Cristiano Ronaldo, Harry Kane and a football world only getting smaller

The very top of the football world is getting smaller and smaller, with its unique economics ensuring a tranche of elite players and managers only have a few options

Miguel Delaney
Chief Football Writer
Wednesday 25 August 2021 17:13
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Harry Kane confirms he is 'staying at Tottenham' this season

Harry Kane is staying at Tottenham Hotspur because Manchester City failed to put in an official offer anywhere near the number Daniel Levy might have deemed reasonable. The Independent has been told that not even a bid of £150m came in.

That is reasonable in itself, because there are a lot of arguments against spending so much money on a 28-year-old, especially when the City hierarchy themselves wondered whether he was completely the right fit for Pep Guardiola’s football. One perspective was that Kane might drop back into a No 10 position too much, and that his great quality of shooting early doesn’t completely fit with the Catalan’s build-up play.

Either way, Kane stays at Spurs, and a great player remains outside the Champions League. That may not be great for a star in his prime, but it is good for the competitive balance in the game.

There is a merciful irony to that since City represent the very top of a steep football football chain, but they may just have opened another link. Jorge Mendes is actively looking at options for Cristiano Ronaldo, and City is now seen as “at least possible”. The Portuguese would prefer an English club in the Champions League.

It would be a complicated deal to do in the space of a week, because of the nature of Ronaldo’s contract and so many commercial attachments.

That still wouldn’t be anywhere near as complicated as his Manchester United legacy. Such a move would affect the meaning of his time at Old Trafford.

That might sound like an airy intangible, but it has substantial importance, as well as a commercial importance too. It is what attaches people to clubs and creates legacies, as well as – forgive the term – “brands”.

That is one of the deeper concerns about this window, and what is so relevant about the Kane situation.

The very top of the football world is getting smaller and smaller, with its unique economics ensuring a tranche of elite players and managers only have a few options, that are increasingly transactional.

It is all becoming so interchangeable, a relatively meaningless rotation among the super clubs.

It isn’t an exaggeration to say that in a slightly different world – like even the mid-2000s – a player like Ronaldo would not have considered a move to another English club because of his Old Trafford legacy. No one should be under illusions about sentiment here, but the difference was that there were far more Champions League options. There was a greater potential variety to careers. More clubs in France, Italy, Spain and Germany had better chances of a title challenge and to go further in the Champions League. That allowed players to make these considerations.

As it is, if Ronaldo wants to win the Champions League or a Ballon d’Or, he only has a handful of choices. It was the same with Lionel Messi. It is the same with Antonio Conte as a manager. Sources close to the Italian say his only acceptable choices now – unless he willingly drops down to a level he sees himself as above – are Real Madrid, United and Paris Saint-Germain.

There are only so many clubs the likes of Ronaldo and Kane can join

This should not be seen as a lament for United, it should be noted. They are part of this same process, among the super-predators.

It is more about the increasing direction of football, and the uniformity of its top level. It is why revelations like Lille winning a title are so celebrated – because they are so rare.

Football is a better and more exciting sport when there is a greater diversity of competition and unfancied teams can be exciting. That is made more likely when the better players are more spread around, but that is dependent on money being more spread around too.

We keep returning to the same problem. This is what created the Super League.

This market is somewhat what a Super League would have looked like – the best players just emotionlessly moving between the franchises; sport as content rather than any deeper emotional connection.

This is what the NBA has become.

It is such an avoidable shame given the sheer size of the game, and its truly global nature. We shouldn’t be in a situation where the top end is so narrow and so dominant, but Covid has only exacerbated long-term forces.

It now puts an odd pressure on Kane. He maybe needs a 25-goal season more than ever, as he turns 29, and players under 25 like Kylian Mbappe and Erling Haaland become available.

The market for a top striker by then will be even bigger. The football world is only getting smaller.

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