IT’S the second weekend in August and that can mean only one thing. The traditional curtain-raiser to the new Premier League season is upon us and the preening, overpaid prima donnas who are this nation’s footballers are finally back in action. Well, it has been a whole 84 days since the end of last season.
My, how we’ve missed them. Thank goodness then for all those snaps of them enjoying their summer holidays on far-flung beaches, along with the daily updates on the “will he, won’t he” saga surrounding Wayne Rooney. No, not whether he’s having yet another hair transplant but if he’s finally heading for the exit door at Old Trafford.
It’s the same with any number of players. Sports reporters breathlessly inform us that so-and-so’s agent has been in talks with such-and-such a club, as though we’re really meant to care where these millionaire mercenaries hawk their services next.
The lead-up to tomorrow’s FA Community Shield has been overshadowed by talk of the proposed move of Tottenham’s Gareth Bale to Real Madrid for a fee of up to £105m. This is an obscene amount of money by anyone’s standards. But in modern football, money is the only currency.
The beautiful game is now bankrupt. Bankrupt in the sense that it considers £8m to be a reasonable annual wage for someone who kicks a ball around a field. Bankrupt because clubs with the history of Coventry City are at risk of disappearing off the face of the earth and no one seems to care.
Last week, Gordon Taylor, the chief executive of the Professional Footballers’ Association, bemoaned the fact that English football was “in danger of losing its soul”.
I’ve got news for you, Gordon. English football lost its soul a long time ago. It slipped quietly out of the back door while you, the players and their avaricious agents were busy counting the dosh flooding in from Sky.
That 1992 deal with Rupert Murdoch’s television empire really was the game-changer. Before then, football was still, just about, in touch with reality.
It wasn’t quite the same as the days when the players lived on normal streets and travelled to home games on the bus alongside their adoring fans, but there was still a tangible link between team and community.
Loyalty wasn’t yet an outmoded concept and, while the best players were well rewarded, clubs were invariably owned by successful families or businesses who had strong ties to the local area and would surely have baulked at the reckless spending we see today.
Now our football clubs are playthings for some of the world’s richest playboys, from Sheikh Mansour at Manchester City to Roman Abramovich at Chelsea. Amid all the money sloshing around the bank accounts of even the country’s most average players, however, it’s worth remembering the precariousness of this whole house of cards.
Given that Manchester City racked up nearly £200m of debt in one season, what would happen if these sugar daddies suddenly decided to pull the plug?
It’s why Uefa, the game’s European governing body, has instigated new rules governing financial propriety. The Financial Fair Play regulations are designed to arrest the trend of more and more clubs slipping into debt and, in the process, endangering their long-term survival.
The idea to get clubs back to spending within their means is a worthy ambition, but as Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger has already pointed out, if Real Madrid were to pay £105m to sign Gareth Bale it would very quickly make a joke of the new rules.
And anyway, Manchester City have quietly spent the summer splashing the cash, around £100m of it, despite repeatedly insisting they would be more low-key in the transfer market.
There are also concerns that Financial Fair Play will simply lock in the established order and heap further pressure on the clubs who are already struggling to keep up, mortgaging their futures in the process.
As far as the players and their agents are concerned, of course, none of this matters as long as they are still in the box seat. Gordon Taylor may suggest that modern footballers don’t realise how lucky they are but such words overlook the inconvenient truth that it is his organisation that is partly to blame for such arrogance.
The PFA has played a significant role in establishing the player power that holds sway today. Taylor, whose £1m a year salary is thought to make him the highest paid trade union official in the world, has in the past publicly supported a veritable rogues’ gallery, including the likes of Joey Barton, Carlos Tevez and Luis Suarez, in their unedifying wrangles with the authorities, officialdom and, on more than one occasion, their own clubs.
His reward was for QPR midfielder Barton to recently call him a “fat, festering old king too drunk on power or wine to notice that his meal is a rotting corpse of maggots”.
While it would be wrong to tar them all with the same brush, in general, the modern footballer’s lack of loyalty to their team, or anyone else but their bank balance, is quite breathtaking.
Suarez, the Liverpool striker who has racially abused and even taken bites out of his opponents, explained this week that he was demanding a move away from Anfield because they had promised he could leave if they did not qualify for the lucrative Champions’ League. This in spite of the fact that he signed a new contract with the club just last summer.
Interestingly, he chose to announce this in the Press rather than hand in a formal transfer request, no doubt because that would require him to forfeit a substantial amount of money. Gordon Taylor, meanwhile, has confirmed that the PFA has been asked to help resolve the issue.
Today’s players and teams have never been more remote from the average football fan. Apart from the geographical location of the football stadium, top-flight clubs have absolutely nothing to do with the towns or cities they represent.
In many cases not a single player in the team comes from the local area, often they don’t even come from this country.
And the fans? They are simply wallets on legs, ready to be milked for overpriced, cheaply produced replica shirts and season tickets that can cost up to £1,500 a pop. No wonder one in three supporters say they may not be able to afford to renew for this season.
And that, ultimately, is surely the only way that football will wake up to itself. Only time will tell if English football has either the courage or the desire to take a long, hard look in the mirror and realise that it is languishing in a fools’ paradise.
The hope is that if enough disillusioned supporters vote with their feet, then our not so beautiful game will be left with no other option.