Into that strange and shamefully underexplored Venn diagram intersect where sport and metaphysics meet, there nimbly steps the Lech Walesa of association football. Is his game in danger, wonders Gordon Taylor, boss of the footballers’ trade union the PFA, in an interview, of losing its soul?
This is a fascinating question. It may be the most exquisitely finely judged enquiry ever posed, in fact, since 16 April, 1912, when the chairman of Cunard asked his board of directors: “Do you think that with hindsight, gentlemen, we may pushed that that ‘Unsinkable Titanic’ sales schtick too far?”
The SS Soul of Football – a merchant vessel which always had the flavour of a ghost ship anyway– sailed long ago, though when it hit the iceberg of unfettered free-market rapacity is a matter for conjecture. Was it the moment a certain Gordon Taylor OBE – whose annual salary package is now said to be £1.1m – earned himself the Homeric epithet of “ world’s highest-paid union leader?” Or the day when that same Mr Taylor, the first publicly revealed and most lavishly remunerated victim of News International’s illegal phone-hacking, accepted £700,000 from James Murdoch?
If the above carries a depressed, rancorous tone, small wonder. The new Premier League season begins shortly, and those of us shackled by unflinching emotional chains to Tottenham Hotspur FC are paralysed by despair. Our most dearly beloved Gareth Bale, the greatest footballer in England and third best on the planet, appears on the verge of joining his only superiors, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, in Spain. If Real Madrid hoiks its offer to a world record £85m, so the conventional wisdom presently holds, Spurs chairman Daniel Levy will have no option but to accept it.
That assumes that it is not already a done deal, and that the recent histrionics – Mr Bale’s parents accompanying him to a meeting to beg for his freedom; Mr Levy breaking off a family holiday in Florida to fly home to meet them – are anything more than a subtle public relations ploy to spare the latter grief from the fans for letting the Welsh genius go without a seemly struggle.
Giving Mr Levy grief is not something this fan does lightly, myself. I have far too much respect for his intellect – he is justly proud of his Cambridge First in Land Economy – though it must be confessed that words have been exchanged in the past. The last time he prolonged the sale of a valuable asset until the transfer window had all but shut – in order to squeeze an extra couple of million from Manchester United for the insouciant Bulgarian Dimitar Berbatov – the result was that we began the season, catastrophically, without a recognised striker.
For those not wildly au fait with the nuances of squad management, this experiment, however boldly pioneering, is not worth repeating. After Mr Levy added a starred First in False Economy for the University of Dunce to his previous degree, I questioned his competence. In a tough, no-nonsense counterstrike, he banned not only me but the entire Evening Standard from the club. Lessons were learned on all sides. The ban was swiftly lifted, sparing me the inconvenience of wearing a burqua to White Hart Lane, and I took the oath never again to distress this most sensitive of front men for the billionaire currency trader Joe Lewis.
On this occasion, however, it feels too futile even for me preemptively to criticise Mr Levy for acquiescing in Gareth Bale’s departure, let alone to question the loyalty of the player himself. Of course he should go to Madrid, find a proper home for his outlandish talents, and earn £250,000 a week if he can. To criticise him or Wayne Rooney for disloyalty to their employers is proxy for “how dare working-class men have the presumption to want to maximise their wealth?”; the loose equivalent of the Tea Party racist talking about Obama’s “otherness” in place of screaming “uppity black man”. In any relationship between an individual and a public company, the notion of loyalty in either direction is a confection almost too ridiculous for even Gordon Taylor, the wrongest man alive today, to pay lip service to it with a straight face.
The only loyalty in Premier League football is that offered by the fans to clubs, which duly interpret it as carte blanche to charge preposterously for merchandise and tickets. It is not a noble form of loyalty, and barely a conscious one. You pick your club at six or seven, or have it picked for you by family, geography or whatever, and this is one life sentence that does mean life. One may change spouse, religion, political sympathies and even, though this is technically harder, high-street bank. Nobody can transfer allegiance from one football club to another.
It is the most unbreakable bond known to humanity, and who is so faux-naif as to blame the likes of Mr Levy for treating the faithful as the cash cows they are, or for regarding their dream that Spurs will one day rejoin the giants of the domestic game as the sweetly endearing fantasy of children, however overgrown, who still believe in Santa?
It is too late by a decade and too self-indulgent by light years to phone in yet another whiny reiteration of the fact, so popular among us old boilers, that it is not our game any more. Almost 30 years ago, the outgoing Spurs manager Keith Burkenshaw took a final, poignant glance at the pitch, and muttered: “There used to be a football club over there.”
Of course it isn’t our game any more. The era of paying two bob to watch a bunch of one-club servants, often with the ball control of rhinoceri with Parkinson’s, and to have someone behind you on the terraces circumvent the endless half-time queue by pissing in your pocket, is long gone. One misses it, of course, just as we missed rickets before the recent revival. But there was nothing transcendently beautiful about the domestic game in the 1970s and 1980s, before Gazza’s lachrymals and Nick Hornby’s book heralded its metamorphosis from pariah sport into the apotheosis of Wild West capitalism in which Gordon Taylor bolsters his weekly £20,000 income with £700,000 from News International.