Transfer obsession is sickening part of late-stage capitalism and it leaves us craven

John Nicholson
Christopher Nkunku among the 2023 Premier League transfers

As we all eagerly await the start of the World Cup in three weeks, there is a void in the football calendar which the U-21 internationals don’t quite fill. But lack of football action is no problem for those who love the transfer window more than football itself.

Here on F365 the transfer rumour pages get massive traffic every day and most media outlets will tell you the same thing. People are jonesing for transfer news every hour of every day; it is clearly an obsession for a sizable amount of the football audience. And while it reaches its peak in the summer, the passion is there all year round.

Looked at from a psychological perspective, it is an interesting phenomenon. Going back 50 years, transfers still happened. In the summer of 1973, Chelsea let six players go and brought in Charlie Cooke from Palace while Manchester United shipped out eight and brought in five, though Liverpool had just one in and one out.

Jump forward 10 years and Liverpool brought in John Wark, Michael Robinson, Paul Walsh and the famous Ken De Mange from Home Farm Drumcondra and sold super-sub David Fairclough to FC Luzern.

Arsenal brought in nine during the 1983/84 season, including promoting Tony Adams from the youth team and buying Charlie Nicholas from Celtic, while letting 12 go.

Ten years on, in 1993 Leeds brought in five and shipped out nine and Liverpool bought three and sold seven, including Ronnie Rosenthal to Spurs. Manchester City were busy bringing in 12 players, including Alan Kernaghan from Middlesbrough, while selling six.

So there were plenty of transfers, but even so, things were quite different. Most obviously, the transfer window didn’t exist – it was introduced in 2002/03 – so transfers took place at any time in the season. Many feel this was a better way to do it as it meant you could bring in players when injury struck your squad. Others felt it led to destabilisation of clubs with agents hawking players around all year long.

The concept of the window partially explains why those transfer rumours pages are so popular. It has created a kind of hot house atmosphere because of the limited period in which players can be bought and sold. But even allowing for that, there wasn’t the huge and febrile atmosphere around selling and signing players. That is a relatively modern thing.

So how did that come about? Two things. Transfer Deadline Day led the (yellow) way with Jim White’s manic performances, Harry Redknapp leaning out of a Range Rover window and fans giving reporters a hard time outside of grounds, while waving a blow-up doll. It helped turn the business of transfers into entertainment. This was an important Rubicon to cross. Previously, the interest was only in what the players coming in or going out would mean for the first team, but Transfer Deadline Day changed that. Transactions became sexy in and of themselves. People would take the day off work to watch it all unfold. And it was fun for a few seasons, then grew stale and isn’t a big thing anymore.

READ: The 20 biggest transfers in the world in the 2023 summer transfer window

But hot on its heels came social media to entertain, amuse and inform, to propagate and inflate even the flimsiest rumour, at any time of the year, but especially during the transfer window. It allowed all of us to speculate what a club needed and what it might get ad infinitum. What had once only been discussed in the pub over a few pints became a global phenomenon.

Add in the fact that most newspapers now fill their online pages reporting as news the things people have said on social media, as well as the actual facts, throw in a billion pound transfer kitty and you’ve got the modern world: a foaming football foment forever feeding itself.

Currently there seems to be something akin to a craving for transfers per se but transfers which come with big numbers in particular. Anyone who knows anything about football knows that the bigger the fee doesn’t automatically mean the better the player will perform, but it’s not about that, it’s about the fee itself. It is the purchase that excites, not the thought of them playing. That’s what gets these people clicking. It is a kind of vicarious shopping, offering the dopamine hit of a purchase, of spending a lot of money, but without having to actually do so and that explains why, once the transfer goes through, they lose interest and move on to the next signing, as though football is a never-ending game of Monopoly.

The fact that people, without irony, talk about who ‘won’ the transfer window shows how far buying and selling has been embraced on a cultural level. It is now clearly an important part of football as an entertainment business, important even, to some people’s self-identity. Spending money has become equated with success, with ambition and with pride.

Those raised in a different culture might despair that it is just another example of rampant materialism, a thing for shallow and money obsessed people to indulge in. It is something unique to football. In what other business do its customers focus on what assets a small or medium-sized company is buying and selling?

But in a game where money talks and everything else including human rights, walks, it isn’t surprising that a significant section of the football audience is so keen on focussing on and ‘spending’ football’s money. It fits perfectly into, and is an expression of, late-stage capitalism, something which, like it or not, willingly or otherwise, we’re all taking part in. Football just reflects a wider societal trend.

Yet there is something very distasteful about treating human beings as tradable assets, about salivating over how much they do or don’t cost, as though they are cattle to be bought and sold. The ‘announce’ culture is akin to highly processed fast food, designed to satisfy in the very short term, but is harmful to health in the long term.

Seeing anything through a financial lens first, can lead to a moral-free situation where you know the price of everything but the value of nothing, enslaved to ever higher transfer fees to get your buzz on, craven to ever bigger money. And once money comes first and last, those with the most money have the most power over those who crave its spending.

And that’s just where football’s monied and powerful want us to be. Craven.

READ MORE: Football is f***ed but most of us choose not to look in the boot for the rotting bodies