Another mad solo from Sepp Blatter would have been bad enough, but before last week was over, we had to endure a Looney Tunes duet as Cristiano Ronaldo decided to harmonise with the FIFA president on the theme of the enslavement of today’s multi-millionaire footballers.
The first thought evoked by their words was that with so much rubbish in their heads, they should be wearing dustbin lids as hats.
Yet, if the views themselves cannot be taken seriously (Blatter claimed that “in football, there’s too much modern slavery” and Ronaldo enthusiastically concurred), the fact that they were expressed by two such disparate, but prominent, figures in the game, the 72-year old who is its supreme legislator and a 23-year old who is its most coveted player, is sadly significant.
It gives us a further depressing, though scarcely necessary, warning of how soon the world’s most popular sport may, at the highest professional levels, be stripped of anything resembling reasonable principles for conducting business and left with nothing in its place but an egotists’ charter.
Blatter and Ronaldo were brought together by coinciding self-interests. As the importance of international football is increasingly besieged by the swelling power of Europe’s wealthiest clubs, the leader of the global governing body seldom neglects an opportunity to inflict embarrassment, or worse, on those he sees as menacing his status.
There might be more sympathy for his resistance to the rampant growth of club influence, and especially to the presumptuousness of the Premier League, if his presidency weren’t so difficult to associate with integrity, and his insatiable urge to spout propaganda didn’t produce quite as many indefensible utterances.
He shouldn’t draw comfort from the endorsement of Ronaldo, whose justification for considering himself a slave is the reluctance of Manchester United to let him walk out on a freely-entered contract that is reported to pay him £120,000 per week and is still four years from expiration.
Gratitude for the brilliance with which Ronaldo has enriched English football has been inexorably eroded by the preening vanity and scorn for all who embraced and nurtured him at Old Trafford and have marked his determined efforts to decamp to Real Madrid.
He is at present on crutches as the result of ankle surgery, but is still doing a bit of metaphorical foot stamping in a tiresome impersonation of a playground tantrum.
Even among the staunchest United supporters—the tens of thousands who were thrilled to the point of worship by the dazzling skills and torrent of goals that contributed so spectacularly to their team’s recent triumphs—his protracted and intolerably boring courtship dance with Ramon Calderon, the Spanish champions’ president, has created substantial pockets of resentful disillusionment.
Many fans have naturally concluded that, after all the dismissive declarations he has made, he could never again be fully committed to their cause, and in their bitterness they are ready to envisage a Manchester landscape without the twin towers of his talent and his selfishness. They wouldn’t weep if Sir Alex Ferguson eventually had to measure Ronaldo’s value in money.
United’s problem is, of course, merely the most widely-discussed case in an epidemic of threatened departures afflicting the top clubs in the Premier League. Suddenly, for this country’s football public, the uplifting experience of Euro 2008 has been supplanted by a familiarly dispiriting swirl of player agitation, providing the usual evidence of greed and blinkered, self-serving attitudes.
Emmanuel Adebayor and Alexander Hleb are sourly intent on leaving Arsenal, and Frank Lampard, notwithstanding his relentless badge-kissing affirmations of loyalty to Chelsea, is convinced that at 30, he is entitled to feel insulted by the offer of a four-year contract at £140,000 a week.
His failure to secure a five-year deal at his nominated figure is seemingly pushing him towards a reunion with his persistent eulogiser, Jose Mourinho, at Internazionale in Milan. Haggling over details of monstrous earning packages has never endeared footballers to the citizenry, and these are hardly times to encourage extra tolerance of such a provocative disconnection from everyday realities. But at least Lampard was in no danger of identifying with the rantings of Sepp Blatter.
It took a player as captivated by himself as Ronaldo to do that. But there are plenty of others with a penchant for recognising only what suits them in a contract, for persuading themselves that, when richer pickings are available elsewhere, a sense of obligation is for simpletons, and formal agreements are there to be broken.
Now the egregious Blatter (who not long ago was demanding respect for player-club contracts) has contrived to give such anarchy his stamp of approval. Fortunately, his reputation for buffoonery invalidated his comments as soon they were delivered, but they were grossly offensive nevertheless.
Some of his critics were probably excessively eager to relate his remarks to hell-ships crammed with human cargo or slavemasters working their purchases to death. No doubt Blatter should have been sensitive to the deepest resonances of talk about slavery, but such terrible images weren’t needed to expose the grotesquerie of his language.
All that was required was recollection of the conditions that prevailed in British football less than 50 years ago, in the era of the maximum wage (£20 a week as late as 1960), the vicious retain-and-transfer system, and the club houses from which families of discarded players could be evicted at a fortnight’s notice.
In those days, footballers were held, if not in slavery, then certainly in something close to feudal serfdom. Nobody would suggest that anyone in modern football should be remotely influenced by such distant history. But if Blatter and Ronaldo acquainted themselves with it, they would surely keep their fantasising in check—and might even doff their dustbin lids.