What does our obsession with transfers say about the state of modern football?

After matches behind closed doors and breakaway plots, the transfer window sucked back in many of those who’d been left disillusioned by the modern game

Tom Kershaw
Tuesday 07 September 2021 11:04
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<p>Manchester United fans hold up a cardboard cutout of Cristiano Ronaldo</p>

Manchester United fans hold up a cardboard cutout of Cristiano Ronaldo

In its most superficial state, like an insomniac turning the lights off, the summer transfer window has ended. The billions have been spent, meticulously then manically. The players have been unveiled: first on social media, then via shirt numbers in shop windows before, finally, being paraded around stadiums like trophies made out of pounds of flesh. The life cycle of a transfer, from fantastical rumour to contractual agreement, written and complete.

But, of course, like a nagging thought that keeps the brain restless, the transfer bazaar never truly sleeps. Instead, it churns in the form of rumours and reactions, a constant stream of consciousness that starts with valid, veritable analysis but somehow always ends with a retired player offering their controversial two cents on behalf of a billionaire bookie long after the window has closed. Thousands of words will continue to be dedicated to loose theories, each acting like a shot of adrenaline, stirring the imagination of supporters, keeping the circus running in their subconscious.

In a sense, we - the footballing public - are hopelessly addicted to it. The frenetic period when most deals are completed essentially spans only a fortnight in late August, and yet the stories saturate the entire calendar. Already, speculation starts to look ahead to January, as if the next three months are a teasing interlude, a nuisance of football foreplay before the real great drama returns. A real-life game of trivial pursuit over which private jet has just landed at Luton Airport; why a player’s seven-year-old niece has followed a new club on Instagram or whether a cryptic message has in fact been hidden in Paul Pogba’s hair dye.

Of course, the reason the stories exist is because we consume them reliably and insatiably, as much - or sometimes even more so - than the matches they come to dictate. It can feel like warped logic, an obsession with finances and football’s grubby machinations that actually steals a piece of the spotlight from the action itself. But then it also reflects the state of the modern game and, to a degree, what we want from it.

At their root, transfers are not just a window to buy and sell, but a way for supporters to peer behind the curtain, see their club’s thought-process and test the true depths of its desires. They provide a source of optimism - or infuriation, and the promise of mystery that resets interest and expectations ahead of a long and saturated season.

But, perhaps this summer more than any, the window reflected our constant need for stimulation. Over the last 18 months, football fans have rarely felt as disenfranchised from the club’s they support. Matches were hidden behind closed doors for long periods while breakaway plots rose and unravelled almost overnight. There’s an undercurrent of distance and dissatisfaction buried close to the surface, and the transfer window, while being the height of that gluttonous culture, also somehow becomes a distraction from it, removing the glare from resented owners or offering hope that the competitive barriers most clubs below the oil meniscus face can still be overcome.

It’s almost like an element of fantasy - not too dissimilar from a video game. On social media, fans can identify the problems in a team, offer their own fixes from the thousands available, and feel engaged with the decisions that are taken - more so, at least, than being on the pitch and playing a pass themselves. In some cases, such as Tottenham reversing their decision to hire Gennaro Gattuso, they even have the power to sway choices. To some, that illusion of involvement can almost be as engaging as seeing the end product enacted.

And so now, as the season unfolds, and clubs pause over the international break to see where the bargaining has left them, there’s still that constant ticking in the background. The search for a missing piece that can never be satisfied. It’s partly human nature, the product of simply wanting to evolve and be better. But it’s also a fixation that says something about football’s current direction that’s left many feeling disillusioned. A fascination with an idea and a sense of change that can be as alluring as the reality itself.

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