athletes and personal freedom
Transfer deadline day has been and gone, bringing a moderate amount of excitement this year, tinged by relief that its over. To my mind, nothing will top the year where Carlos Tevez and Javier Mascherano, two of the world’s acknowledged, real life Championship Manager ‘wonder kids’, signed for West Ham.
Of course, teams can still sign players from the Premier League but not the other way around. The season begins this weekend and the whole carousel can began again. My team Arsenal have been oddly proactive and successful, backing up my general optimism I wrote about previously.
I’m sad to see Alex Iwobi go as I believed that he could develop into a very good player and had a soft spot for him as an academy graduate. The fact is that top level sport has no place whatsoever for this misty eyed fans perspective; see what happened to Arsenal’s trumpeted British core of a few seasons back; success requires excellence and football is more competitive than any other sport in terms of there always being someone ready to do better than you.
I hope he goes well at Everton, except when they play against us.
This year is different though. I can’t think of when top players have been so unable to exercise their status to gain their freedom. There are a few examples.
Gareth Bale is the most obvious. He should be a Real Madrid legend but it’s not figured out like that. The coach evidently hates him and was prepared to see him leave without a transfer fee. Of course, this would have saved them almost €100 million in wages over the remainder of his contract so may have been worth doing. They haven’t though and he remains in limbo - too good and too expensive for almost every team but his fitness is unreliable and he’s unwanted by the team to which he belongs, financially and spiritually.
Neymar Jr. For once the 27 year old man who identifies primarily as a son, the ‘eternal adolescent’, may not get his own way. He’s also too expensive to move and the only teams he could realistically go to have already done their own expensive business. To go to Barcelona would probably require some sort of Coutinho swap. Madrid have already spent about €270 million so would have to do some selling of their own to get him.
Coutinho is obviously in an odd spot. He moved for a probably unjustifiable price, doesn’t have a clear position in the team and is obviously dispensable to Barcelona; quite an embarrassing position to be in when you’re one of the most expensive players of all time. He will probably be a makeweight in some deal later in the summer.
The differences between football and the NBA are striking in this respect. The NBA free agency period has seen star players up and change teams increasingly frequently, often long before the end of their contracts. In the NBA there are no transfer fees, players’ contracts are swapped like trading cards, usually for other players, draft picks or the opportunity to take on contracts and ‘dump salary’, freeing up cap space.
NBA players previously envied the freedom of football stars where if you kicked up enough of a fuss then your team had to sell you. They lacked personal security as a team owner could trade them whenever, meaning you’d have to up and go at a moment’s note with no say in the matter, like Jimmy Butler did a couple of seasons ago. This summer the dynamic has switched.
We’ve seen Paul Pogba and Christian Eriksen say they want to leave but they are both still in situ. In the NBA we saw Paul George leave OKC with 2 years left on his deal completely changing the direction of the whole franchise, who immediately offloaded their iconic star Russell Westbrook and started an ad hoc rebuild for the future with the assets they garnered for their two best players. Anthony Davis and Kyrie Irving have done much the same thing, forcing their way to the Lakers and the Nets.
In football, the high fees and salaries have become a gilded prison. The best players are too expensive to move, the architecture around them too complex to navigate. Bale could go back to the Premier League but he’’d have to change his lifestyle and give up a lot of cash. Make no mistake either, that is money owed to him by Madrid; they negotiated a salary with him and are bound to play it. He is under no obligation to ‘give it up’ because they’ve changed their minds.
Neymar came to Europe with an entourage of 5 friends. Now, moving him anywhere means moving 30 people, chartering jets and booking up hotels to accommodate his friends, family and staff. These guys don’t and can’t live in the real world, mobbed wherever they go, they have to bring their world along with them, created from nothing and the result of nothing more than their own talent and will.
Bale is often criticised for not learning Spanish. I heard an interesting phrase a while back; ‘6 star luxury is the same everywhere’. Anodyne glass buildings, manicured golf courses, everything one text away except for happiness and professional fulfilment. A curated reality where you do live somewhere, but it could be anywhere. Private planes and private airports shuttle you between theatres where you act a part, that of a superstar, before going home to your luxury cage, unable to be anonymous anywhere.
The NBA has begun a compulsory mental health service where each team has to provide support in this regard. Multimillionaire sporting professionals are not obvious receptacles for sympathy but as so many of them are unhappy, as some of the best and wealthiest have so little personal agency, in some ways it’s hard not to feel sorry for them.