The current crisis has meant that the football press, grown accustomed to its daily blathering about real live events past, present and future, has understandably lost its way a little. Remember when the past was last weekend, and the future was next Saturday? Here in Spain, the eventual acceptance of a total shut-down of football was akin to an annoying dog finally realising that if it didn’t stop yapping it was going to get a kick up the arse. In short, the yapping stopped.
Nevertheless, figuratively-speaking, when humanity is used to having its coffee and croissants every morning, it’s a bit brutal when they’re whipped away the next day and replaced by a glass of water. Hence football writing, good or bad, fulfils a social function and can make a contribution to domestic lock-down blues, along with the re-runs of classic matches being played out on Spanish telly at the moment. I particularly enjoyed Spain’s 12-1 win over Malta last week, the final and clinching goal bizarrely scored by Juan Señor, causing the ecstatic commentator to temporarily put his orgasm on pause and utter the priceless ‘Si Señor!’ phrase that has echoed down the years ever since. It probably made quite a few people smile – a necessity in these most surreal of times.
As I might have written in the abstract to my PhD thesis (failed) on Albert Einstein, ‘Time is an inconvenience between football matches’. I never did finish the doctorate, and that was the best line in it. When I was a younger chap in pre-internet England, the summer break from football – mysteriously labelled ‘the close season’ – was a tough time. The only way I could get through the empty months of football-less tedium was to adopt an Australian team and follow their results each week, sadly convincing myself that I was actually interested. I adopted ‘Sunshine City’ because it sounded like a cool name, but of course they were rubbish. I still have no idea to which city they belonged – possibly to a suburb of Melbourne (answers on a postcard please) and anyway, it seemed to me that all cities in Australia were blessed with sunshine….. but I digress.
The most common theme to crop up in the Covid-19 quality football press has been the theme of sustainability. Several writers have pointed to the fact that amongst other aspects of life, the relentless consumerist-capitalist-free-market-infinite-growth paradigm is being exposed as a poor business model, as a road to ruin. It’s taken 100 days to fell the global economy. Sting’s old song ‘How fragile we are’ never sounded more apposite. We are informed that the pandemic has exposed the basic unsustainability of rampant consumerism, as if we didn’t already know. Well we did, but until something actually punches you in the face, you tend to pretend it’s not there. It’s an interesting feature of Homo sapiens, and is nicely summed up by psychology’s distinction between ‘impending’ and ‘present’ danger. Impending danger is something like global warming. We kind of know we should change our lifestyles, but what the hell? Pass me that plastic bag. I forgot to bring my sustainable organic canvas version to the supermarket today. Never mind – there’s always tomorrow to ratchet up my lost moral points. Present danger is the punch in the face, the kick up the arse or the sort of experience Boris Johnson is currently undergoing, one which will presumably make him less blasé in the future (if he has one).
Football? Well, it looks like it’s in present danger, from where I’m sitting at the keyboard. We always knew that it was an unsustainable business model (UBM from this point forth), but only now has the real ‘WTF’ moment arrived. Did Barcelona really pay Liverpool 145 million quid for Coutinho? Was that real or a dream, Alice? Whatever it was, it ain’t going to happen again. Barcelona FC, for the last two decades a consistent member of the top-five richest clubs on the globe, lasted precisely two weeks before applying to their autonomous government (and therefore to the tax-payer) for an ERTE, better known as a furlough in English parlance, for its non-playing staff. This only happened after they’d managed to reach an uneasy agreement with their players to cut 70% of their salaries, for the time being. Barcelona, and others like them, are swimming in a pool of shit entirely of their own making.
Liverpool’s similar action, widely condemned in the English press last week, came on the back of paying 43.7 million to agents in the last financial year. WTF? They back-tracked, of course, but their original action showed how far these institutions have their heads stuck in the sand. But it’s not the sand of some placid Merseyside beach but rather a desert storm raging around their collective arses, all stuck up in the air waiting for the effects of wind erosion to peel the skin from their exposed buttocks, if you’ll excuse another extended metaphor.
Of course, in the post-Covid reflection period, football should not be prohibited from generating money. It just has to distribute its wealth more equitably. You can hear the Homer Simpson ‘Doh’ echoing around the empty stadiums right now. Indeed, one of the weirdest effects of the pandemic has been the sudden perspective-shift of how we see footballers and other overpaid members of the workforce. The big clubs are not the only ones to blame. When the agent of my son’s mate (here in San Sebastián) was touting him to English clubs in League One and Two last summer, I was shocked to hear how much money was on the table for a kid who only recently started shaving. Bury might have gone bust, but that was pre-pandemic. How realistic was their wage structure anyway? Whatever it was, and the Bury issue was a complex one, the death of a football club is a serious issue. In these ever-more empty times, its impact on a community can be devastating. It shouldn’t be like that, but it is.
Since the lock-down here on March 14th, I’ve had three brief encounters with top-flight footballers. Let me tell you about these random trysts, because they were very strange, and they set me thinking in ways I’ve never thought before about bloody footballers. The first one was with Ander Guevara, the 22 year-old central midfielder who this season had begun to consolidate his place in the Real Sociedad squad, having been definitively promoted from the B team last summer. Guevara is from Vitoria in the west of the Basque Country, but came east when he was fifteen. He’s good, in a sub-Xabi Alonso sort of way. He’s a lesser mortal, but he’s good. Anyway, he lives in my neighbourhood, as do the other two I subsequently met. Basically, the morning streets were almost empty (we can go out to the shops but nothing more) when I spotted him walking towards me. Maybe I’m just getting old, but young players that you’ve only seen from the distance of your stadium seat look ridiculously young when you see them up at close quarters, dressed in civvies. They look mildly absurd, and slightly haunted, scurrying along like recently-hatched baby turtles heading desperately for the tide. I decided to break the silence as we approached each other and quipped in Spanish ‘Tranquilo. No te voy a pedir un selfie’ (Relax. I’m not going to ask you for a selfie) at which he emitted a slightly worrying, high-pitched giggle. And then was gone – just an ordinary little bloke on a deserted street, under the same tatty umbrella of circumstances as the rest of us.
That little episode paled into insignificance a few days later, however, when on a sunny afternoon in the same deserted neighbourhood I’d gone out for a walk with my shopping-bag as pretext, in case the police should ask. Had the old Kinks’ song been uppermost in my mind (Sunny Afternoon) and the line ‘The taxman’s taken all my dough’ have popped into my head, it was then serendipitous indeed that the great Xabi Alonso should be walking towards me at that very moment, him coming down the slope, me going up. Unlike the young Ander Guevara, whose slings and arrows of career decisions will all arrive in the future, Alonso looks decidedly unhappy. In fact I almost fail to recognise him. He seems smaller and paler than I remember, and hardly a walking ad for Boss. Scuttling along the pavement like some paranoid Winston Smith in Orwell’s ‘1984’, he keeps snatching furtive glances at his mobile phone, as if he fears some terrible news. His actions resemble a man who grabs his mobile back from his partner, lest she see those silly light-porn video clips his dumb mate insists on sending.
Alonso lives about 200 yards from me, and although we do know each other by sight he keeps a low profile. I mean that I don’t often see him, but also that he has no need to lie low because the Basques generally respect people’s space, and don’t go in for that annoying fan thing. It’s one of the reasons why he’s come back, apart from wanting to have his kids educated in Basque for a while, a language in which both he and his wife are native speakers. As you can imagine, there isn’t too much Basque hanging around in Madrid and Munich. Anyway, although we share three languages it’s English that pops into my head by default, and as he approaches with his head in his phone I quip ‘Don’t worry – I won’t ask you for a selfie. Keep my distance and all that’ at which he looks up, slightly startled, and almost stumbles, like I’ve taken him out in the centre-circle. As he passes me he offers a faint acknowledgement, but it could be just a ‘Who is that idiot?’ look.
I let him fade into the distance and then look back, slightly amazed at the whole episode. He seems a creature of little significance, a pale nobody framed against the silent urban landscape. It’s an unsettling moment, but it zooms the current circumstances into big- screen HD. Alonso will be happy that nobody can now ask him for a selfie, but what role does he now play in society? Coach to a Real Sociedad B team that is neither allowed to train nor play. And does anyone currently give a monkey’s toss? No they don’t, but they will when this is all over. What struck me in that street, however, was that we may never hero-worship in quite the same way again. I’m not criticising Alonso specifically (he’s always seemed a decent enough bloke), but the private-jet antics of goons like Neymar and friends will cut less slack in the public eye than was previously the case. We will continue to pay for the privilege of seeing these great athletes strut their stuff, but one suspects – if you’ll excuse the phrase – that the goalposts have inexorably shifted. And that might not be a bad thing.
Anyway, look – this is getting a bit long. When I was at ESPN, the great John Brewin once told me, as we supped a pint on a London street, ‘Phil – don’t write any more than 1,500 words. After that, people take the dog for a walk.’ And I’ve still got to tell you about the third player. It was Mikel Oyarzabal, if you must know, and I didn’t say a word to him.
He was in front of me in the supermarket the other day, and I can confirm that he has unfeasibly large feet. I don’t know if Pep still wants him at Manchester City, but if he does he should know that he eats digestive biscuits, but the ones with sugar in them. There – that’s knocked 10 million off his sale price. WTF?