Ryan Giggs announced his retirement from playing on Monday, revealing simultaneously that he'll take over as Louis van Gaal's assistant manager as part of Manchester United's new regime. He leaves his playing days behind as one of the best players to play for United during the Premier League era, and will be thought of by some as the club's — and perhaps the league's — definitive icon of that period.
To others, Giggs is something else entirely. If you're not a United fan, it's not difficult to see him as overrated or to focus on one particular wrongdoing outside of game. His status as a one-club man is behind much the positive perception of his career, and he'd probably be seen quite differently if he had ever left Manchester United for another European power.
Soccer is a world in which certain things are valued more than they are in everyday life. If you don't like your job or feel underpaid, your friends will encourage you to find a new job. Provided you give adequate notice that you're leaving, your current employer probably won't get too mad, and no one will think that the lack of loyalty showed to your employer makes you a mercenary who does not deserve a job in your chosen profession.
But this is how the world views footballers. Because fans have such a deep connection to their club, a player leaving a team when that team still wants them essentially constitutes betrayal in the eyes of some supporters. Sometimes fans even turn on players who were sold against their will; Andy Carroll is regularly booed at St. James' Park and is visibly upset each time it happens.
Players who spend over a decade at a club and never leave for a bigger one are held up as heroes. Their sins and off-years are forgiven, and in some cases forgotten entirely. There is no number of trophies or individual accolades a player purchased by Manchester United in their mid-20s can win to be held in the same esteem as Giggs, and the same goes for Steven Gerrard at Liverpool, Javier Zanetti at Inter Milan, and so on.
Of course, Giggs couldn't have stayed at United through his 30s and past his 40th birthday unless he was very, very good. Those who have started watching the Premier League on the downside of his career have seen some very good seasons from him, but might not know exactly how explosive he was in his teenage years and early 20s. Dude could fly.
There's a lot of pace, power and directness there — three things that Giggs has not had in his game for the last five years or so. Incredibly, even though he was about as pure of an attacking left winger as you'll ever find, he's been able to reinvent himself over and over, remaining relevant to Sir Alex Ferguson, then David Moyes into his 24th season as a professional.
Giggs stopped being a true star on the wing for United sometime around 2004, which makes sense. Most players tend to lose a step of pace at around 30 years old, and Giggs had more games on his legs than the average 30-year-old. But more games also meant that he'd picked up more experience than most 30 year olds as well, and thanks to his savvy he was able to remain a viable option on the wing for another five years or so, when he started to undergo a positional change.
In 2011, Giggs started a Champions League final as a central midfielder, and not as an ultra-attacking option meant to unlock a defensive opponent. Giggs was deployed as a pure holding player against Barcelona. He played the role quite a few times for Ferguson over his final seasons, then a small handful of times under Moyes in what turned out to be his final season as well. His transformation from athletic, direct wide player to steady midfield metronome was about as seamless as possible, and a credit to his intelligence as a player.
And yet, as great as Giggs was, he was never United's best. He didn't even have a spell as United's second-best player. The early part of his career saw him play alongside Eric Cantona and Roy Keane. In his prime years, he played with David Beckham, then later Ruud van Nistelrooy. Cristiano Ronaldo and a version of Wayne Rooney better than the one we see right now were the stars of his later years. And, of course, his Class of '92 mate Paul Scholes is almost certainly one of the greatest English footballers of all time.
Giggs is held in similar regard to arguably superior players because of his longevity and loyalty, and he's always been thought of someone who put the club above all else. Media and (some, though certainly not all) United fans alike gushed about his class and character as he took over the club's managerial post on an interim basis, despite his off-the-pitch transgressions. A lot of people aren't willing to look past the fact that he tried to get a court injunction to keep the public from learning that he cheated on his wife with a model. Oh, and that he slept with his brother's wife. Multiple times. For eight years.
You can choose to remember Giggs in his late-career role as a solid enough player, held in high regard because of some flashes of brilliance and loyalty and whose misbehavior off the pitch has been swept under the rug. You can choose to forget that Giggs only had a small handful of truly brilliant years and was simply an above-average player for the rest of his career. His commitment to his fitness and picking up as many tricks as possible to stay relevant is certainly admirable, as his commitment to his fans and manager of 23 seasons, and it's OK if that's what's important to you.
There is no right or wrong way to remember Giggs, except as someone who had an interesting career. He's a legend to some, perpetually overrated because of his commitment to one club to others and a serial adulterer to some people on both sides of that spectrum.
May his career in coaching be as intriguing and polarizing as his career as a player.