Football has always been most popular in working class cities. The busiest turnstiles, and therefore biggest clubs have always been born in the Liverpools, Manchesters, outskirts of London, and mostly in the towns that boast accents thicker than the mushy peas they heap on chips. Rugby was always for the probably better educated, a probably more civilised day out. And then somewhere along the line, the two sports crossed over like a shuffle icon. Watching football live became a hobby for the richer, and rugby became an affordable stag do.
Money in football is one of those weird subjects that people have given up talking about, unless it’s a Facebook status comparing Wayne Rooney’s daily pocket money – it’s always Rooney – with a soldier’s or a nurse’s yearly wage. It’s grumbled about more than actually debated, but as no fan really knows the inner workings of Premier League economics, guestimates are calculated, numbers plucked from the air. “We’ll pay for Ibrahimovic in shirt sales, I’d imagine.” “Why can’t we sign a winger when we have a war chest?” “Surely with this new TV deal, we can offer our goalkeeper a new contract.” Come on, do you have any idea how much money your chairman has allocated to each cog in the club’s engine?
We hear murmurs of TV deals, we watch helplessly as tickets rocket and leave helplessly as a protest. But the real barometer for how a fan gauges club wealth comes from transfers. Is money truly ruining the game if it buys such talent? Or is big money in fact a hindrance to a player?
It’s easy to point the finger fifteen years on, but it was definitely the Galacticos that started it. Luis Figo broke the record in 2000 when Madrid shelled out £37m on the winger, before Zinedine Zidane was added for £45m just a year later. As the jewel in the crown of the best side on Earth, Zizou justified the ridiculous fee with a spectacular winning goal in the Champions League final that season. A myth was born: if you want the best players, pay the most money. So that’s what Britain started to do. Manchester United made tentative steps into becoming a brand as much as a football club, and the results of their market dabbling were mixed. Rio Ferdinand for £30m became solid business, as he cemented his name in Old Trafford history; Juan Sebastián Verón for a similar fee became a costly misstep. Chelsea found a wealthy owner; Arsenal moved house just to keep up with the neighbours. City out-Romaned Chelsea with sheikhs, and then other Premier League clubs became bigger, richer, stronger.
But looking back at the list of England’s biggest signings, it’s a dodgier receipt than Spain’s. For every Agüero or De Bruyne, there tends to be a whole lot more Arshavins or Bentekes. Ángel Di Maria looked worth the £57m in his first month at United before falling off the pace of the Prem and leaving a year later, for example. Fernando Torres went from Anfield hero to the bemusement of Stamford Bridge via a whopping £50m. Liverpool were backed into a corner one window and paid £35m for Andy Carroll in sheer desperation. Raheem Sterling has barely started justifying his insane £49m fee; Andriy Shevchenko’s £30m Chelsea move was the biggest mistake in a glittering career. Robinho signed for Man City in a £34m deal: he thought he’d signed for United.
Robinho’s slip into obscurity is a case in point as to why Barcelona and Real Madrid don’t sign as many flops. If you don’t want to work for the best two in the business, exactly what is your career ambition? La Liga is an entirely different culture in which most signings tend to outstay the managers – if you’re a flop under the current boss, don’t worry, you’ll probably have one of Europe’s elite coaching you next term – but there’s a big case that actually, players who are already earning more than anyone else lose their motivation quickest (see Rooney, Walcott, and perhaps Vardy and Mahrez this season if things head south for Leicester City). If you’re playing for someone a step down from Europe’s top table, in a physical league, it’s probably a lot easier to just soak up the cash and relax a little. Di Maria for example never wanted to leave Madrid: the odds were already against him succeeding in Manchester. Arshavin proved himself to be one of the laziest footballers Arsenal had ever signed, and Özil was in danger of similarly heading out the door two years into his Arsenal career, but for toughening up physically and pulling himself together mentally. It’s so much easier to do that, surely, if you’re playing for Real Madrid.
It therefore goes without saying that only the very strongest minds in football should command the heftiest price tags, but determination for the cause is a two-way street between manager and player. Sergio Agüero is a born winner who has given his heart to Man City; Alexis Sanchez works himself into the ground for Arsenal. Both were bought for between £35m and £40m, both have the fearless, South American drive, and neither need their coach firing them up for a big game. If you invest big money in players like that, players like Neymar, Cristiano Ronaldo, even someone like Sadio Mané – who clearly didn’t want to be at Southampton, yet buckled down and got on with with the job instead of sulking – it makes the manager’s job easier. Confidence players on the other hand can become engulfed by their price tag – see Torres, José Antonio Reyes, even Mangala – and if a manager has a misfiring player worth more than J.K. Rowling, it becomes the biggest worry in your team. They’re the ones that are going to keep younger talent out of the side, look even less confident with each bad game, the ones who will become remembered for their fee rather than what they achieve on the field. It’s no surprise that big-money signings who come good aren’t just the best players in the world or the ones with the most potential, they’re the ones managed by the best managers.
And as the superstar managers of the sport step further into the limelight, it’s equally no surprise that money is more confidently being tossed around. Mourinho, Guardiola, Conte, Klopp, Bilic and Ranieri are all relatively new to their teams, but see nothing wrong in bidding whatever it takes to bring the right player to their club, whether they need Paul Pogba or Troy Deeney. They’re all so sure that they can be the ones to get the best out of megabucks players. If you have the money – which we all do now, come on – asking “But is he worth it?” seems like an old-fashioned concept. Can you put a price on winning the league, especially in an economic climate that will seem small-scale in in two years?
The supposed lesson of last season was that you don’t need to spend huge sums of money (Leicester, Arsenal, Spurs) to finish above those who do (Chelsea, United, City), and yet we’re seeing the other side of that coin now. Instead of ignoring tiny transfer sums, we’re ignoring the bigger numbers; if Leicester can meld a team together through shared determination, how hard can it be for José sign one of the world’s best midfielders and subscribe him to a group philosophy?
Clubs should look a player’s motivation to join before anything else. The ones that hit the ground running are the ones that want to prove themselves: Pogba may be one of the world’s elite, but he clearly has unfinished business in England, for example. It’s strange for fans to care so much about money that often isn’t ours, money that we can’t even picture, but after last season, after the influx of new managers into the game, it’s almost a relief to know that throwing wads of cash at a footballer won’t make them automatically world class. The real lesson of last season is in fact that motivation trumps price tag and the league’s best have answered that: Arsenal got a leader in Xhaka, Mourinho added winners to a shaky United side and Klopp assembled players who wanted to run riot on a bigger stage. They’re all more expensive than Vardy and Mahrez, but they’re all a reaction to the passion of that winning side. It seems like football has no time for primadonnas right now: the ones we want to spend our millions on are the ones with that working class grit.
This is still the sport we know and love, where trophies are won on the pitch, and not in Sky Sports studios on the last day of August. Money simply facilitates a good signing. It certainly doesn’t guarantee one.