ARCHIVE PIECE: Pro soccer is now a giant insane asylum

PUBLISHED IN THE HERALD JUNE 2019

 

In honour of the frankly ridiculous news that Jose Mourinho is the new Spurs manager, a piece from last summer about how the game has gone completely doolally (as if you didn’t know this already…)

 

We’ll have to stop using the term “football season” soon; the concept of endings and beginnings has become almost redundant. While the English and European club campaigns have pressed pause until August, the circus never stops.

At the moment the Women’s World Cup is reaching its zenith; the Copa America is midway through. The League of Ireland, of course, continues throughout the year. Early qualifier rounds for next season’s Champions and Europa Leagues begin in a matter of weeks.

More than that, the off-pitch circus is really getting revved up now; for many casual observers, that’s when the fun really starts. We’re currently in the middle of the summer transfer window, and in terms of shocks, upsets, disappointments, triumphs, entertainment and general all-round lunacy, it really is – to use a beloved punditry cliché – “top drawer, Brian”.

It’s absolutely mad. And getting crazier year after year.

I’m not talking about all those “come-and-get-me pleas” and brazen shows of disloyalty which befoul the game and make an idiot out of an adoring fan-base. Professional sport has always had careerists who care a fig not for the jersey, but for their bank balance.

I won’t even go all “ooh it were better in my day, it were” and give out about these young ‘uns with their social media and flashy jewellery and love of the limelight. Similarly, sport has always had eejits who love attention and possess the brain-capacity of a wilting house-plant.

What most boggles my mind is the money involved. The sheer sums involved are barely comprehensible. They’re surreal, they’re terrible, they’re hypnotically compelling.

I’m not quite old enough to recall Trevor Francis becoming the first million-pound transfer in 1979, but I do remember when Gianluigi Lentini became the world-record signing in 1992, moving from Torino to Milan for £13million.

We all thought this would never be topped. We wondered if the world had become one giant insane asylum. In the end, we turned out to be wrong and right, in that order.

An exponential rise in transfer fees now sees enormous money given for really quite average players. Bad enough when an all-time genius like Ronaldo earns nine figures for his club: that’s obscene. But when £50 and £60 million are considered “good value” for decent players: that’s more than obscene, it’s absurd.

Harry Maguire, for instance, is being touted around for £75 million at the moment. Surely this can’t be the talented and willing – but hardly a Beckenbauer for our age – fella who did well for England at the last World Cup. Is there a different Harry Maguire knocking around that I’m not aware of?

There’s a real “fall of the Roman Empire” feel to it all. Hysteria, decadence, excess, opulence, through-the-looking-glass weirdness and utter estrangement from normality or real life.

And not just in terms of transfers: José Mourinho, for example, chose to blow half-a-mill on hotel bills for three years, rather than be bothered renting or buying a house. There were even stories about certain managers being given a few million to meet with club owners with a view to taking charge – now people are being paid lots of money to be offered a job which pays even more money. Mad world is right.

Across all metrics, football is drowning in wealth and power. Worse than that, it’s slowly rotting from the inside out.

You’d imagine the bubble must inevitable burst at some point, but then again, why should it? Football has become such colossally large business that it probably wouldn’t matter if every single player was beamed up into heaven by God, who’d finally lost His patience at all this nonsense: clubs would simply throw 22 androids onto the pitch, and what’s more, we’d all be signed up to their Instagram accounts by full-time. #robotsdoitbetter

That’s the problem, in the end: we the public are as guilty as them the industry. Without us buying (literally and figuratively) into all this eejitry, the edifice would collapse.

Why do we do it? It’s the enduring dream, I suppose: little boys still imagine that one day they’ll be starring for Madrid or Liverpool, they’ll be revered around the world; and most of us never outgrow that boy psychologically.

But this dream is itself as ridiculous as someone paying £75 million for Harry Maguire. Given how many people play the sport, your chances of making it to the top are literally something close to one in a billion. You’re more likely to be beamed up to heaven by God, to fill in at striker because Neymar has thrown another strop and is rolling around his cloud, pretending that Saint Peter fouled him.

Far better off aiming to emulate someone like Con O’Callaghan or TJ Reid. No big fortune involved, but you get all the glory, satisfaction, pride, enjoyment, camaraderie and adoration. You’ll be immortalised, treated like a god for the rest of your days. Best of all, a real, normal life awaits at the end of it.


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