It’s no secret that in football, you have to be a rich (or very lucky) man to succeed. In fact it’s something I must have mentioned at least 20 times or so throughout the existence of Talking Points this year, and it’s an easy target really as it is so prominent across our culture here in the United Kingdom and further afield, as so many tune in to the Premier League and increasingly the Championship every weekend. But as a wise man once said, money is the root of all evil, especially when you prioritise it over actual human morals in the face of cold-hearted business. Realistically, you’re only going to enjoy money for a very short overall period of your life, and it can’t fill in the gaps which deeper feelings like love provide. But there are still so many individuals around in our society who will make themselves unhappy and unfulfilled in later life in order to make a tidy profit from a piece of business. And one area of our daily culture where these select people are so prominent is sport, particularly football, the most popular participation sport in the world, and therefore the easiest to latch onto in the pursuit of cash. But, as far as I can see, nothing has happened to deter such acts from continually occurring, for example just this summer as the record spend for a transfer window by an entire league is set to be broken, possibly even to the £1 billion mark. Yes, that’s right, £1,000,000,000. I can tell you’re sat (or stood, I’m not excluding anyone) there right now reading this thinking that isn’t that much in the grand scheme of things.
Just in case then, I’ll put one billion pounds into perspective. According to Prudential in a survey carried out last year, the average spending’s of a person in Britain throughout their entire lifetime (which is, roughly, 81 years here) totals only £1.5 million, with the average tax spend taking up just over £250,000 of that total. Seriously, a club in League 1 or 2 could spend more than your lifetime tax expenditure in one transfer, and one in the Championship could spend more than you ever do on clothes, food, holidays, gifts, football tickets and honestly, all your memories. Now when you think about it like that, it is very sad, isn’t it? All your lifetime’s achievements, stories, actions and opinions are worth less than one single transfer, of a player who will undoubtedly leave after two or three seasons of disappointment. There is no sanity behind the inflation of prices football clubs have forced. Having once been the sport of amateurs, lovers of the game, it has been stolen by Russian oligarchs, Chinese government officials, Arabian royalty and oil dealers and American business owners, all of whom don’t actually care about the clubs they invest in. After all, who from Moscow, Shanghai, Abu Dhabi or New York grew up idolising and dreaming about owning Wolves, Nottingham Forest or Sheffield United? Nobody, that’s who. They are only in it to make a profit and move on; they’ve got enough money to keep themselves in their mansions even if it does fail anyway. Invest in a few players, watch ‘your’ club get promoted and win a few cups, and you can make a quick exit once things turn pear-shaped as you’ve already made your millions. Not a bad life, is it?
But it’s not just the clubs’ fault. They may have the say on their own futures, but the leagues ultimately spell their fate with their rules and approach towards investment. It could be easily argued the Premier League is the most open-minded and carefree league in the world when it comes to this, as their system works brilliantly into drawing the cash in. Utilising our shared obsession with a simple ball game in this country, the EPL executives have planned out to keep upping the ante every year, finding the highest bidders for broadcasting rights, who at the moment are Sky Sports and BT Sport, reaping the rewards from their partnerships and spreading plenty of that money (£5.14 billion right now) across each club. From this, the clubs are encouraged to throw the wads of cash at the best managers and players in the world, so they can have whoever they want, and considering these players are rated so highly, the masses of viewers will flock to watch them, either around the grounds or over the television. It’s a vicious cycle that increases in power every single year, and it’s only now that it is touching a height never seen, nor even imagined, before. The £1 billion spending height. The kind of height that would take the lifetimes of 650 averages Britons, maybe even more depending on how far they exceed the £1 billion pound bar by, to equal. A small village’s worth of people, with around 52,975 combined years, or 19,335,875 days worth of bittersweet memories, all of whom are worth as much as a single transfer window of players moving this way and that to the avail of possibly scoring a few goals or keeping a few clean sheets in the next season.
As times get tougher for the ever-growing working class population in the UK following the 2008 banking crisis and this year’s decision to leave the European Union then, why should those who are the money be allowed to throw it away on pointless things like a football club? I mean they’ve clearly got enough money to flutter it on a club of their choice, but then a lot of the millionaires (and billionaires) who have homes in this country don’t even pay all their taxes, so what is that all about? Surely they can’t have life all their own way, while we sit here and look up to them (as the old John Cleese, Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett sketch goes), knowing our place? It was meant as a joke that the working class were supposed to keep in their own class and constantly be left dreaming of what it would be like to be richer and more fortunate, but our society appears to have taken it seriously over the past 30 years. So while the millionaire owners of our clubs can swoop in and keep making a profit, we have to keep paying up for tickets in higher and higher amounts every year, just to see our local club do their community proud and maybe, but very rarely, win a trophy?
Maybe all of this is an argument for another day, but it all fits in to the subject of record spending as we are the ones who, as per usual, pick up the bill for the top 1%’s luxuries and little games. I suppose the overall point I was looking for with this week’s blog was if the Premier League is actually relatable anymore, and I honestly, looking at it right now, can’t say that I see any normal humans in amongst all the madness of that single league. None of the players, managers or board members in there live lives quite like ours, and I don’t think many of them (other than the politicians on the boards of most clubs) could honestly survive in the normal world, working office jobs or putting mental, rather than physical, skills into practice. But while going out there every week in the EPL, those same players and managers keep people like me; journalists, (I’m not pretending to be one yet), photographers, broadcasters and sponsors in stable jobs. It’s an unbelievable, ironic paradox that is a keystone of the strange, strange times that we live in. One thing cannot live without the other, and the world would certainly be a much duller place without both sides of the footballing ‘community’.
But should the fact that footballers keep people in livelihoods allow them to command such astronomically massive fees for their services and put their lives so out of proposition with the rest of us? No, I think we can all agree that it shouldn’t. So why does it still happen? Well, human beings with incredible (or sometimes questionable) physical skills have always been held in high esteem by others, and to watch them compete against each other for glory, history and most unpalatably money, has been a tradition for centuries, no matter where in the world you are. The only difference with football is that it has been the most popular, so therefore most attractive to sponsors and money men, who can afford to pay players and managers more and more to secure their loyalty and skills to eventually win a trophy or two. Ever since these money men were looked at with glee by every club across the country, they have used their ever-increasing fortune to out-compete each other on the world stage, paying more and more to the players, who are only too happy to take the money, more often than not fail to perform, and not worry themselves about what it is doing to the sport. After all, they’ve been taught throughout their footballing careers to just focus on their work on the training ground and turning that into performances on Saturdays and Sundays. Well, actually you can add Mondays, Fridays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays to that list as they have to play every day of the week these days to get as much television income as they can fill their boots with.
Even on the way up the rungs of spending, ever since arguably 1966, through the 70’s, 80’s, 90’s and 00’s, there hasn’t been all that much opposition to the constant pursuit of world record transfer between Man United, Real Madrid and Barcelona (in more recent times at least), and when you think about it, that is a little worrying. From Johan Cruyff to Diego Maradona, Luis Figo to Zinedine Zidane and now Cristiano Ronaldo onto Gareth Bale, there has been steady progression of the world record transfer fee (actually quite a steep jump from the £56 million for Kaka onto the £80 million for Ronaldo), and people took it as just a sign of the times, with a shrug of the shoulders. It’s just what happens over time, isn’t it? Well, it didn’t have to be, but in the hunt for success, people, especially millionaires, will do whatever they have to. But what was so shocking to me was the total lack of response to the fee that Paul Pogba commanded this summer, an unprecedented and yet somehow disappointing (?!?) figure of £89 million. The tabloids all expected (well, maybe not, but they at least tried to make it seem like they did, and as a result sensitized the population to it) £100 million, but that was ultimately unrealistic as that is a record for another day and a much better player. But seriously, there was scarily little reaction to a club, who haven’t even won a league title for three years, spending £89 million, yes £89,000,000 on a single man, more on the promise rather than his current talent. More focus was put on the fact he was returning to his old club than the fee, and that just totally misses the point, latching on to a meaningless side to the story rather than the real important and thought-provoking one, the spending. As far as I’m aware, barely an eyelid was batted at that, and that is seriously disappointing and a discredit to our generation of not only football fans, but human beings.
As a result of all of this then, the disparity football, at the top level, holds with the outside world is visible in every single photo, video and journalistic piece, as money revolves around everything that happens, but not at all in an ultimately important or life-changing way. Sure, everybody in the normal world has to make money to succeed, it’s one of the basic and (arguably, and it would be a very long argument) failing principals of our society, and something everyone is brought up to understand, but in the real world money is worth the most on useful things. Healthcare, food, clothes, houses and cars, things which help you survive and prosper, rather than the trinkets we all pick up along our travels and while ‘cute’ or ‘funny’, usually pretty pointless and unimportant. On the grander scale, money is used by governments the world over for vital public services like hospitals, schools, prisons, railways and motorways, while also putting some aside for pensions, benefits and council budgets. That’s how the world works, and every pound means something to each corner of society as money keeps revolving itself around society as when the people spend money, companies can invest in restocking or investing, and their workers can get paid, and the government can support these people with high interest rates, so they can lower them when the market becomes unstable.
But football makes a joke of all of this, as at the end of the day football is no different to the trinkets I was talking about; often pointless, unmemorable and in the grand scheme of things, not important to our world. Sure, it’s a nice thing to have, but your life doesn’t and shouldn’t depend on it, it’s entertainment. Basically, footballers are just glorified reality TV stars, paid to keep performing and entertaining us, no matter how annoying they can be sometimes. There are the ones who you gravitate towards, and the ones who hate, but all footballers at the EPL level are ultimately in the same boat; they can be replaced and the system won’t fail if they do leave. So why is so much money thrown at each aspect of the system then? Well, it’s all part of the show, isn’t it, as money creates news, and news creates drama. It is what makes the top level of the game unique and entertaining, to know who can do what and how much each side is able to spend, to be able to predict who will succeed or fail. It’s what those at the top of the game want, and it is a winning formula for their continued success in promoting football even further across the globe, because believe it or not that is possible. There are still areas which need to fall under the spell, until a lot more money can be made and spent.
The thing is, the freight train that is top level football cannot be stopped, and it will continue to rumble on at an alarming pace. Soon enough, in just two weeks’ time, the £1,000,000,000 mark will be reached in this Premier League summer transfer window (it’s around £850 million at the time of writing I think), just as Arsene Wenger reluctantly digs into his pockets to sign a proper striker. A sideshow to that freight train was the world record transfer fee for Paul Pogba paid by Manchester United, something that apparently didn’t particularly matter, as life continued as normal just the day after. But life in the world of football is never normal, and whether you see that as one of the joys of the sport or a horribly escalated disparity between a sport gone mad and everyday life is up to you, but I can’t help feeling it’s the latter. It will never change though, and more spending records will soon be set without us even noticing, until one day, maybe the sport will run out of billionaires and madmen, and return to its honest and thriving roots. I seriously doubt it though. As long as the sport remains exciting, the more investment there will be into it. It’s just one area of our crazy world where as per usual, things get out of hand and there are no strong captains at the helm to steady the ship and return things to the golden days, so we all carry on off course. It’s not the way it’s meant to be, but it suits quite a few so we’ll settle for it. For a lot of others though, we don’t want it like this, but we don’t have an equal voice compared to those who are blessed enough financially to overrule anything we question. It’s an imperfect cycle which ruins the sport that we love, but there’s nothing we can do about it, and that is the truly mad thing.
Author - Will Hugall
Now a BA Journalism student at Nottingham Trent University, I divide my time between my base in Radford and back home in East Sussex while watching as much football as I can!