Football: A new ball game with loyalty just a transferable commodity

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The Independent Online
AS HE prepares to begin a new life in Madrid this weekend, Nicolas Anelka will probably not be casting a nostalgic glance over his shoulder at the English Premier League, which kicks off a new season today in a mood of rampant prosperity and raging expectancy. Some day, however, he may look back at the night he scored two goals - actually three, one of them incorrectly disallowed - for France against England at Wembley. Perhaps he will remember the most striking aspect of the response, which was not the adulation of the French press and its readers but the admiration with which the feat was received by those whose representatives had been so comprehensively defeated. The English greeted Anelka's achievement almost as if he had been one of their own.

Six months later, such generosity has been cancelled by the signature on a contract with Real Madrid that will bring Anelka pounds 50,000 a week after tax. As a result, many of the people who applauded his goals that night have come to view the 20-year-old forward as a convenient symbol of the sickness festering beneath football's apparently healthy skin. Yet, by his action, Anelka may simply have pointed the way to the game's future.

His erstwhile team-mate Tony Adams spoke this week of the importance of a player's loyalty to his club, the Arsenal captain revealing himself to be a perfect embodiment of football's fast-disappearing 20th century values. What Anelka has done is provide a particularly vivid item of evidence that, in football, a player's loyalty has become an infinitely transferable commodity, a phenomenon that will be visible around the Premier League grounds this afternoon.

And why not? As far back as most of us can remember, loyalty has never been a quality required of football's executives - the directors and managers whose business has been to entice players away from their existing employers, to exploit their abilities, and then to move them on when their time is up. A player's automatic loyalty is a throwback to football's feudal era, when clubs owned the very lives of the men they referred to as "servants". Anelka believes that he is nobody's servant, and good luck to him. He sees the sums of money washing around the game, and he believes he knows who really earns it.

Supporters, not players, are the ones for whom loyalty remains an appropriate emotion. And their loyalty is to their club as a whole, not its constituent parts. Any player whose form has deserted him knows all too well the real nature of the fans' affections. The Anelka formula simply recognises the truth of this equivocal relationship, and to blame agents for exposing it is absurd. There are good agents and bad agents, just as there are virtuous chairmen and managers and crooked ones. But even the good ones are merely doing their job when they concentrate on maximising their client's earnings.

If Anelka's decision to engineer the end of his contract was a crime, then it was surely a victimless one. For an initial investment of pounds 500,000, salary and bonus payments of perhaps pounds 1m, and the application of their manager's wisdom, Arsenal got a couple of great years and a profit of around pounds 22m, which is good business in anybody's language. Like the talented young players who must have watched the affair with more than usual interest, wondering how the principles might apply to their own careers, other big football clubs will also have understood that this is the way the world will go. Leeds, for example, had to wait only a matter of days to experience the proof, when Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink coerced them into accepting a pounds 10m profit from Atletico Madrid.

Such sums encourage the widespread use of the word "greed". Yet to criticise a 20-year-old for accepting an offer of pounds 50,000 a week rather than settling for the pounds 12,000 a week that Arsenal were paying him is to expect him to behave according to principles that none of us out here in the normal world would accept. In the future, footballers will operate much more like normal employees, on short-term contracts. Fees for the transference of "ownership" of a player between clubs will become largely a thing of the past. The scale of the salaries now available will be more than enough to compensate Premiership players for the absence of the security of long- term contracts.

Accusations of greed make sense in only one respect. For anyone in this world to be paid Anelka's salary is, in itself, an obscenity. But footballers are hardly alone. J P Morgan, the 19th century pioneer of American banking, believed that no chief executive should earn more than 20 times the salary of his basic shop-floor employee; the multiple among big American companies is currently standing at somewhere above 400, which probably also reflects the difference between Michael Owen's salary of around pounds 30,000 a week and that of the average Liverpool season-ticket holder. But that is society's problem, not football's.

On a sporting level, no one expresses serious misgivings about Michael Schumacher's right to earn pounds 20m a year for driving his Ferrari. That's pounds 400,000 a week, getting on for 10 times Anelka's take-home pay. Somehow grand prix racing's social standing as a glamorous, high-technology sport renders it immune to the moral logic that is supposed to govern the people's game. Such logic also fails to recognise the standing of football in the world of mass-media entertainment, a world in which a Julia Roberts or a Brad Pitt can earn upwards of pounds 10m a movie. Why shouldn't David Beckham earn as much as his wife?

As for Anelka, if he should score 25 goals for Real Madrid this season, he will be a hero in the Estadio Bernabeu just as he was a Highbury hero last year, when he became Arsenal's top scorer. The fans will get the pleasure that success brings and that, now, is all that counts. It will be a similar equation in Milan, where Christian Vieri, the only man to have cost a football club more money than Anelka, begins the season with Internazionale, his eighth club in eight seasons. If his goals lead Inter to the Serie A title, the fans will behave as though he was born with black-and-blue blood running through his veins.

So Anelka may have left England but the boom of the Nineties continues, on the field as well as off it. Who could resist the notion of Sir Alex Ferguson's treble winners locked in a nine-month battle with Wenger's Arsenal, Vialli's Chelsea, Houllier's Liverpool and O'Leary's Leeds, with a dogfight in the basement as a sideshow? But for those trying to identify the changing shape of the game, and with a willingness to look beyond Manchester United's current share price or the sold out notices on the Stamford Bridge ticket kiosks, this has also been a summer of confusing signals, many of which point to real and fundamental change, and a degree of uncertainty over the horizon.

There will be 200 foreigners in the Premiership this season, such distinguished arrivals as Davor Suker, Mustapha Hadji, Sami Hyypia and Christian Ziege helping to raise the proportion of the total playing strength to more than a third. When the Premiership began, seven years ago, there were 11. The infusion of such diversity of playing styles and temperaments gives the league a rich and fascinating volatility, a fitting complement to the increasingly sophisticated surroundings in which the matches are being played. Inevitably, the price will be paid in the lack of opportunity for locally-bred apprentices with the leading clubs.

According to Gerard Houllier, who created the widely admired French national youth coaching scheme before taking the reins at Anfield, England is currently blessed with a brilliant crop of young players in the 18-23 age bracket. Yet even Alex Ferguson, whose revamping of the Old Trafford youth scheme at the end of the Eighties produced half last season's treble squad, now finds himself filling the team's vacancies with ready-made Dutchmen, Australians, Swedes and Trinidadians, while the home-bred successors to the likes of Giggs, Scholes and the Neville brothers wither in the reserves.

At this end of the market, football managers will do whatever they must to achieve success. The short-term gain is the licence it gives the Premiership's spokesmen to speak of it as still the best league in the world. Its international popularity is no myth, as we saw from the response to Manchester United's Far East business-expansion trip last month. When England's Under-21 side played a match in a small town in the Bulgarian mountains a few weeks ago, local youths proudly turned out wearing not only the strips but also the tattoos of United, Spurs and Liverpool. And yet, come autumn, we may see the England team, the Premier League's flagship, struggling to qualify for the Euro 2000 finals, an ominous foreshadowing of the World Cup two years later.

Should Kevin Keegan or his successor fail to lead England to either of these showpiece tournaments, it is hard to imagine the game sustaining its current level of unprecedented popularity in the public's mind. The tabloids' persecution of the England coach is part of the sport, but a couple of years of consistent international disappointment would seriously sour the euphoria.

It may be that such a reverse would coincide with a change in English football's relationship with television. When the Sky deal expires, in 2001, television will be hoping for a big move into pay-per-view, in order to tap into a new revenue stream. But such a method depends on the viewer's active support, on the maintenance of a sufficiently high level of enthusiasm to impel the investment of pounds 10 to watch a single match. An abandonment of traditional broadcasting, or even a serious reduction, would link the game's fortunes even more closely to the public's whims. At the moment, with English football poised to become a billion-pound business, as the annual Deloitte Touche report told us this week, that may not seem much of a risk. But nor, at the dawn of the first millennium, did the stability of Rome, whose decline, in the words of Edward Gibbon, was "the natural and inevitable effect of immoderate greatness".

It may be years, although perhaps not centuries, before we reach a true understanding of the part played by Anelka in the fortunes of English football. Was he the first to shake the pillars of the empire, or did he give us a clearer vision of an even more glorious future? Meanwhile, we might as well enjoy the circus.