02 August 2009

All virgins are liars, honey: one

Money. Part one of two. Part two here.

It's easy to climb a tree and fling shit at the vehicles of innocent safari park patrons when you're talking about someone on a team you don't support. But sometimes one must retreat to the makeshift, galvanise-roofed hut provided and cogitate on some home truths. So let's provide some basic materials and see if any monkey fashions some rudimentary ant-harvesting implements from them.

There isn't a great deal of sadness in Arsenalistic parts about Emmanuel Adebayor's departure for the oil-fields of Manchester. The Farewell Committee has even produced a commemorative pamphlet. He's gone, and now we can happy again.

But, but, but: the mockery of Nicklas Bendtner may be grossly disproportionate, he said guiltily, but he's not (yet?) of Adebayor's class; no-one truly knows how good Eduardo can be; as much as I love Robin van Persie, I'm a touch (just a touch, mind you) sceptical as to how well he can lead the line consistently all season (even without taking into account the delicacy of his physique); Arsène Wenger is hinting at a move for [insert name of continental one-season wonder here], but for all that Wenger's touch in the transfer market is celebrated, he's also the manager who sanctioned the purchases of Franny Jeffers and José Antonio Reyes.

This is the pessimistic reading, of course, but it bears bearing in mind. The feeling of relief at the end of the saga — the Simple English version of the Cristiano Ronaldo rumour thread — has coloured the perception of the deal. "An indulgence has been craved and answered", as Yogi's Warrior of Arsenal blog A Cultured Left Foot notes, and the we'll-be-fine sentiment that seems to inevitably follow the good-riddances is a lot less neat than is being admitted.

Think back to 2007. By then, Arsenal's game had come to revolve so much around Thierry Henry that his departure left a yawning uncertainty as to how the team should proceed. That the new, Henryless Arsenal did so well the following season was seen as the result of a feeling of liberation. But it was more like refreshment, rejuvenation. The focus merely shifted from Henry to Adebayor, except that the Adebayorcentricism facilitated a greater cohesion in attack. Not only did his marksmanship lead directly to a pile of goals, but his intelligence and (yes!) unselfishness marked him out as the fulcrum of the attack, around which the team could more effectively move. Arsenal could not have come so close to winning the title (four bloody points...) without Adebayor.

For evidence of how difficult things might be for Arsenal, just remember last season. Adebayor spiritually left the club last summer, after all, and though this was far from the sole cause of Arsenal's purgatorial year, the entry wound was visible to all. Adebayor may not have defined the team as much as Henry did, but he burned so brightly for that one term that the sudden power cut is taking some adjustment. At least he gave the club a year's notice. Credit where it's due.

A large, and largely unspoken (maybe because I'm the only one who feels it, I don't know) reason for Arsenal fans to feel miffed at this story and glad for its passing is that it's not the first time it's happened. Not to go all Banderas-eyes on you, but Patrick Vieira seemed to take several years to leave, and Henry-to-whoever stories were go-to pieces for eager editors for a good while before he finally moved on. Perhaps we should be merciful that it only took Adebayor twelve months to go.

A somewhat easier way to parse this and almost every other transaction between the great and noble institutions of Ours, the Most Beautiful of All Games, is to invoke Mammon. Certainly, Adebayor's wheelings and, finally, dealings have been fuel for the to-hell-in-a-Bentley set. Eyebrows merged with fringes as he asked City for some time to consider the effect the move would have on the opinions of his fellow Togolese. Some sensed that he was holding out for a move south. Maybe so. In any case, it difficult to imagine that he could be anything but vividly aware of his fame and the effect it has on his compatriots. Adebayor is virtually synonymous with Togo; there are few of us, I trust, who share such a distinction, who can presume what it must be like.

Furthermore — forgive my liberal guilt — I, as a white western male aged 18-40 who had a happy, safe and comfortable upbringing and am, therefore, one of the most privileged people in the history of humanity, am in no position to lecture somebody whose talent has earned him a passage to the good life.

That said, he may just be a dickhead. But that said, it doesn't take such a special example as Adebayor to see in this case the broader issue: that football is a business these days, as we are periodically reminded, like the stupid children we are. It is, of course, a half-truth that so many of those in charge of the game recite as if it was dictated by the big CEO in the sky himself. But though its repeated incantation may often be distasteful and misdirecting (sport is never just a business), it is nonetheless real for that.

"Mercenary" is invariably used pejoratively. But in a profession whose span is necessarily short, in which an injury or a manager who doesn't like your face or some other mini-stroke of misfortune can do for you in a second, which often ultimately regards you as an asset of uncertain value which will be squeezed out of you before your being discarded like month-old milk — in such a profession, playing primarily, maybe even only, for the alighty ollar* is a perfectly legitimate way to conduct oneself. True loyalty is an exchange, not theft. The reality is that the issue is far more complex, far more human, than is sometimes allowed for.

*Aside: Do you think there will come a time when Simpsons references are as old hat as, say, Goons ones? Would we want to live in a world like that?

One frequently detects a strain of nostalgia for the days when players were decent and when loyalty was not a dirty word. But for one thing, mercenariness has always been there; it is not merely a trait of these days. The early Lancastrian pioneers of professional football, including the Preston North End 'Invincibles', were full of Scots. Quoth one of their number, Burnley's James Lang: "[I] hadn't crossed the border to play for nothing". In England, loyalty was something foisted upon a player. The retain-and-transfer system, wounded by George Eastham and not mortally injured until Jean-Marc Bosman attacked, institutionalised serfdom: a fearful, monopolistic greed which described itself (with some justification) as egalitarianism and (with less justification) as a kind of benevolent paternalism. Tom Finney, for instance, played his entire career at Preston because of an undeniable love for the club and because the board denied him the chance to sign a hugely lucrative deal with Palermo. Finney had no comeback. No player did.

Take a more modern example: Steven Gerrard, who some would have us believe is the pure spirit in earthly form. That he decided to stay at Liverpool when Chelsea offered so much (in money and sporting opportunity) says a huge amount about the man. That he came so close to moving to Chelsea says plenty too. Also, much of the commentary on the retirement of Paolo Maldini used his singular commitment to Milan as a stick with which to beat the rest of the game. In fact, he was an anomaly — an edifying anomaly, but still an anomaly. What he was not was a beacon of purity in a world of irredeemable decay.

(Maldini, we all remember, played for Milan in return for nothing more than spiritual nourishment and a hamper from Signor Berlusconi at Christmas.)

Mercenariness is usually decried as an abomination. But few are those who believe this with absolute conviction. Mercenariness and glory-chasing are inevitable by-products of professionalism, and while they may not be doused in wholly holy wholesomeness, they are potentially useful and productive. It is rare for a team to solely comprise those pure of motive and deed. Success is achieved by harnessing the disparate — the human — ambitions and aptitudes of a group of individuals. That last part, individuals, is especially relevant in elite professional football, its riches centripetally attracting the best talent from everywhere and concentrating it in a small number of hubs.

And fans accept all this. Fan mythology may be based on tribalistic territorialism, on lifelong fidelity and devotion above all, but no-one is averse to a bit of success. If it takes profitable investment from without to boost prosperity within, if it takes the construction of a Guggenheim (if it's not pushing irony too far to use an example pertaining to Bilbao), so be it. Fandom is a compromise. And fans — who arguably, as a whole, are the group most closely in touch with what we will call, for convenience's sake, the soul of the game — are the group with the least direct control over it.

Any reasonable assessment of Adebayor by an Arsenal fan must acknowledge what he brought to the team — something which is, perhaps, less starkly apparent for Arsenal's failure to win the league in 2008. (Personally, I'll remember with particular fondness two of his goals, two of the finest scored by anyone anywhere this past couple of seasons: one in a derby, the other in a Champions League quarter-final.) It must also be acknowledged that the cause to which he was devoted was not — not entirely — the same as that to which the fans were. In a sense, Arsenal have reaped what they sowed when they signed him and capitalised on his ambition. Indeed, it is difficult for any club to complain too much in similar circumstances, given how routinely they buy off whatever version of loyalty players may have for their current clubs. (And the bigger the club, the easier it is for them to buy off said loyalty, and the more difficult it is to sympathise with them when they get bitten.)

The thing is, however malleable the piety of football fans, they are not stupid; they know how things work. Adebayor mocked this. He mocked the relative powerlessness of the fans when he would show a bit of leg to anyone who looked at him; he mocked their understanding of the way of things by pleading innocence; he mocked what power fans actually do possess when he accused them of, by voicing their displeasure at his behaviour, unduly discouraging him and the team. He has been honest about how the terms City offered turned his head; to cite other motivations is...what, exactly? Naive? An established international footballer, with many years' experience in some of Europe's top leagues — naive?

Perhaps the less charitable interpretation would be more apt: that Adebayor is the incarnation of Disingenuos, the god of taking the piss.


Elliott 3/8/09 1:19 AM  

Brilliant, insightful, and well worth the wait. I don't know UK labor laws, but in the US an employee must give two weeks notice before quitting. So no faulting Adeb there.

Fredorrarci 3/8/09 2:12 PM  

Cheers, Elliott.

I must say, when I put "virgins" in the title, I was expecting a rather different kind of spam than someone peddling a site containing satellite TV shows.

Elliott 4/8/09 12:46 AM  

If it helps your pagerank let me know, not that I am about to put "virgin" in the title of my next piece, coincidentally titled "the virgin's virginity loses its virginness."

Its about Adebayor

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