On January 4th, Borussia Dortmund's best player travelled to Munich and signed a pre-contract with Dortmund's biggest rivals, FC Bayern. Robert Lewandowski's free transfer wasn't even really news. Everybody had known it was going to happen. The only reason why it hadn't happened already was that Dortmund had also lost Mario Götze to Bayern, and they were determined not to lose two of their best players to the same rival in the same summer. They decided Lewandowski would serve out his contract even if it meant losing him for nothing at the end of it.
From the point of view of both Götze and Lewandowski, moving to Bayern was a no-brainer. The world measures the success of a footballer by counting his money and his titles. They knew that by moving to Bayern they would make more money and win more titles than they would by staying at Dortmund.
Most fans are irritated by that dispassionate logic, while simultaneously empathising with it completely. Players who don’t make their career decisions according to the conventional logic of ambition can find themselves being questioned, even mocked, by fans.
Look at Matthew Le Tissier, a genius who played his whole career for Southampton and never won anything. Le Tissier might be the anti-Lewandowski. He liked playing for Southampton and felt happy there, so he stayed. Today, for every fan who admires Le Tissier's loyalty, there are several who dismiss him for lacking ambition.
Made little difference
The question for Dortmund now is whether it was worth making Lewandowski stay. Keeping him has made little difference to their domestic competitiveness: Bayern are walking away with the title even without Lewandowski. Had Dortmund sold the player last summer, they could have taken the transfer fee of €15-20 million and invested it straight back into the team. Now they have to replace him anyway, except they've got €15-20 million less with which to do so.
The only argument that still stands in favour of keeping Lewandowski is that Dortmund are still in the Champions League, and having a striker of that quality gives them a puncher's chance. So the decision may yet prove to have been worth it, but right now it looks like Dortmund let their heart rule their head, and made the wrong call.
The situation will have been studied by Manchester United, who once hoped to sign Lewandowski, because a similar dilemma is looming now concerning their own Wayne Rooney, whose contract expires in summer 2015.
Imagine Rooney's feelings as he watched yesterday's match at Stamford Bridge. David Moyes insisted afterwards that the only difference between the sides was a couple of set-pieces, but the near-unanimous pre-match consensus that Chelsea would win handsomely suggested otherwise. If there was an element of surprise about the result, it was that Chelsea eased off once the score was 3-0, apparently indifferent to the prospect of inflicting a massive humiliation on their rivals.
Rooney will have seen a Chelsea team full of seasoned internationals who are either at their peak or approaching it, dismantling a United side composed of fading veterans and raw young players. The team needs a completely new defence and midfield. Building that new team will take time. Rooney is 29 in October. Right now, he probably feels a bit like Robin van Persie was feeling when he decided to leave Arsenal for Manchester United in 2012. Except unlike Van Persie at Arsenal, Rooney is not even the undisputed top dog at his current club.
This matters to players. Rooney won PFA Player of the Year in 2010 playing centre-forward, and declared in his more recent autobiography that it was his favourite position. Jose Mourinho wants him to play centre-forward for Chelsea. At Manchester United, he's in the number 10 position, holding Robin van Persie's coat.
David Moyes has tried to use the fact that Rooney is close to breaking Bobby Charlton's all-time scoring record for Manchester United to persuade him to stay. But why would Rooney care about Manchester United's goalscoring record? He probably cares about his own goalscoring record. His goals count whether he scores them for Manchester United or Chelsea. He has more chance of breaking Alan Shearer's 260-goal Premier League goalscoring record as Chelsea's centre-forward than as Manchester United's second striker.
United are now 12 months from the unpleasant possibility of Rooney signing a pre-contract with Chelsea. It would be better to sell him before then, for three reasons. First: they may already have seen the best of Rooney. Considering his build, his tendency to put on weight, and the fact that he’s already played nearly 600 top-level matches, are his next five years likely to be as good as his last five?
Second: it looks unlikely that they will qualify for the Champions League. Selling him, and freeing themselves of his £10m+ a year wages, will offset the financial hit at a time when they need to invest in the team.
Third: selling a star player is usually not the disaster it first appears to be, even if the player goes to a rival. Arsenal are stronger now than they were when they had Van Persie scoring 30 goals a season. Liverpool sold Fernando Torres to Chelsea and immediately found a superior replacement in Luis Suarez. Everyone knows how that deal worked out for Chelsea.