“Because of a pissant town, this club will never win anything.”

Then-Adelaide United coach Aurelio Vidmar, February 14 2009.

Life in Adelaide just hasn’t been the same since Marcos Flores left town.

South Australia had never experienced anything like him, at least not since the days of Celtic legend ‘Dixie’ Deans. At a time when loyalty in football has been eaten whole by petrodollars, Flores was a charming, confident, straight-up dreamboat of a player who didn’t care about money. Not one bit.

He wasn’t afraid to say ‘I love you,’ either. In fact, he said it all the time – to fans, to the city. People call Adelaide a big country town, rather mockingly – even though over one million folks call it home. But Marcos liked it. And most of all, he was brilliant.

A real playmaker. The kind of guy you can build a team around. Whenever it looked like there were no options in attack, Flores would invent one out of thin air. At the end of his first season, he was crowned the best player in the A-League – and he was, easily.

The best part? When Flores and Adelaide tore bitter rivals and the self-proclaimed biggest club in Australia, Melbourne Victory, apart in early 2011, ending a five-year drought with a 4-1 result. Everyone still remembers that one.

All good things come to an end, though, as they say, and eventually overseas clubs started to notice just how good he was. Inevitably, an offer arrived. $400,000. Chump change for a guy like Flores, the fans thought, but former gaffer Rini Coolen didn’t get along with him too much. Coolen was one of those tactically rigid Dutchmen, whereas Flores plays the acoustic guitar and designs his own t-shirts. But the new owners decided to cash in.

These new owners, who come from Australian rules, aren’t particularly popular with the fans because a lot of bad things have happened under their watch. First they re-signed Coolen to a four-year contract, before giving him the biggest demotion in Australian football history en route to an exit package that the lawyers are still trying to nut out.

Then they lost their captain, Travis Dodd, a local lad – the owners were adamant they couldn’t compete with the deal on offer from Perth Glory that lured him away, but for some reason bad blood still lingers. Other things have happened too, but in the financially immature A-League, you either embrace imperfection or wave goodbye to your team.

Anyway – since Marcos moved to China, United has been on a downward spiral. The football just hasn’t been the same. No swagger. Crowds have gotten much thinner too.

Only another heroic and improbable run in the AFC Champions League in mid-2012 returned smiles to United faces. That, and the promise that one day, he’d come back. One day, he’d wear that striking all-red strip again. And Adelaide believed him.

That dream, now, will surely never come to fruition – because after signing for Melbourne Victory on July 4, 2012, Marcos Flores turned his back on Adelaide. Or so we thought.

What makes a ‘big’ club big? Is it money? History? Turnover? Attendances, population, cultural significance? The truth is it is all of these things, but mostly ambition. The absence of money obviously makes bringing that ambition to life very difficult, but you can have drive – the desire to bring about success and give the fans what they want – without dollars.

Adelaide United, back in 2008, were not afraid to think big – and so for a short while, they were. Most supporters think back to their incredible AFC Champions League campaign that year with a dream-like haze. Sure, they lost 5-0 on aggregate to Gamba Osaka in the final – but that second leg at Hindmarsh will live long in the memory. That stadium will never be that red again. Then came the Club World Cup. Maybe everything would have been different if Adelaide had not been so unfortunate in their rematch with Gamba – but they were, and thus missed out on a dream match-up with Manchester United.

The only thing that has come close to the thrill of that era was the thrill that Flores brought to Adelaide. Every incisive pass, every attacking thrust, every affirmation of his love for the club and the town made each fan stand a little bit taller. It might sound like hyperbole, but that’s how it was – maybe a product of how rare good No.10s are in Australia. Or maybe it was just because Adelaide was hopelessly in love with him.

So you can imagine that the news Flores had been released by Henan a few weeks ago was a bit like that moment when the girl you’re obsessed with suddenly changes her Facebook relationship status to ‘single’. In this case, she’s an ex-girlfriend you’re still in love with – and you’re pretty sure she still loves you, despite the misunderstanding you had in the past. Your heart drops, because this is the moment. Everything is set up perfectly for a return to the good old days.

Unfortunately for Adelaide, football is a lot like real life. Generally the guys (clubs) with the better car (stadium), better clothes (adidas v Legea = no contest) and more money (more money) win out. At least that’s how it seemed when it all went down. And so Flores joined Melbourne Victory as their international marquee, on a deal said to be worth $550,000 a year – beyond the realms of Adelaide United, fans would soon be informed.

Nobody except the two clubs, Flores and his management will ever know the full story. But it’s safe to say relations between the Flores group and United were not awesome.

In what in retrospect was clearly an attempt to soften an inevitable blow, Adelaide released a statement on June 21 that, on its own, felt a little bizarre. Once it became apparent Flores was a free agent, the fans had made themselves clear – they wanted him back, by any means necessary. But that wasn’t happening.

“The stumbling block here,” the statement innocently titled ‘Marcos Flores movements’ read, “is that the club has already 22 contracted players for next season and thus only have 1 spot left on the roster. As much as we admire and recognise his unique talents, we are currently unable to offer him a contract that he would accept as we have in place existing contracts and the resultant salary cap restrictions that render this process nugatory.”

‘O…k,’ was the collective reaction from the fanbase. Sounded like this one was going in the ‘too hard’ basket. Was it an attempt by the club to paint Flores as a money-hungry grub? Was all that talk of love for the club bullshit? That couldn’t be, because before leaving for China, the Argentine penned an open letter to Adelaide United supporters:

“Nobody has to tell me what is love and what is passion. I said in the past weeks that love and business are two different words. I’m a friend of love but an enemy of business. The difference between what you want and what you have to do are different things… Money, it doesn’t talk. It helps with your future but it won’t make you happy. I’ve never heard a dollar tell a joke, or teach a kid how to stop the ball. You can only do things with love. Money doesn’t count.”

Fast-forward 12 months, and you can understand why Adelaide fans were furious when their former patron saint signed a contract with the devil. What happened to love doesn’t pay the bills? Within minutes, his Facebook wall – the same one that had been the primary channel of communication between the footballer and his adoring fans – was painted with venom. “Anyone but them,” the messages read.

He took the heat like a man – he had to. But something wasn’t right. Why did Adelaide not make another play for him? How could there not be room in the cap for him? Andwele Slory, Evgieny Levchenko and Spase Dilevski were all gone, and replaced with kids. Surely there was money there. And after all, in the time between the club’s strange statement and Flores’ so-called Judas turn, Adelaide had sold Daniel Mullen to China. That garnered a transfer fee and opened up an extra space in the squad. It also became apparent that Sergio van Dijk wanted out. The stars were starting to align.

Then, the very morning that Flores’ move to the enemy went public, The Advertiser‘s Val Migliaccio wrote that a group of South Australian businessmen were ready to pay for the Argentine’s contract if he returned to United. Said Madee River from Designer Muzik, one of the companies keen to bankroll the move: “I’d be embarrassed if we didn’t get him back.” 

In a few short hours, that embarrassment morphed into outright anger, spewing in all directions.

It didn’t take long for Adelaide to send out another lengthy release, explaining their side of the story. Here are the key bits.

“Adelaide United FC could not have done any more than it did. Had Flores given the club more time to make space within the salary cap, a deal may have been possible. That however did not occur as Flores decided to join Melbourne Victory. The two overriding factors in the Flores signing are a) Adelaide United could not afford his demands, and b) Melbourne Victory, a club with a turnover of $13million, has more resources than Adelaide United with a turnover of $6million and hence can outbid this club. It has happened to South Australia in other sporting codes and now it has happened here.”

Fans could accept the part a) of that excuse – it happens all the time in football, all over the world. But the latter bit of part b), the ‘woe is Adelaide’ part doesn’t. And it got worse when an almost instant rebuttal came from Flores’ people. “It is incredibly disingenuous to suggest that Marcos has simply jumped ship for more money. One dollar would have been more money than was ever formally presented,” The Pitch Management told FourFourTwo Australia. Thud.

And so Marcos Flores will be booed unmercifully when he comes back to Hindmarsh Stadium. That’s the nature of football, and that’s what happens when you join your former club’s Lex Luthor. And it’s hard to look at this whole situation and not consider him at least a teeny little, insy winsy sellout. You can’t profess your love for a club and then sign for the one club you can’t sign for. Not without starting World War III on the Internet.

At the same time, though, it’s hard to believe the whole ‘money, love, business, passion’ theorizing from Flores when he was at Adelaide was completely disingenuous. Indeed, in the greater context of Floresgate, United’s statement on June 21 makes perfect sense. Maybe the powers that be straight up didn’t want him. Pursestrings are tight, stemming from the ongoing dispute with Coolen, and bizarre things continue to happen at the club. The latest was the demotion of respected assistant coach Luciano Trani to youth duties, three days after Flores’ defection. To add insult to injury, coach John Kosmina claimed only 10 per cent of fans were upset with the club’s inability to get their man.

For Adelaide United to use South Australian sporting history – the line that ‘we’re only Adelaide, we can’t compete’ – as an excuse for their failure to bring Marcos Flores home is a poor, defeatist attitude. Most young people have to leave the state to get away from that age-old inferiority complex. And to paint a former club legend as a mercenary in an official capacity, even if it’s true, is a disgrace. Some things are better left unsaid, at least by men in suits. In fact, why the need to release anything at all? Once a small club decides to be a small club, they become a small club. Right now, Adelaide United can only get bigger.

All parties have lost face, but the United supporters have been taken on the most bizarre ride of them all. They have been betrayed by either their very own club, or their former hero, or both. The latter is unfortunately most likely.

By Vince Rugari

This article originally appeared in In Bed with Maradona