IIt was like Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos’ soccer version of the first tail in space. The race, that is, to sign the stratospheric transfer agreement. On Thursday, Chelsea announced the signing of Belgian striker Romelu Lukaku for a staggering £ 97.5million. Lukaku used to play for Chelsea but they sold him seven years ago. Now they have bought it back for more than three times the price. The club has a history of sacking some of the best players in the world, from Kevin de Bruyne to Mohamed Salah. You can afford such negligence if your club is owned by a Russian oligarch, Roman Abramovich.
With the Premier League returning this weekend, one might have expected the Lukaku move to be the summer’s transfer story. It could have been any other year. This year, however, it has already been trumped – not once, but twice and maybe again for the third time. First, Manchester City paid £ 100m, a new British record, for Aston Villa midfielder Jack Grealish. They could break their record again before the end of the month if they manage to snatch Harry Kane from Tottenham, who are demanding a whopping £ 160million for the English captain.
But even this was trumped by the move of arguably the greatest player, Lionel Messi, from Barcelona to Paris Saint-Germain (PSG). The Argentine striker has been with Barcelona since he was 13 but his relationship with the club has been shattered in recent years. Even so, Messi had agreed to another deal – one with a 50% pay cut – only to find that Barcelona’s finances were so badly managed that even that was impossible. The Catalan club lost € 487 million (£ 414 million) last season and have total debt of € 1.173 billion.
So PSG stepped in and added Messi to a line of strikers that already includes the world’s two most expensive players, Neymar and Kylian Mbappé, for $ 198m. Manchester City is owned by Sheikh Mansour, a member of the Abu Dhabi royal family, PSG of the State of Qatar, through a government investment fund. When it comes to football financing, even Russian oligarchs cannot keep up with the wealth of the Gulf states.
With all this, it’s easy to forget that it was barely four months ago that the European Super League (ESL) was triumphantly announced and then humiliatingly withdrawn after the indignation of the fans, all within 48 hours. The ESL was an attempt by the richest clubs in Europe to get even richer by creating a league they could not get relegated from, a program not for fans but for owners to ensure a steady and uninterrupted flow of money guarantee.
PSG’s signing of Messi shows why clubs like Barcelona were desperately looking for the ESL. The latter may be one of Europe’s super clubs, but it is not supported by Qatar’s sovereign wealth. Pretending it is and spending money it didn’t have is one of the reasons Barcelona lost their greatest player.
What is true of Barcelona also applies, if not as dramatically, to most of the other top division clubs across Europe. Last year’s pandemic and empty stadiums have robbed clubs of enormous revenue streams, exacerbating the gap between the fabulously rich and those who don’t care about money as their owners view football clubs the same way that Branson and Bezos view space travel . The ESL was vile, a money-making exercise detached from any organic sense of history or rivalry. But the system it wanted to replace is hardly better.
Why should all of this be important? After all, it’s just sport and when we talk about “inequalities” we are talking about mismatches between clubs and players and owners who are already shockingly rich. Each month, Messi will raise more than double what the average British worker makes in his lifetime.
It matters because exercise is important. Football, as Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp put it, is “the most important of the least important”, but, as we saw last year, from the European Championships to the Olympic Games, sport, even without a live audience, can bring joy and hope and bring salvation. It’s not just bread and games, it’s something woven into the lives of millions.
What gives football its heart and drama is that every game, every fan is part of a larger story, an imaginary community
What gives football its heart, soul and drama is that every game, every fan is part of a larger story, part of a collective memory and an imaginary community. Many lower division clubs, from Barnsley to Swindon, are often important social institutions in their cities, conveying a sense of civic pride and a sense of mutual hope. As larger political and social projects and identities have disintegrated in recent years, the sense of solidarity of institutions such as football clubs has become more important. And as last year has shown, sport can be a platform on which social debates, from racism to national identity, can take place. The fact that Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford had a greater influence on government policy than Keir Starmer might tell us something about the Labor Party today, but it also speaks for the place of football and footballers in national life.
The real problem with football isn’t just the gap between the superclubs and the rest of the football world. As the game became more commercialized, football itself – the skill, the beauty, the passion – became subordinate to the product and the brand. For the owners of PSG, the meaningful thing about Messi is not his fascinating talent, but the prestige he will bring, the jerseys he will sell and the television deals he will make possible.
However, there is also a dilemma with all of this. Despite everything, 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 wish for a return to football like in the 1980s. Money has helped create a more cosmopolitan game, raise standards and allow new stadiums to be built. It’s been a blessing to watch players like Salah and De Bruyne coached by managers like Klopp and Pep Guardiola who have helped transform the game on all levels.
As with much in our consumer culture, the market has opened up new opportunities for football – and corrupted it at the same time.
Kenan Malik is an Observer columnist