In today’s world of football, where money is being thrown everywhere, many no longer believe in the concept of loyalty. Players follow the money to other clubs, brushing aside their boyhood clubs who made them into the players they’ve become. On the other hand, clubs shop players in hopes of money. That especially goes for newly promoted teams, as managers scrutinize their squads and throw aside players that they feel won’t compete in a higher flight.
José Fonte is proof that loyalty in football is not dead.
When Fonte was signed, Southampton was emerging from the darkest period of its history. Nigel Pearson, who had kept Saints from the drop to League One in 2008, couldn’t be signed to a new contract due to the club’s serious financial issues. The team sold the likes of Gareth Bale and Kenwyne Jones to avoid the situation from spiraling out of control – yet things did spiral, and fast. Their parent company went into administration in April; the club received a ten-point deduction and was subsequently relegated to League One. In summer 2009, Markus Liebherr purchased the club and saved it from liquidation, and brought Nicola Cortese in to handle the business side for Saints. In January 2010, Saints purchased Fonte for £1.2 million from Crystal Palace. Liebherr passed away seven months later, but he will forever be a hero on the South Coast.
At age 27, Fonte dropped from the Championship to League One. Little did he know that six years later, he would be club captain, a club legend, one of the best center backs in the Premier League, and a European Champion who played every minute of the knockouts for Portugal.
Just two months into Fonte’s Saints career, he helped the club win its most recent silverware, playing all 90 minutes as Saints squashed Carlisle United 4-1 at Wembley to claim the 2010 Football League Trophy. A year later, Fonte scored seven goals in the league, earning his spot in the League One Team of the Year. He seems to love scoring at crucial moments: one of those goals came in the 89th minute of a late-season match against Brighton & Hove Albion, winning the game and handing Brighton their only home loss that season.
During the 2011-12 Championship season, Fonte signed a new deal with Saints, and he rewarded that loyalty with a full season of excellent defensive play (the man made Jos Hooiveld look like an elite defender) that saw Saints earn promotion for a second straight year, this time to the Premier League. Fonte also scored one goal, arguably the most significant of his career and one of the biggest in recent Saints history. It came on the last matchday of the season in a 4-0 stomping of Coventry that sealed Saints’ promotion.
After rising three divisions in less than three years, many wondered if Fonte had what it took to be a Premier League center back, as he had only played in the Championship and League One since coming to England. He put those whispers to rest, playing 25 league matches as Saints finished a lofty 14th. Despite Saints’ sometimes shaky defense, Fonte showed his composure by never getting sent off. Fonte also scored twice, with both coming in an October 7 match against Fulham, the second of which was a 90th-minute equalizer that earned Saints a point.
The 2013-14 season saw a major test of the club’s loyalty to Fonte and Fonte’s loyalty to the club. During a training session in January, Dani Osvaldo, the club’s record signing, got into a fight with Fonte, leaving Southampton with a significant decision: take the new hotshot talent who you paid £12.8 million for, who had scored a wondergoal just a few weeks earlier to draw Manchester City, and who had played for Pochettino before, or the veteran who had been a key cog in earning back-to-back promotions and had proven to be a loyal servant? Saints ultimately chose Fonte over Osvaldo, sending the Italian on loan to Juventus, Inter, and Boca Juniors before terminating his contract in the summer of 2015.
The summer of 2014 was a very testy time for Southampton, as chairman Ralph Krueger, who had replaced Cortese in March, sold many key players – what the papers called an “exodus” or “crisis” – and let Pochettino leave for Tottenham. Fonte didn’t see a crisis; in fact, he re-signed with the club and new manager Ronald Koeman named him first team captain (with Kelvin Davis remaining as club captain, but at this point in his career, Davis was a third-string goalkeeper behind Fraser Forster and Paulo Gazzaniga). He played all but one league game in 2014-15, was a catalyst for the team’s defensive success, and – for the first time since 2003 – helped the club reach Europe, the 7th place finish securing a spot in the Europa League qualifying rounds (Southampton would lose to Danish side FC Midtjylland in the playoff round).
In 2015-16, Fonte was again a crucial part of Saints, playing all but two league matches, scoring three goals and helping Saints to another record finish, 6th. During the season, Fonte was a major factor in Fraser Forster’s top-flight club record for longest shutout streak (708 minutes). With Saints having just one win in ten when Forster returned, Koeman had changed to a 5-3-2, with Matt Targett and Cédric Soares at wing back and Fonte playing as more of a glorified sweeper, snuffing out balls that got behind center backs Ryan Bertrand and Virgil van Dijk.
He’d received his first callup to the national team only eight months before, at the age of 31, but Fonte went to Euro 2016. Fernando Santos favored Pepe and Ricardo Carvalho in the group stages. But after conceding three against Hungary, Santos plugged in Fonte for Carvalho, who teamed up with his Southampton teammate Cédric Soares for the knockouts. Thanks in part to the contributions of Fonte, Portugal only conceded one goal during the knockout stage (in the quarterfinals against Poland), and defeated France in the final to win their first major tournament.
When Fonte first came to Saints in 2010, his partner was the veteran Radhi Jaïdi. However, Jaïdi missed the entire 2011-12 season with injury, leaving Fonte to partner Jos Hooiveld, Maya Yoshida, Dejan Lovren, Toby Alderweireld, and Virgil van Dijk over the next 5 years. In every instance, he proved his ability to gel with whoever played beside him – the mark of a truly successful defender.
Going into the 2016-17 season, Fonte’s stock is higher than ever after his amazing Euros. The club is reportedly working on giving him another new contract, this time with a pay increase. After the retirement of club captain Kelvin Davis, he’ll need to be the team’s strongest leader, both in the locker room and on the pitch – particularly with Saints seeing yet another new manager in Claude Puel. Based on how his career has gone, however, Fonte is more than ready for this newest challenge in his career.
From moving down from to the third tier at 27, to becoming a European champion and Saints legend at 33, the rise of José Fonte has been nothing short of spectacular. And that his success has come through hard work and unwavering loyalty makes it all that much sweeter for his fans.