Nearly two years after a handful of bankers turned the world upside down with a series of frolicsome bets on whether people would be able to pay off mortgages they never should have had in the first place, plenty of us are still genuinely feeling the effects of the worldwide recession. Even the footballing world seems to have felt the effects, with only Real Madrid and Manchester City flying the flag for the culture of conspicuous consumption.
As a Chelsea fan, it’s a poignant thing to watch. Madrid, of course, remain the icon they always have been: a collection of insane individuals hysterically buying famous footballers in an ever more laughable attempt to reclaim a glory that was once genuinely theirs by right. Who among us hasn’t sneered at the comedic underachievement of the Kaka / Ronaldo / Benzema splurge last season? I’ve searched, but can’t seem to find a Spanish equivalent for schadenfreude. Ah well.
City, on the other hand, are closer to home, and their competent demolition of Liverpool last night – a Liverpool which seems to have declined in potency year on year since Benitez’ last Champions League final in 2007 – was an acute reminder of their potential to upset the cosy club at the top of the Premiership. The question which many seem to cling to is whether Roberto Mancini can keep his glittering squad motivated. Emmanuel Adebayor was an unused substitute last night. Mario Balotelli, presumably, didn’t move to Eastlands to play 10 games a season. And even though Craig Bellamy, arguably City’s most potent forward last season, has been elbowed aside to make room, City’s website still lists 6 strikers at the club.
More to the point, it marks an evolution in footballing terms that first really came to my attention when Chelsea signed Asier del Horno in 2005. Signed from Bilbao by José Mourinho, del Horno made 34 appearances in the 2005 – 6 title-winning season before being quietly sold to Valencia the following year. Ashley Cole, it seems, was the player José had wanted all along.
It’s easy to feel no sympathy for the modern top-flight footballer. Earning sums the likes of which many of us find virtually incomprehensible, lauded and lionised – and occasionally hounded – by tabloid and broadsheet alike, the idea that they might not feel entirely secure in their job would, in most of us, provoke a resounding “meh”. And yet, as we’re so often told, great football is almost as much about confidence as it is ability. How often do you hear that old chestnut “I’m enjoying my football again”? Players and coaches alike claim that the knowledge they are trusted, that they have the security to express themselves, is intrinsic to producing their best performances.
So how does that square with the absolute, unshakeable knowledge that the club can replace you, without fuss, sympathy, effort or remorse, on the basis of a so-so season?
Going back to del Horno, I wonder how many Chelsea fans raised an eyebrow at his summary dismissal. How many City fans, at that, mourn the departure of Bellamy? I don’t know and have never met the Welsh striker, although the prevailing opinion I’ve gathered over the years he’s been a professional is that he’s a mouthy, opinionated wart with all the charm of a surprise kick between the slats. Does Carlos Tevez look at the situation and think well, that’s interesting, he scored 9 goals in 19 starts last year, and they don’t want him? What if I go 8 games without scoring? Who’s being lined up?
Footballers will doubtless say that the competition inspires them; that it’s healthy to know people are lighting a fire under their backside and waiting for them to slip up. When you listen to this guff, ask yourself whether you’d feel comfortable if you showed up for work one day and were introduced to a younger, better-looking chap who, you’re told, could do exactly what you do and, should you fail to do what you’re currently doing, would be doing it instead of you.
Yes, yes, we tell ourselves, much of this is the nature of football. And it is, but when you’re operating without financial constraint, it takes it to a different level. When the atmosphere is one of total expendability – the ability to wipe any signing mistake out of existence with a stroke of the Mont Blanc Meisterstuck on the dotted line – can the squad ever truly relax?
Asier del Horno. Stephen Ireland. Shay Given. Craig Bellamy. Don’t feel sorry for this lot, with their munificent pay-offs. Feel concerned for the integrity of the group that’s left looking over their shoulders. Next up, it could be them.