This essay, on the trouble with football, was my Observer column this week. It was published on 15 August 2021, under the headline “It was only yesterday we saved football’s soul. We might be losing it again…”
It was like the football version of the race between Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos to be the first dick in space. The race, that is, to pull off the most stratospheric transfer deal. On Thursday, Chelsea announced the signing of Belgian forward Romelu Lukaku for an eye-popping £97.5m. Lukaku used to play for Chelsea but seven years ago they sold him. Now, they have bought him back at more than three times the cost. The club has a history of letting go some of the best players in the world, from Kevin de Bruyne to Mohamed Salah. You can afford such carelessness if your club is owned by a Russian oligarch, Roman Abramovich.
As the Premier League returned this weekend, one might have expected the Lukaku move to have been the transfer story of the summer. In any other year, it might have been. This year, though, it has already been trumped – not once, but twice, and maybe again for a third time. First, Manchester City paid £100m, a new British record, for Aston Villa midfielder Jack Grealish. They might smash their record again before the end of the month if they manage to wrest Harry Kane away from Tottenham, who are demanding a staggering £160m for the England captain.
But even this has been overshadowed by the move of arguably the greatest player, Lionel Messi, from Barcelona to Paris Saint-Germain (PSG). The Argentinian forward had been with Barcelona since he was 13 but his relationship with the club unravelled in recent years. Nevertheless, Messi had agreed to another deal – one with a 50% pay cut – only to discover that Barcelona’s finances have been so mismanaged that even that was not possible. The Catalan club lost €487m (£414m) last season and has a total debt of €1.173bn.
So PSG nipped in, adding Messi to a forward line that already boasts the two most expensive players in the world, Neymar and Kylian Mbappé, bought for £198m and £163m respectively. Manchester City is owned by Sheikh Mansour, a member of the Abu Dhabi royal family, PSG by the state of Qatar, through a sovereign investment fund. When it comes to football finance, even Russian oligarchs cannot compete with the riches of the Gulf states.
In all this, it is easy to forget that it’s barely four months since the European Super League (ESL) was triumphantly announced and then humiliatingly withdrawn after outrage from fans, all within 48 hours. The ESL was an attempt by Europe’s richest clubs to make themselves even richer by setting up a league from which they could not be relegated, a scheme designed not for fans but for owners to ensure a steady and uninterrupted flow of money.
PSG’s signing of Messi shows why clubs such as Barcelona were desperate for the ESL. The latter might be one of Europe’s superclubs but it is not backed by the sovereign wealth of Qatar. Pretending that it was, and spending money it did not have, is one reason why Barcelona ended up losing its greatest player.
What is true of Barcelona is also true, though not so dramatically, of most other top league clubs across Europe. The pandemic and the empty stadiums over the past year have deprived clubs of huge income streams, exacerbating the divide between the merely fabulously rich and those for whom money is no object because their owners regard football clubs in the same way that Branson and Bezos view space travel. The ESL was execrable, a money-spinning exercise detached from any organic sense of history or rivalry. But the system it sought to replace is barely any better.
Why should all this matter? After all, it’s only sport and when we talk about “inequalities” we are talking of disproportions among clubs and players and owners who are already shockingly wealthy. Every month, Messi will bank more than twice what the average British worker will earn in a lifetime.
It matters because sport matters. Football, as the Liverpool manager, Jürgen Klopp, put it, may be “the most important of the least important things” but, as we have seen over the past year, from the Euros to the Olympics, sport, even without live spectators, can bring joy and hope and redemption. It is not merely bread and circuses but something woven into the lives of millions.
What gives football its heart, its soul and its drama is that every game, every fan, is part of a wider story, part of a collective memory and of an imagined community. Many lower league clubs, from Barnsley to Swindon, are often important social institutions in their towns, providing a feeling of civic pride and a kind of mutual hope. As wider political and social projects and identities have disintegrated in recent years, so the sense of solidarity provided by institutions such as football clubs has become more important. And, as the past year has shown, sport can be a platform through which social debates, from racism to national identity, get played out. The fact that Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford has had greater impact on government policy than Keir Starmer might tell us something about today’s Labour party, but it also speaks of the place of football, and footballers, in national life.
The real issue facing football is not just the chasm between the superclubs and the rest of the football world. It is also that, as the game has become more commercial, so the football itself – the skill, the beauty, the passion – has become subservient to the product and the brand. For PSG’s owners, what is significant about Messi is not his mesmerising talent but the prestige he will bring, the shirts he will sell and the television deals he will enable.
There is, however, a dilemma in all this, too. For all that we hate the greed of the owners, the transformation of the game into a commodity like cars or computers, and the exploitation of clubs as objects of prestige and geopolitics, few fans would want a return to football as it was in the 1980s. Money has helped create a more cosmopolitan game, improved standards and allowed for the building of new stadiums. Watching players such as Salah and De Bruyne, coached by managers such as Klopp and Pep Guardiola, who have helped transform the game at all levels, has been a boon. As with much else in our consumer culture, the market has opened up new possibilities in football – and corrupted it at the same time.