Let’s start with something obvious: The job of a soccer player is to play soccer.
Like any job, there are some responsibilities that come with that position. The players are to perform their assigned duties — including, but not limited to scoring goals, stopping people from scoring goals, and running around — with vigor and precision. The performance metrics are easy: they either score goals or they don’t; they either stop someone or concede.
For compensation, the players receive a decent salary, one that, in theory, reflects the extent of their duties and their performance. They also — again in theory — receive praise and admiration from fans for performing their duties in the public sphere.
To continue this metaphor, there’s also a hierarchy in place for the players. They report directly to the manager and indirectly to the front office personnel. At the top of the pyramid lie those same fans. (There’s a point to this, don’t worry.)
Soccer players are employees of the clubs they play for. Soccer’s a business.
Yes, we know this, and yes, this is obvious. We’re reminded of it every now and again when teams transfer players to each other — one of the few, if not the only, industries where employees become as much of a product as a producer.
This is a story about one of those transfers. More specifically, it’s about Minnesota United’s decision to loan Romario Ibarra to Liga MX’s CF Pachuca for 13 months with an option to buy at the end.
Sometimes, we think of players as products more than we should. We’re quick to say “they need to be gone,” when we don’t always realize what someone being gone means. That’s not to say players can’t be criticized, but every departure has an effect on every player and those around them.
A little bit less than a year ago, the Loons traded away fan-favorite of fan-favorites Christian Ramirez for allocation money. It was, in every sense of the word, a business decision for the club.
Manny Lagos, United’s sporting director, spoke of “assets,” “transactions” and “value” with reporters on the day after the trade. A couple hundred yards away, on the club’s training fields, cloudy skies reflected the mood of the team as they practiced in near silence. Lagos said morale was “not my world to worry about.”
Toward the end of the session, Ramirez himself arrived, presumably to clean out his locker and say his goodbyes. In that moment, it became clear that this was no simple transaction. It was an eviction, a loss, lives changed.
This was not one cardboard box being removed from the delivery truck. This was a human being leaving the people who make up a large part of his life on just a night’s notice.
One of the expectations of soccer players is living and breathing the game. This is, in many ways, a blessing, but, in many others, a curse. The crucial presence of soccer in a player’s life can help them focus. But when soccer changes for a player, it can rock their world.
The Loons currently employ several players from foreign countries. Those players arrive with varying degrees of familiarity with the United States. Some, like Michael Boxall, have played in MLS before. Others, like Romario Ibarra, had never played for a team outside of their home country.
Imagine that for a moment: leaving a career in your home country behind to pursue a potential advancement in a foreign land, uprooting your family in the process. Imagine trying to get settled, finalizing immigration details, finding a place to live, learning your way around not only a new location, but a new culture. Imagine trying to fit into a team dynamic that’s been growing for months, while also trying to learn a new language.
Now imagine doing that alone, with your family 3,500 miles away and unable to move with you.
That was the reality for Romario Ibarra. Suddenly, describing soccer as a business feels grossly inadequate.
“I would have liked to stay longer [in Minnesota],” Ibarra told Ecuador’s Radio Super K-800 in Spanish. “But for personal reasons, I took advantage of this opportunity. There are more ways in Mexico for me to be with my family.”
A scroll through Twitter after the Ibarra loan was announced made very clear the confusion of many fans. “This makes no sense,” wrote one user. “Don’t understand this at all,” said another.
Really, though, this move makes nothing but sense, because it’s not a business transaction.
It’s the most human move possible.