the signing because Benteke was of questionable moral character? Certainly not. Benteke is doing exactly what a rational economic actor should. His value is as high as it has ever been, and it would be crazy for him not to take the opportunity to make more money while he can.
We've got no idea what would happen to Benteke if he played this season for Aston Villa. Perhaps he was a flash in the pan and he'll have a terrible season. Maybe he'd injure himself. The chances of either (or both) are slim but real. Right now he is young, fit, and coming off of one of the 20-or-so best seasons in Europe last year. He'd be insane not to do everything he can to get a better deal.
And where should this loyalty be coming from? Once you sign for a team, you're not required to be loyal. There is no moral obligation to love Aston Villa and Birmingham with all your heart. That simple fact is what makes the players who do show that love (like Stiliyan Petrov) so special. Benteke is likely the reason that Aston Villa will be playing in the EPL next year and even had the faintest glimmer of a chance of keeping him. In return for his incredible efforts he got what I'm sure were decent wages, but nowhere near what he was actually worth to the club. Aston Villa got saved at a bargain price, Benteke got exposure. Both sides of this deal used the other for their own purposes.
Additionally, there's no loyalty from the club to players who underperform (if you don't believe that, when was the last time you saw Alan Hutton or Shay Given) so why should the player's show loyalty to the club. This is a business, not a fan's fantasy-land. At this point, if Benteke wants out, the club has two options: keep him and hope that he plays well despite not wanting to be here, or sell him and make a boatload of money. The former could be a risky gamble with a large potential payoff, the latter let's Paul Lambert get someone to replace Benteke. I'm intrigued to see how the club handle this, as I can see the merit to both sides.
Finally, if you really want something to be mad at, take a look at the system as a whole. If you remember correctly, Christian Benteke is not even eleven months into a 4-year contract with Aston Villa. But football's is a system in which contracts for above-average players are essentially meaningless. If you or I signed a four-year lease, we wouldn't be able to say, after eleven months, "Hey, I'd like to go to a better apartment." Generally, a contract implies that two sides in a deal will do something for an agreed-upon amount of time. For players of Benteke's skill level, that doesn't hold true. We've known all summer that if Benteke wanted to stay, he would. If he wanted out, he'd likely be gone. All of the power here was in Benteke's hands, which essentially means that his contract was a giant player option.
Again, I want to emphasize that I'm not blaming him here. All footballers, to some extent play these games. What is endlessly frustrating is that it is not a two-way street. The aforementioned Alan Hutton and Shay Given? Aston Villa are still paying them despite the fact that they've not seen the pitch for the club in ages. I'm sure there is a balance to this. Lesser players, and youth-system players are likely entirely beholden to their club's contracts with little or no negotiating power. And I'm not really sure if there is a good fix for the system. Club's won't stop signing marquee players, and those same players won't stop making demands that break their contracts. But if you want to be mad at something (and I'm not sure that's necessary) make it the system that encourages signing largely meaningless contracts that get our hopes up. Just remember that your anger probably won't result in any changes.
Instead, just know that Aston Villa will move on. With or without Christian Benteke, the club are undoubtedly better off than they were a year ago. I'd even go so far as to say that if this club begin the season without Benteke they would still be better than the club was at the beginning of the 2012-13 season. There's been a load of improvement, and the club actually has direction. We knew Benteke would leave eventually, and so we knew we should enjoy him while we could. Paul Lambert is bringing in players who will secure the club's future for years. Benteke was a stepping stone on the path there, and rather than being mad that he's leaving, we should be thankful that he stopped by at all.