Let them eat birthday cake

THE football silly season has started early this year. Usually in a World Cup summer, the period of slow-news days has a relatively shorter lifespan. So perhaps the gods of stuff and nonsense are getting their work done now, before they are sidelined by the beano in Brazil.

That at least appears to be one explanation as to why the story of Yaya Toure wailing over a lack of birthday greetings is gaining so much traction. Alongside this heartrending tale of modern-day super-rich woe, there’s another goodie in the shape of West Ham putting Sam Allardyce on the naughty step. The owners are warning him that unless he bucks his ideas up and starts playing ‘entertaining’ football, there’ll be hell to pay. Or at least a nice big compensation cheque for when they sack him.

Yet while both yarns have the whiff of entries in some future, faintly amusing compendium of Football Babylon, they illustrate something else. It’s hard to recall such an overwhelmingly negative reaction from fans and other football lovers to such farces.

Let’s call it exasperation. Exasperation at the sport’s unerring ability to careen with great force up its own fundament. Exasperation at its bloated self-regard and self-serving codswallop. A sport so full of itself, it’s a wonder it can’t stare from the inside out at its own puckering arsehole. Sometimes football does its level best to make its fans think ‘you know what? I think I’ll leave you to it.’ And this felt like one of those days.

The grimy details of Toure’s hissy flounce revolved around the apparent absence of sincere greetings for the 31-year-old’s birthday. Note that age: 31. At a time when grown men should be worrying more about important things like their family, their place in the cosmos, and receding hairlines, Toure has been whining over whether he got a cake or not from his bosses.

If ever there was a perfect storm of misplaced arrogance and ego, this was surely it. Toure is an outstanding footballer and a phenomenally well-rewarded one. He does wonderful things on the pitch, but is behaving like a prize tool off it. There may be underlying reasons why he and his agent have chosen to act up – we can all guess as to the unsubtle opening move in an impending parting of the ways from City – but frankly it’s not worth caring about. The cake story on its own is enough to make you heave.

Down at the soon-to-be-vacated Upton Park, meanwhile, a group of owners who are traducing their club’s distinguished heritage by upping sticks for an Olympodome very few of the club’s fans want to move to, are banging on about traditions and the West Ham way. This is PR designed to impress the terminally thick. It just doesn’t wash. Aside from the contractual details of defining ‘entertaining’ football (is Kevin Nolan getting sent off entertaining? It sure is) it smacks of playing to some ill-defined gallery. Showing that owners really ‘care’ and understand what makes their club tick.

What Sullivan and Gold, and Toure, and all the rest of them do understand is what really makes the modern game tick – money, and loads of it. At their heart, that is what both these tales are about. Great big bulging stashes of the stuff.

Both of these silly-season stories are right to be reported. Each meets the requirements of a back page lead – exceptional footballer in dispute with his employers, the current league champions and FFP transgressors; East London PL franchise could dispense with its public face because the product needs to fulfil the needs of an entertainment business, and not just a results one.

Both stories are ostensibly about respect – for the individual and, (excuse the language) the brand. Ultimately, however, they revolve around money. The headlines about cakes and jolly cockney knees ups are simply the dressing.

It’s cash that lies at the heart of these and most other football narratives. The important topical ones – Richard Scudamore’s performance as Premier League chief exec, ongoing ownership controversies, the FA Commission, and the appalling neglect of grassroots football – are rightly covered on their own individual merits, but all roads inevitably lead back to money.

Even the forthcoming Champions League Final can’t resist. It is a great story to see Atletico Madrid reach the final, with a chance of achieving a famous double, but much of the build up has been about the vast disparity in wealth between Atletico and their regally appointed neighbours.

The same goes for the World Cup. What used to be a tantalisingly brief extravaganza, starring global talent and played by and large for the sake of the sport itself, increasingly resembles a bloodstock sale where gilded clubs and agents bid for emerging or biddable players. Less about national pride than shop-window promotion. Listen out for how many times a particularly fine piece of skill is greeted with variations on ‘that’s added a million to his transfer fee’.

I should at this point declare a sort-of conflict of interest. My living depends to a large extent on writing about football, so it’s rich to bemoan its riches. But there has to be a balance somewhere, and it seems like the scales have tipped way too far in the direction of avarice.

So much is so obvious. We all repeat the mantras about being against modern football, but modern football carries on seemingly regardless. It is largely immune to righteous anger. Yet exasperation gets us nowhere. It’s communication and organisation that has the best chance of delivering tangible gains.

The excellent DFAFS blog has outlined a plan of action that should whet some whistles.

And, as Martin Cloake often reports in his must-read New Statesman column,  supporters groups across the country are making genuine, positive strides. Modest steps for the most part, but important nonetheless.

Collectively they might not bring the profound earth-shattering changes many would like to see, but it’s got to be better than just worrying about football’s inevitable eternal damnation. Yaya can wallow in his birthday sulk and Sullivan and Gold can blow bubbles all they want. Football fans have got more important things to be getting on with.

About adampowley

Journalist and author.
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