In January, Dimitri Payet, West Ham’s one time hero, refused to play for the club. This is a man apparently on £125,000 a week – football persists in describing salaries as a weekly amount. £6.5 million a year. Refusing to play for the club because he wanted to leave and the management wouldn’t play ball.
Of course West Ham relented and ended up selling him back to Marseille, for £25m. Not bad business when he cost just under £11m in the summer of 2015. The profits covered the purchase of a couple of decent Premiership players, defender Jose Fonte from Southampton and midfielder Robert Snodgrass from Hull. But what a shame it turned out like this.
In the 2015-16 season Dimi was a revelation. I wrote an only slightly jokey tribute to his genius. He was the most skilful, unpredictable, exciting player to wear the West Ham shirt since Paolo di Canio and Joe Cole in the early 2000s. He inspired West Ham to their best season in ages, as Slaven Bilic took over as manager and released us all from the yoke of Sam Allardyce’s depressing football. After a faltering end to the season we came 8th, but there was a lot of optimism at the beginning of this season.
And that was after Dimi played a starring role for France at the European Championships in the summer of 2016, when Les Bleus got to the final and lost to Portugal on home soil. I say starring role – it was a couple of stunning trademark Payet goals and some outrageous skills that won the hearts of the French public. I got the impression he hadn’t fully integrated into the team. I remember Pogba, for example, not letting him take a couple of in-range free kicks – did the established players resent his sudden elevation?
So the future looked bright. But of course it all went wrong at the start of the season. It’s West Ham. The team didn’t settle at the new stadium and key players like Noble, Kouyate, Lanzini and Payet himself seemed to have lost their lustre. In the autumn we were hovering just above the relegation places. The nadir was the 5-1 home defeat to Arsenal in early December, which was just embarrassing.
Things got better after that. We drew away to Liverpool and won a few games against bottom half teams and made it to the comfort zone in mid-table. No great thanks to Payet, who was peripheral. Antonio has been our best attacking player this year.
And then the strike action in the January window. What went wrong? A combination of factors I think. First, the traditional jadedness of players who have had an intense international tournament in the summer. Second, the head-turning surge of fame as the result of his success at the Euros. There was talk of a transfer to Arsenal, Man Utd, Chelsea. Agents’ talk, no doubt. Third, frustration at the poor form of the team, though as the star player, it was his job to inspire his colleagues to do better. And fourth, apparently, his family were homesick. Fair enough, the family matters most of all, though football players get paid huge amounts to ply their trade, which sets them up for life.
Anyway, the family got what they wanted and Dimi was transferred back to Marseille. And since he stopped playing West Ham have been playing well, apart from another home embarrassment last Wednesday, a 4-0 capitulation to Man City. Today we had a good away win at Southampton, 3-1. I wasn’t expecting that. Mid-table mediocrity is ours. And Slav’s job seems safe, after the November/early December wobble.
But it all leaves a sour taste. Payet isn’t the only player to refuse to play because he wants out. Diego Costa briefly seemed to be doing the same at Chelsea, with Chinese money calling (a new threat). There are others. We’ve long since stopped expecting players to stay loyal to clubs, but refusing to play is something else. Where is their honour, their sense of giving something in return for all that money? And their love of the game? Don’t they love football? Don’t they want to be on that pitch for every single minute? Don’t they realise how lucky they are?
Players refusing to play makes me ask, has football finally lost its soul?