You could not, as they say, make it up. Some clubs in the English Premier League are a bit miffed because a foreign league with oodles of cash is trying to waltz in and buy up its best players. This is, of course, an affront because it is the Premier League clubs that are supposed to buy up everyone else’s players.
Chelsea manager Antonio Conte went so far as to say the amount of money being spent on players by the Chinese Super League was “not right”. Many would agree with Conte, who seems a decent man, but the irony of the manager of the club that ushered in the modern era of mega-spending in English football complaining about mega-spending was not lost.
Chelsea, let’s remember, have received over £1bn from owner Roman Abramovitch since he bought the club in 2003, with around £800m of that spent on transfers. The club’s ability to blow other offers out of the water and pay wages that others simply could not match proved truly gamechanging.
But even those eyewatering sums were eclipsed when Manchester City were bought by a specialist investment group backed by the state of Abu Dhabi, installing Shiekh Mansour of the Abu Dhabi royal family, a man whose family fortune is estimated at $1 trillion. That financial backing put Chelsea in their place, as city embarked on a talent stockpiling exercise that resembled a game of Football Manger on acid.
And every year the Premier League paraded the talent and excitement the riches within its ranks brought. It was not wrong. The Premier league was exciting. It was full of stars. It was becoming more competitive than some imagined it ever could, as ever vaster sums of TV money gave clubs throughout the division the clout if not to compete with Chelsea and City, then certainly to knock competition from outside the golden circle into a cocked hat.
It was all a very long way from the days when English observers watched enviously as Italy’s Serie A hovered up the best players and exhibited silky football. The question was asked if the English league could ever catch up with the Italian. How times change.
If you study the cycles of capitalism closely enough, you’ll see that its most vociferous advocates are at their most strident when the system benefits them. Once the allegedly scientific concept of free competition means someone else is doing better, the calls for something to be done begin. So don’t be surprised if we begin hearing that the spending power of the Chinese Super League needs curbing for the good of the game. After all, we can’t let money dictate the show, can we?
That idea that something must be done – a phrase that so often leads leads to the worst policies – is invariably suffused with some kind of moral angle. An angle of the kind strangely overlooked when the money rolling in is buying success. It’s just business, see, until business isn’t going well. And once we get to the moral angle, the bloody grasping greedy players are soon in the crossights.
We all know, of course, that all the money in the game goes straight into the players’ pockets, with not a penny going to the impoverished billionaire club owners. But the least we can expect of the players is that they, well, play the game. But how, or more precisely who for, is unclear, as other events have demonstrated this week.
[In pictures: Which stars are part of the Chinese Super League?]
When Dimitri Payet’s unwillingness to continue playing for West Ham was revealed, the tried and tested ‘mercenary’ storyline was wheeled out. In The Mirror, Darren Lewis labelled Payet “a mercenary who will put cash before loyalty whenever given the opportunity”. His colleague Matt Lawless was even more outraged. He, like West Ham’s fans “felt let down”. And, he pointed out, “it was West Ham who provided him the platform to return to the big-time. It was West Ham who helped him become the 17th best player in the world.”
Payet is, it seems, a total git. Like Diego Costa, who looks set to leave the club that offered him loads of money to go to a club that offers him loads of money. The hypocrite. These players need to remember a thing or two about loyalty and what the game is really about. Unlike, it seems, numerous other players over the years whose refusals to play, strops, strikes and tantrums in order to get a move have been entirely justified because they ‘need to move on to advance their career’.
We know this is true because the same newspapers getting so outraged about Payet and Costa are the ones who help peddle the line that Gareth Bale ‘should’ go to Real Madrid or N’Golo Kante ‘should join Chelsea or Southampton’s entire first team ‘should’ sign for Liverpool.
Expect at least another few days of outrage over disloyal mercenary players, in between sage observations from seasoned pros and big hitting sports writers about why other players from what’s perceived as further down the food chain should move up. Loyalty? This is business.
We really have got ourselves in quite a mud