The Nick Townsend column: Now is the summer of our discontent, say football slaves

Ronaldo and Co will leave behind disenchanted fans and owners but such concerns mean nothing if you are seriously out of touch
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The Independent Online

Poor Alexander Hleb. He is tired of London, though is not apparently perturbed by the prospect of life in Barcelona which, nobody appears to have warned him, is scarcely a haven of solitude. He should have a word with Frank Lampard, who is not so tired of the capital that, at 30, he could not manage another five years at Chelsea. But if he is to stay, he won't countenance a year less. Cristiano Ronaldo is simply tired of being shackled to Manchester United. A slave, no less, though football's rich turf is scarcely analogous to the meagre pickings, if any, from the cotton fields. As for Gareth Barry, he was simply tired of his manager Martin O'Neill, whom he accused of having time to pontificate on Euro 2008 for the BBC, but not discuss his future. All very tiresome for all concerned. And not unconnected.

But then this is July, after a major championship; the season of malcontents, when disaffected players tend to claim real or imaginary slights by their manager or club, though ultimately with the aim of enforcing a transfer, claiming more riches and/or enhancing their career at a club deemed more worthy of their talents.

Though it has always been thus, one does have to question their timing on this occasion. Those of us who believed that footballers are not great readers of the front pages have had that belief confirmed in the last few days. Certainly they have no conception of the R-word. Unless it stands for Rolls-Royce. With a total lack of appreciation that those who pay their salaries as spectators or through TV subscriptions may, with recession imminent, just be having trouble filling their petrol tank, rather than worrying about what new Jeremy Clarkson-endorsed speedster they buy next, they have all, in their different ways, become honorary members of the Ashley Cole-inspired Collective of the Seriously Out-of-Touch.

You may recall the defender who "nearly swerved off the road" when he heard that Arsenal wouldn't increase his salary from £55,000 to £60,000. A week.

What the players possibly did not require was Sepp Blatter lumbering in to deem Ronaldo's situation at Old Trafford "modern slavery", an expression that the Portuguese midfielder voraciously seized upon. Sensitivity has never been the Fifa president's strong suit. The only surprise is that he didn't go further and accuse the major clubs of "people-trafficking".

It is perfectly true, of course, that football is an industry which involves buying and selling of a commodity that is human beings. And it is true that the wretched Ronaldo, Lampard, Hleb or Barry can't simply give notice, like the rest of us, and join the opposition. It's a rare occupation when you have a valuation, albeit at times a media guestimate, stapled to your ear like a goat at an Egyptian bazaar, over which haggling takes place.

It is a market-driven sport, in which a career can be brief. In those circumstances, there is not one of us who wouldn't attempt to manipulate it to our own advantage. But that said, most of us would happily accept the inconvenience of those shackles. As Sir Bobby Charlton put it succinctly: "If this is slavery, give me a life sentence."

Though it is true that a player can be sold when he doesn't necessarily desire it, the more frequent scenario is one in which a player can gain a move, often involving a contrived row, when his club would prefer him to stay. That's only what we should expect from a trade in which no amount of theatrical badge-kissing will persuade spectators that loyalty has not become a redundant virtue.

So Hleb appears to be on his way to Barcelona. Or is it Bayern? Barry en route to Liverpool. Ronaldo bound this summer, or maybe in a year's time, to Real Madrid. All leaving behind disenchanted fans and disgruntled chairmen and owners. But what of Lampard? In one sense, he is in nobody's debt at Chelsea after seven years and 110 goals. Chelsea have offered the 30-year-old a four-year, £140,000-a-week contract, which represents remarkable largesse. Arsenal are adamant that thirty-somethings are worth only a year's contract. One suspects he may just have had his head turned by Italy, and Jose Mourinho, at Internazionale – even though, as he adjusts, if he does, to that alien football and social environment, and not every English player has prospered on such adventures, he may find his England place being usurped by a certain Gareth Barry.

Truly a dilemma for a player who appears a decent enough character. But he'll excuse the vast majority of his countrymen who don't earn, in a year, half of what Lampard has been offered a week if they don't smother him with sympathy at his plight.

Meanwhile, the voice of Jordan, Crystal Palace's chairman Simon, is no easier on the ear than Jordan, glamour model. There is a tendency to hit "mute" when he gets into full ranting mode. Yet one can sympathise with his exasperation over the loss of John Bostock, the club's 16-year-old prodigy.

Palace identified his talent and nurtured the youngster, gave the captain of the England Under-17s his first-team debut at 15 years 287 days, and now have lost him to Tottenham for £700,000 (possibly rising to £1.25m), following a Football League tribunal. Palace's valuation of him at £5m was possibly a trifle optimistic, but £700,000? Members of that tribunal really should get out more.

Cricket's traditional values in short supply

With an appropriate sense of timing that has matched their dispatch of South Africa's bowling, Kevin Pietersen and Ian Bell have reminded us of the power of Test cricket to enthral. Necessary, too, when the game appears to be indulging in a worrying bout of self-harm.

The easy money versus tradition debate has reached the kind of conflict that has always been threatened since the introduction of Twenty20, with Sri Lanka Cricket agreeing that their players can go off to compete in the Indian Premier League's lucrative tournament next April and May.

The likely consequence is that, unless dates can be rearranged, it will be a second-string side who arrive to play two Tests here, as replacements for Zimbabwe. This will mean, among others, no captain, Mahele Jayawardene, and no Muttiah Muralitharan. And no point, many will suggest.

Haroon Lorgat, the new chief executive of the International Cricket Council, calls for responsibility from all concerned, and warns of the dangers. "International cricket generates revenue that is essential to the survival of all our members," he says.

The genie is out of the lamp. It is pointless attempting to prohibit players from capitalising on the appeal of the short game. But those players should be wary indeed that in their Klondike-like dash for rewards they do not imperil the entire future ofthe game.

Is it too early to put Federerout to grass at Wimbledon?

The memory of the denouement still produces a frisson down the spine. They were like a pair of medieval jousters in the half-light, and though one sensed Roger Federer might justbecome Roger the Deferer and delay the inevitable until the following day, there was only one knight who would ultimately win the hand of fair lady Wimbledon, and that was Rafael Nadal.

What of Federer now? The more triumphantly they ride, the harder the eventual fall. And it had been 65 matches since the Swiss player last experienced defeat on grass. Will Federer's battered psyche recover in order to allow a potent challenge for a sixth Wimbledon championship?

One suspects that Sunday marked a distinct changing of the guard, despite Federer's steely response after conceding the first two sets. Much will depend on how the new champion responds to his newly acquired status and the weight of expectancy that inevitably accompanies it.

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