It might seem counter-intuitive to use a site called Football365 to write about how much you hate football; but actually, as anyone with a deep appreciation for this site will know, it’s one of the few remaining places where you can make a reasonable argument for why that’s the case.
I pity anyone with a love of the game who’s currently coming of age and casting around for somewhere to write about that love. It’s safe to say the British football media in general has never been in worse shape – the imperatives of the internet, as Mediawatch despairingly reflects most days, have switched the business models of what were once the major players to a simple dictum: lie, lie, and lie some more so they click, click and click some more.
John Nicholson has written at length about the deadening, dispiriting effect the tabloids (and beyond) have on our national outlook, and I don’t disagree. My bigger beef is simply that they just churn out such bloody nonsense. This is principally because, with a few noble exceptions, they’ve switched their interest from football, which happens too slowly and doesn’t garner enough clicks, to Football. And it’s Football that I hate.
I sense the majority of Football365’s sentient audience does too. I think you know exactly what I mean, when I say Football with a capital F. I refuse to be baited by Football into hating football; and in fact, it’s pretty much impossible for that to happen. YouTube suggested to me yesterday that I should watch a compilation called ‘Best Goals of 2017’, which obviously I did; and it is truly, gratifyingly impossible, when a cross swings in and some guy decides this one’s on and swings a shoulder-height scissor-kick at it that bangs into the top corner, to feel anything but the same reaction you always had. But, thanks to Football, my appreciation of these moments is being chiselled down and down, until you feel pressured into blocking out huge amounts of what you see and hear surrounding the thing you love, which is still football with a small f.
Philippe Coutinho, one of the more stirring presences in the Premier League these past couple of years has, my sources tell me, joined Barcelona for the second highest transfer fee ever paid, a few days after the highest fee ever for a defender was paid, a few months after the highest fee ever for a player was paid, which had doubled (and then some) the highest fee ever paid the year before, plus the highest fee ever for a goalkeeper, plus the kind of fee for Kyle Walker that should have its own dedicated gif of a drunk guy trying to get up and then just crashing into a load of dustbins, plus…blah.
As much as the oligarchs may assure each other that their handling of the reins of what was once football is met by the general public with giddy awe – like the excitement of a kid surveying a mountain beneath the tree on Christmas Eve – I’m here to tell them that at least in this corner of the football public, it’s just, blah. To steal a phrase, you could fit all my interest in the achievements of Neymar, Kylian Mbappe and the rest at PSG on the back of a postage stamp, and still have room for all the honest conversations that were had about staging a World Cup in Qatar and a couple of sesame seeds.
Or, almost. Because in fact, they do interest me, if only to prove why they and what they do at PSG are Football, and why that is not the same as football. Football can be played in an infinite amount of ways, but for it to be successful, it always shares a common root: a belief that your team, and being part of it, holds a higher value than anything you can immediately touch or capture and put on Instagram. And if that truth was exemplified by anyone, it was by Barcelona, for a handful of years from the mid-noughties to about 2012. And now it’s gone, that blessed state when it just so happened that the highest pinnacle of the sport was utterly, indisputably held by football with a small f, which inevitably set the tone for our collective understanding of what was the ideal way to go about things.
So then it’s fitting that Barca should be the ones to take the last knockings of what we once had and drown it awkwardly, like an unruly puppy in a bucket. Once, the £90m-odd paid for Ousmane Dembele could be considered misfortune, the kind of out-of-character behaviour of someone who’s just had an ungodly amount of money appear in their bank account and has to get it out of their pocket before it burns. But to do it twice, as per last week, sends a message that can’t be unlearned in the fabled corridors of La Masia.
If one is to leave Messi to one side – as always – and look at the Barca attacking line: they’re now no different to PSG. Every single one of those players was prised from their clubs by the crude, blunt realities of Football, with the brand of Barcelona flattering to deceive that these are somehow different transactions. And where once, if you were a teenager in the academy, you’d see Xavi or Iniesta or Bojan or Messi or Pedro as proof that your football dreams could be made a reality; now you’re grimly aware of the paid-for obstacles that Football presents, and the deflating effect of that on an organisation cannot be underestimated.
Nor less on us, the public, and how we care about these things. I know, I know; they don’t give a hoot that snobbish, self-entitled Europeans don’t care like they did before. There are plenty of new people (apologies – I mean markets) who will care, and to be honest Football now seems so blah to me that I don’t even begrudge them their new toy. If this is the new model, where a small collection of elite clubs feel duty-bound to park a few new Ferraris with their sound systems cranked up to a hundred million in front of the house each summer in order to incite a glut of shirt-buying and cable-subscriptions, fair enough. If the point of a World Cup is to sell off one of the most beautiful parts of the sport’s heritage to the most eager briber, okay.
But I want it to be aggressively made clear, at every juncture: football is not the same as Football. Football (capital F) isn’t sport. Instead it has faint undertones of the Hunger Games: a bunch of sheltered and moronically paid super-athletes are thrust into collectives, from which the brightest and best will attempt to escape into the elite, as soon as possible. They will never care about your club, really. It slightly breaks my stony heart to think of an eight-year old Scouser saying her favourite player is Coutinho. Is it, madam? Be nice if he’d hang around to see out the Champions League, eh. That’s Football for you.
Barca could have stopped it, or at least done something to slow its grim, greying tide. Had they kept their nerve after those nimrods from the Qatari crew had shown their crashing insecurities about where they really stand by paying the kind of numbers you only pay if football means nothing to you and Football everything; had they said, we believe in our model, and we’re going to make it work, Neymar’s replacement is somewhere on our training pitches, that would have meant a lot. Instead, they rolled over, and now are as covered in the stench of Football as the rest.
Now, you might say, they had already rolled over – Neymar and Suarez did not learn their football on the streets of Barcelona after all, and with their fellow South American did the triumvirate not play some of the most bewitching football imaginable? I don’t dispute any of that, and there are plenty of arguments about Barca ushering in the end of their own era in exchange for those brief years of MSN sunshine. But as always I think the subtleties are crucial, and the key one here is the age of Messi, then and now. Then, it was still his heyday, and implicit in the success of Messi is the success of everything Barca and the cradle-snatching La Masia model. No bought talent could supersede that.
Now, Coutinho and Dembele are the future, and it is simply impossible to ignore that future comes with a £200m-plus price tag. For two players. If a kid in the academy puts up a picture of Coutinho on the wall of his dorm to sleep under, how will it affect his dreams?
So when I say I’m interested in the achievements of PSG and its collection of individuals who, I believe, still sniff the faintest whiff of a bad smell when they look upon the badge they’re playing for, I have something quite specific in mind: I want them to beat Real Madrid in the Champions League, which I’m pretty sure they will, and end up in the next round against Tottenham. I know this will immediately raise some Football365 hackles, oh all those academy players like Christian Eriksen and Toby Alderweireld and Hugo Lloris you mean, those plucky north Londoners…yeah but, they’re a team, in the truest, football with a small f sense of the word, and you can argue til you’re blue, but you know it’s true. And then I want PSG to lose, to endure another fruitless Champions League campaign, because I need the internal dynamics of that competition to hold, to keep some blood running through my veins.
There was a time when I felt differently about Barcelona. And football.
Toby Sprigings – follow him on Twitter