“How can you not be romantic about football – er – baseball?”, sorry Billy Beane. Baseball may be the USA’s favourite past time but even Americans can’t resist the growing lure of (association) football. And if the beauty of the game doesn’t win them over, capitalism works just fine. Social commentary aside, North America is only following the trend set by the European big wigs; that is, to just throw money at their problems.
Perhaps my obscure reference to a baseball movie went over a few heads, even if the movie and this piece have the same name. So, let’s try again with something more readily recognized; “money money money/ always sunny/ in a rich man’s world”. Certainly, that one got the message across. Moneyball did pretty well at the box office, but more people probably know that line from ABBA’s hit song “Money Money Money”. In fact, I have a sneaking suspicion that the chairpeople at clubs like Manchester City, PSG and Real Madrid sing that song in the shower before work; such is the absurdity of their spending. “All things I could do/ if I had a little money/ it’s a rich man’s world” – they hum that part in the car, and it’s likely plastered on the walls of the accounting department.
Back to the aforementioned romance; football (and sports as a whole) is one of the universal languages. The game knows no boundaries and can thrive in the most adverse conditions, making it accessible. You get so wrapped up in the emotion of it all, you lose all sense of time, your problems beyond the realm of football just drift away for 90 minutes or longer. Just as you’re entranced by playing the game for yourself, you’re spellbound by watching your favourite players and teams play. It’s even more beautiful when one of your favourite players plays for your favourite team. You wish them nothing but joy and happiness and knowing that their success brings you complete satisfaction, you almost obsessively fascinate on their goings-on. If they get injured, you read the latest news on their recovery. When things don’t click on the field for them, you wonder if everything is alright off it. You smile a little too hard when they share a joke or seem to be enjoying themselves. All while you’re wearing the team jersey with their name in the back. If you have a significant other, they probably hope for that kind of attention every once in a while. But then you wake up one day and ESPN is reporting that some homewrecker wants to pay copious amounts of money to break your heart and buy your favourite player away.
In today’s football climate, much like yearly global temperatures, conditions are escalating to inconceivable heights. Football is often thought of as poetic, in keeping with the theme of romance and beauty of the game; but anthropogenic is certainly a new one. I may be overstating it a bit, but you can’t help but compare how as the transfer market spirals out of control the global temperatures also rise. Never mind global warming, the money being flaunted around in football is the real reason the ice caps are melting. (It isn’t really, please recycle.) In truth, we have had ridiculous price stamps and release clauses on the game’s best for years, it was only a matter of time before someone actually paid these prices.
Barcelona has been a team synonymous with best in the world and has been home to some of the legends of the game. Greats like Johan Cruyff and Rivaldo as well as modern icons like Xavi Hernandez and Ronaldinho have all donned the Blaugrana and none the least arguably the greatest player in history Lionel Messi. Without doubt, from Barca, one can only move backwards, or at best; laterally. Neymar Jr. may only be 25 but he is (or was) already primed to be a part of the “greatest ever” conversation when it comes up in a decade or so. Personally, I’m not as awestruck by statistics as most, but they will look a little less compelling in Ligue 1 with PSG than they would have if he stayed in La Liga with Barca.
Of course, football is serious business; globally, it’s nothing short of a billion-dollar industry. It would stand to reason then that elite clubs would pay top dollar for the best players. In the above supposititious scenario, the ludicracy of the money being thrown around trounces romance, but in reality, it borders on insanity. With revenue generated from all things football related in recent times, it is to be expected that there would be some rippling effects. But ripples have become tidal waves. If I were to trace this phenomenon back to a single point (a single transfer); it would be Real Madrid’s acquisition of Gareth Bale from Tottenham Hotspurs back in 2013. Before Bale, the most expensive player in the world was already at Madrid, in the shape of Cristiano Ronaldo who cost them 80 million euros from Manchester United. Of course, at the time that figure was, while justifiable in truth, an outrageous fee. Now though, 80M seems to be the going price for world stars (on black Friday). But Tottenham differed from United when Madrid came calling, they wanted to keep hold of a player who was ready and willing to move on. Sir Alex Ferguson and Manchester United as whole, chose not to stand in the way of Ronaldo’s eventual legacy, instead they just wanted the right price for such a precious asset. Spurs however are notoriously difficult hagglers, Madrid however, didn’t need a price check, they knew they could afford it. So, Madrid got their man, that much we all knew, but at what cost? Proof to how preposterous the transfer fee was, the details remained shrouded in mystery for months. That is until the Spanish tax man asked ‘politely’. He cost €100.8 million (£85.1 million)! There have been plenty of high profile and expensive transfers before then and since, few however, have broken the 100 million-mark, with Philippe Coutinho being the latest (Neymar cost in excess of 200 million). Thus, began the age of “Moneyball”.
Once upon a time professional football was little more than a glorified weekend activity for some above averagely fit guys, paid moderate wages (at best) and the main driving force for the players was love of the game. These days though, the game is unrecognizable from those times. For the most part, this is a positive criticism; players are fitter, the game is more exciting and the game has become a more global commodity. While the injection of money via the business side of the game has allowed for these developments, it has somewhat shrouded the actual football element at times. In this way, some teams play a different game altogether, they play “moneyball” as opposed to football. The movie Moneyball is an underdog story of the change in fortunes of a certain baseball team. What I’m referring to is not as heartwarming.
All teams would have their mantras and go about their businesses in their own way. You have organizations that pride themselves as developers of young talent, there are others that have particular mandates. For example, in Italy Internazionale (Inter) traditionally sought out global talent to bring into the Italian league and as such usually have more foreign players than Italians in their first team. Across the border there’s Athletic Bilbao of Spain. Their policy was to only use players who hail from the Basque Country – the region of Spain Bilbao is from. A new aged policy, given the cashflow some clubs now have, is to just buy any and everything they need. That’s the ‘moneyball’ I’m referring to. Clubs like Paris san Germain (PSG) of France and Manchester City of England represent two of the worst perpetrators of this contamination. City have spent in excess of £200 million last summer alone. Manager, Pep Guardiola identified defence as problem last season, notably fullback positions. Simple solution, go out and spend nearly £130 million on fullbacks. That should fix it. No coaching required, don’t promote a prospective talent from the youth academy or anything; just buy whoever happens to be the flavour of the month (or season) and problem solved.
Still, clubs are trying to win silverware, and you’re more likely to win if you have the best players, so there’s at least some method to the madness. The clubs and their officials get a pass for their ambitions, in essence they appeal to players with lavish pay cheques (and a chance at winning trophies). The players then are just as much culpable as the clubs. It would be pointless spouting the “no loyalty” and “players are mercenaries” talk as that’s just sentimental prattle. That being said, it does leave a bad taste in the mouth when the best players can literally be bought out so simply. When a young promising player leaves their hometown team to move to the best team in the country for an extravagant fee, it’s not as offensive to the senses. The likes of Kylian Mbappe for example, recently moved to Paris Saint Germain on loan before making it permanent come summer for £180 million. But when an experienced campaigner falls victim to the global greed of football these days; it makes for an upsetting spectacle.
The justification aside, and they do exist; the romance is gone. The game has changed in every sense of the word. The beautiful game of football in all its vibrancy, full of colour; has become merely varying shades of green, no longer football, but ‘moneyball’.