Two players, footballers of contrasting styles and temperament but with a common love of glory and money, made their debuts for their respective Manchester clubs last month, but nobody, surely, can say if Dimitar Berbatov will go on to be much loved at United or Robinho at City.
That is the nature of the modern game. Where once loyalty and a binding contract were enough to ensure a player’s continued presence at a club, narcissism, greed and busy agents all but guarantee serial displacement at every club in the country.
Why, for instance, would anyone expect Berbatov to be any more committed to United than he was to CSKA Sofia (two seasons), Bayer Leverkusen (five) or Tottenham Hotspur (two)? Because, goes the argument, he will win things at Old Trafford. And what if he doesn’t?
It is difficult to picture Dimi scrapping about for them in a relegation fight in the admittedly highly unlikely event of it all going horribly wrong there — or even existing in the potless nowhere world of mid-table. His commitment is ensured for as long as United are ”the biggest club in the world” — as he described them before his encouraging debut at Anfield — for as long as they provide him with the platform to satisfy his own ambitions.
Once, he was as romantic as the rest of us. His team were Newcastle United, his mother revealed, and he used to sleep in an Alan Shearer replica shirt when he was a boy back in Blagoevgrad. Fat chance of his ending up at the maddest club in the land, though.
Robinho, meanwhile, was adamant that leaving Real Madrid wasn’t about the money — even though his decision to embrace the brave new future at City did not arrive until their new owners, from Abu Dhabi rumbled into town. Robinho reckoned he could not improve at star-packed Real — but he could at City. They won’t argue. They’ve got their man — for now — and were thankful for his goal from a free-kick in his debut match.
But is this a game to celebrate unquestioningly any more? Less so, from this side of the laptop, than ever.
It is many years — at least 40 or so — since supporters could identify with their weekend heroes, but the truth is they long ago stopped pretending to. Neutrals watching City and Chelsea in that game will have been filled less with admiration of great skill than resentment and jealousy; partisan witnesses will have revelled in their good fortune.
While football has an end-of-empire feel, it will limp on gloriously, because millions are as addicted to the glamour of the Premier League as they are to the football itself. A friend who supports Manchester United hasn’t been to a game in years and has no intention of doing so — but he constantly goes on about the money the club spend in the transfer market. I got the impression he was mildly disappointed they paid Spurs only Â£30-million for Berbatov, and envious of the Â£32-million City could afford for Robinho.
And the anticipation of the debut match at Anfield was again matched by the excitement and entertainment generated on the pitch. But it wasn’t like the old days. Not the old days I remember.
When Berbatov waltzed around Javier Mascherano in the third minute and angled the ball back perfectly for Carlos Tevez to drill it into the net, not a single one of the travelling fans will have spent even a second wondering if the brilliant Bulgarian would become a treasured fixture at their club or just another passing millionaire.
As a United fan said beforehand: ”He’s a bit grumpy, but as long as he scores the goals, I’m happy.” There is little point arguing with that sort of pragmatism. If all you care about is the result, then results are what will ensure your loyalty.
When Sir Alex Ferguson was a mere player (and I couldn’t tell you how mere he was), the glamour of football culture was in the shared experience. Real riches were beyond nearly everyone, including players. Now he’s a knight and a boss, who subscribes to the awful business mantra of churn, and the players, weirdly, seem content with this system of hanging redundancy. They are richer, but not necessarily enriched. They would have loved playing 40 years ago.
I was reminded this week of what football was like then, before Liverpool, United, Arsenal and Chelsea crunched any semblance of resistance to their wealth out of the game.
For a handful of men incarcerated on Robben Island, off the coast of Cape Town, it had the power to hold them entranced, even in scraps of smuggled results, weeks old. Football not only raised their spirits, it gave them purpose and discipline in the most horrendous circumstances.
The football these political prisoners admired, beside their own in South Africa, resided in the United Kingdom. The Makana Football Association, fought for with unstinting zeal by the men against an intransigent administration, borrowed from Britain for the names of its teams, Hotspurs, Rangers and Gunners, as well as their own culture in Ditshitshidi and Manong.
They were imprisoned, but football made them free. On the arid island that was home to most of them for a decade and more, they were already creating the sort of society for which they had been fighting all their lives. There was free movement of players between teams. There was no segregation. It was anti-apartheid perfection. When the inmates got out, some of them went on to play a part in building the new South Africa: Jeff Radebe, Jacob Zuma, Mark Shinners, Anthony Suze, Marcus Solomon, Tokyo Sexwale and Dikgang Moseneke.
For thousands of others who played in the little-known prison league, football was More Than Just a Game, which is the title of a book published next month, the work of Chuck Korr, an American academic now working at De Montfort University in Leicester, and Marvin Close, a writer and lifelong fan of Bradford City. The story, a remarkable one, has also been made into a film.
It was hugely inappropriate for Fifa’s president, Sepp Blatter, recently to characterise the lot of footballers today as ”modern slavery”, just as it was boneheaded for Ronaldo to agree with him. And Blatter’s contribution to this book, a considered preface (presumably not meant to be ironic), was equally jarring.
Nonetheless, the book, in an age of excess, could hardly be more timely. Maybe Sepp will give Cristiano a signed copy to read some time. –