James Lawton: True wealth defined by wisdom of football men not City's black gold

Saturday 17 January 2009 01:00

Two planets exist in football. One is occupied by Manchester City owner Sheikh Mansour, who after years of anonymously stock-piling oil billions has finally hit the limelight with his escalating bid for Brazilian superstar Kaka.

The other one is where, as surely as the sun rises in the morning, we find Arsène Wenger.

One planet is covered in impenetrable gas, at least for anyone not already browbeaten into the crackpot belief that if you thought the Kaka initiative was the last word in football illiteracy you didn't really understand what the game was supposed to be about.

The other is suffused in sweet reason and naturally it is inhabited by a man who has done more for the quality and the thrilling beautification of English football than the combined product of every oilfield from Caracas to the outer rim of Siberia is ever likely to achieve. This is unless, of course, such unbounded wealth is placed in the hands and the command of someone who indeed understands the basic requirements of a successful football team.

That Wenger enjoys such status is evident in so many different ways, but for the purpose of this argument perhaps we need only remember that over the years he has gathered in the services of such as Patrick Vieira, Thierry Henry and Cesc Fabregas for what, if the deal goes through, would constitute roughly the cost of Kaka's rear end.

However, it is also true that because Wenger quite often lapses into a subjectivity that has rarely been absent in the make-up of a winning football man, his masterful trawl through the morality and the practical implications of the City move did contain a little ammunition for his critics.

He said that City were doing something way beyond the realities of football and the current economic state of the world. He said it distorted horribly the idea of anything like a level playing field to be fought upon with resources generated by the success of each club's efforts and not its random selection by some insanely wealthy patron. So far, so irrefutable but Wenger also let slip his belief that what might be happening in negotiations between Milan and City could also be unfair.

Talk about an own goal by a master of football logic. Scarcely had the word been uttered than the predictable complaints came pouring in, all under the headline Whingeing Wenger.

Well, he might say, so be it. When pressure on his ambition mounts, Wenger is often no more capable of dispassion than any of his serious rivals. However, when the issue is general football principle his head tends to work with superb, sometimes even unique, clarity.

Though some of his more impatient supporters were no doubt less than bowled away by the declaration, Wenger did once again redefine his working philosophy. "No," he said, "I am not envious. I'm more concerned with how we can win the next game, not how I would spend £100m. My purpose is to develop the team on a daily basis. It is a satisfaction for a club to live within its natural resources."

Some see this as a miserly approach, a refusal to light up the sky with some bold swashbuckling of his own in the transfer market on the basis of Arsenal's share of television proceeds, the well filled terraces of the Emirates, and a long list of prospective season-ticket holders eager to enjoy the aesthetic and frequently more primal pleasure of watching the Gunners in full flow.

Why not meet the inflationary demands of Zenit St Petersburg for Andrei Arshavin which have come to look so puny in the last few days? Because Wenger believes that every player, and everything, has a value that he has earned the right to decide.

Another aspect of reaction to the Kaka business has provoked some haunting rhetoric, most passionately on the streets of Manchester.

Why, it is being asked, is it perfectly acceptable for United to regularly augment their strength with signings like Dimitar Berbatov, Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo while City's move for Kaka has inspired such scepticism?

It is surely because in the days that City have spent in the wilderness, Ferguson has built three title-winning teams, won two European Cups, and made all of his big-money signings on the back of established teams. He has sought to develop his strength, and refine it, rather than come up with some instant solution which could well have dissolved in the time it takes to provide the rounded team support a player like Kaka so obviously needs if he is to produce all of his skill and potency.

Pause for thought: Kaka's form with Milan this season is said to have suffered because of the uneasy transition from playing beside Clarence Seedorf to Ronaldinho. Might not that problem be somewhat more severe if he is set down in the midfield so recently cut to pieces by Nottingham Forest?

Of course Ferguson, like every leading football man, has failed in the market. Arguably his great bust was Juan Sebastian Veron, but if the Argentine never began to fulfil his early promise, that was his problem rather than a failing team's. Ferguson had an idea with Veron that simply didn't work. The manager thought the player's astonishing range of passing would bring a vitally needed new dimension to United in Europe.

What is the purpose of City's move for Kaka? We are told that it is merely a building block towards a super team. It is not. It is an ill-conceived block-busting, corner-cutting attempt to catapult City into the elite membership they crave – and mistakenly believe can be achieved simply by splashing money, which Wenger points out so bitingly, will always be unrelated to their status as a working football club rather than winners of a Middle Eastern lottery.

Meanwhile, at Liverpool, Rafa Benitez is reported to be refusing a contract which does not enshrine his manager's right to be the sole arbiter of when the club needs to sign a new player – and who he might be. Already, and even before the Sheikh gets his way, it sounds rather quaint.

Barrera bout a sham for Khan

When Amir Khan was destroyed by his Colombian opponent Breidis Prescott, a potentially glittering career was in desperate need of repair. That such reclamation was achieved last month against the pitifully inadequate opposition of someone called Oisin Fagan is highly dubious.

Now, presumably, Khan's proposed fight with Marco Antonio Barrera will be projected as the chance for him to prove that all his powers – and his promise – are restored.

Barrera, aged 34, will always be remembered as a distinguished member of one of the greatest clubs in professional boxing – that of the Mexican featherweight. But that Barrera no longer exists. He was all used up in wars against men like Erik Morales, Manny Pacquiao, and Juan Manuel Marquez. He wasn't required to go to war against Naseem Hamed – just to produce a masterclass of ring craft that brought a unanimous points decision in Las Vegas. But that was nearly eight years ago.

Whatever Khan – a splendid silver medallist at the Athens Olympics – achieves in the professional ring, it will be folly to place much significance on how he fares against the boxing remnants of Marco Antonio Barrera.

The fight is being described as Khan's greatest test. It is a routine matter in boxing.

Sadly, so is the sight of once great fighters bringing into the ring nothing more warlike than their names.

Dungy's legacy will stretch way beyond gridiron

Tony Dungy, the retiring coach of the Indianapolis Colts, will always be remembered as the first black gridiron man to call the plays in a winning Super Bowl performance.

Yet if that legacy is huge in a game where once you had to be white not only to coach but also play centre and pass the ball back through your legs to an inevitably fair-skinned quarterback, it is not half the story of Dungy.

At the age of 53 and with many lucrative years ahead of him as a respected, if not all-time great, coach, Dungy (right) has elected to work among so many of the young, lost people who inhabit America's decaying inner cities. The decision is only inexplicable to some of those who occupy most thoughtlessly a gilded place in modern professional sport – and do not know of the ache that has been a constant part of the coach's life since the tragic death of his teenage son James.

Dungy dedicates the last phase of his professional life to the memory of his son. It is a resolve that shines more brightly than could any monster Super Bowl ring.

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