One of Hollywood’s favourite dynamics is pitting an unstoppable force against an immovable object. In any film which has impossible strength at its core there’s always a scene in which the protagonist meets his match. King Kong, for instance, is typically tested by all manner of gigantic creatures during his redemption arc and, while he battles that equal foe, the human characters just look on helplessly, unable to influence anything, afraid to move as the landscape pulses with trauma.
“What are they even doing there?” the audience is invited to think, “this world isn’t for them”.
Increasingly, Football World is beginning to feel like that. Even allowing for the effect of the new broadcasting contract, there is clear division of species between those with the size and power and those without it.
English football summers are unbearable for a variety of reasons, but principally because the sport’s absence takes the distraction away from the squabble in the skies. Rather than pondering what their own club may or may not do over the weekend, the average fan’s focus is forcefully drawn to the fighting beasts, slapping at each other with fists full of banknotes.
At the time of writing, the rhetoric concerns Neymar, Barcelona’s brilliant forward, and Kylian Mbappe, one of the most incendiary teenagers the game has ever seen. Both are being pursued by clubs who are willing to pay enormous fees for the services.
The numbers quoted are so large as to belong to a fantasy land. These transfers exist in a tale of goblins and wizards and tell a story without any relatable quality. Really, this is the point at which common sense should prevail. The moment in football’s history when it’s acknowledged that something has gone desperately wrong.
Some are oblivious. They’re science fiction readers, caring not a jot that the drama is based around a ludicrous premise. Ultimately, they are kind of people who enjoy watching Alien brawl with Predator and who, if Godzilla was to raise his fist to Jurassic Park’s finest, would be in thrall to the theatre. They don’t worry about the skyscrapers tumbling or the helicopters being punched down to the concrete around them, they’re too enamoured by the spectacle – too distracted to appreciate just how disenfranchised they and their clubs have become.
They want David and his slingshot to run along so that Goliath can get on with fighting his own shadow.
“Ooooooh, aren’t his muscles big and isn’t his sword ever so shiny.”
Fair enough, each to their own.
A common refrain at the moment concerns sustainability. Last week, Tottenham’s chairman Daniel Levy spoke of the dangers of clubs spending beyond their means and there isn’t a supporter alive who doesn’t agree with him. It’s a valid concern, particularly given the drop in viewing figures reported by Sky Sports and their obvious overspend on their current rights package, but history tells us not to worry – how many times over the last few decades has football been pronounced to be beyond its elastic limit, only for it to snap back comfortably?
It always finds a way to be more disgusting.
So maybe the critical fracture will be produced by the realisation that it caters for fewer than ever before? There has always been a separation between the have and have nots, even before the inception of the Premier League, but the division between the gilded few and the rest is so stark and so dispiriting that it’s potentially capable of eroding enthusiasm like never before.
This isn’t an Against Modern Football argument. We’re well beyond that stage. Instead, this is a time when the battles which actually matter no longer just take place between the rich and poor, but between beasts of preposterous size who exist in worlds which we can’t even imagine. Somewhere from which the howls of derision and protest are so faint that they’re practically inaudible – and, obviously, incidental.
That’s what the game should fear. There will always be another television deal and more commercial opportunities, but the point at which supporters disengage from their aspiration will be the real end of its sustainability. So little effort has been made to curb football’s capitalist instincts, that supporters will be entitled to their eventual, mass ennui.
If and when Neymar completes his move to France, there will be those who choose to ignore the obvious and focus only on the sporting implications of the transfer. There will be others though, perhaps in greater number than ever before, who wonder instead why they bother at all. Not why they love football’s fabric, because they will always feel the thrill of kicking a ball, but why they allow themselves to be invested in a sport which now has a pre-determined outcome and has mutated beyond all recognition.
When people start to ponder that question, when they push at a turnstile and question what they’re doing, that’s when football will have stumbled into the jaws of its tipping point.
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