Are footballers becoming bigger than the game?
A decade ago, few would have imagined football moving in the direction that we are seeing it move today. It is today a story of the domination of two men, whose names need not be mentioned for they are as well-known to people all over the world as the Queen is to the British.
Together, they own 10 Ballon d’Ors, innumerable goals and countless assists. However, neither of them is the world’s most expensive player. While Lionel Messi has played for only one club, the other, Cristiano Ronaldo, though the most expensive player almost a decade ago, is now not even in the top 5 as far as transfer fees are concerned.
To an extent, football has deviated from its humble beginnings and allowed itself to be drowned in player demands, which is why teams often prefer to pick the shiniest diamond on display, which results in inflated fees and inflated egos on the part of the players.
The shiniest diamond of them all right now is Neymar. His transfer to uber-rich Paris Saint-Germain in August 2017 left the entire sporting world in shock. After all, Barcelona thought a €222 million release clause would be large enough to keep suitors at bay, so it would have been natural that social media would have melted even at the slightest rumour of someone sniffing around. But let alone sniffing around, PSG went all the way and brought him to the Parc des Princes.
Bringing a player of Neymar’s stature, coupled with the superstars that PSG already possessed, meant that keeping egos satisfied would have been of the utmost importance. But with Neymar, PSG seemed to have failed at that, with speculation now rife that Neymar might move on to Catalonia’s biggest rivals, both in sporting and political terms, Real Madrid.
Now, most of us would think that €222 million would tie a player to a club for some time, but PSG president Nasser Al-Khelaifi has reportedly said (via AS) that Neymar may be allowed to swap the French capital for the Spanish one if PSG win the Champions League this season, potentially allowing Cristiano Ronaldo to move the other way, which really is a reflection of how fickle football, and in this case, footballers, have become.
They have openly deviated away from the credos that football was built upon, and have just bulldozed away aspects such as crowd sentiment, and subsequently are expecting consumers of football worldwide to view players with a certain detachment. Imagine if Sir Alex Ferguson, the very personification of modern-day Manchester United, had one-day shut shop to move towards a much more lucrative deal. Would the people of Manchester have remained quiet? While it may be foolish to talk about such intangible things, it is these intangible things that make the El Clasico, the Manchester derby or the Rhineside derby the spectacles that they are today.
PSG’s mad obsession with winning the Champions League has been well-known, ever since they blew all domestic competitors out of the water with their newfound wealth. But if they could take a look at what history has to offer, they’d see that teams that had continued success on the European stage built their teams over a period. No period of prolonged success was attained by a single excellent player or a single astute managerial change.
These things took time. Real Madrid, with all their Galacticos, could not win the Champions League between 2002 and 2014, when they had the likes of Beckham, Ronaldo, Guti and even current manager Zinedine Zidane roaming the pitch at the Bernabeu. Barcelona, in the same period built a fantastically coordinated team, and it is a similar approach which is present even today.
Unfortunately, while the Bosman ruling has certainly made the game better, instances of players holding out against their clubs is damaging the game. Riyad Mahrez had gone on some form of protest by refusing to train due to Leicester's failure in accepting a 60 million pound bid from Manchester City. Ousmane Dembele did something of a similar nature to Borussia Dortmund last season in order to force through a hugely inflated 105 million pound transfer as Barcelona tried desperately to find a replacement for Neymar. Such antics would have been intolerable earlier and would have derailed a player's career. There have also been instances of players rejecting national call-ups, for some unknown reason.
Newer times mean higher rates for footballers. Better facilities and methods have created better footballers and hence have contributed to the steep rise in rates. It almost seems like a millennium ago when Trevor Francis was the world’s first 1 million footballer, and 30-odd million would actually fetch you a Gianluigi Buffon. But the one thing that hasn’t changed much is the path to success.
Even a manager as legendary as Sir Alex Ferguson took 7 years to win his first league title, two of which ended with Manchester United in 11th place. Not something most club owners would tolerate in today’s quick-fix world.
Football should not allow itself to be dominated by player demands. While the game has more fans than ever before, many fans do not wish to go beyond the Citys, PSGs or Madrids, which reiterates the point of how modern-day fans are attracted to the price tag more than the name or playing style of the players. This is a major disservice to the game because of a simple fact: Nobody or no team can ever be bigger than the 'Beautiful Game'.