The “obscenity” of Gareth Bale?

Submitted by Matthew on 10 September, 2013 - 8:18

“We speak the language that everybody understands. Instead of me saying somebody was avaricious, I’d say he was bloody greedy.” Bill Shankly

This summer’s football transfer window was a real seller’s market. Clubs dug their heels in to keep their best contracted players, and mostly succeeded. Rooney didn’t go to Chelsea. Suarez didn’t go to Real Madrid. Rooney, Suarez, Benzema, Cabaye, and Higauin didn’t go to Arsenal.

One player who did finally move, though, was Gareth Bale, whose transfer from Tottenham to Real Madrid made him the first €100m footballer in history. It was the most extreme of example of the inflated fees flying around Europe.

The Bale sale has provoked much soul-searching among the sport’s commentariat. Most has been along the lines of lamenting the silly money sloshing around the top ends of the game, and decrying what football has become since the “money men” got involved (when exactly was this? No-one can say). Some have even asked how Real can spend such money when the Spanish economy is in such a state, as if a) the club is one of the country’s economic driving forces and b) €100m is anything more than loose change at the level of national economics.

Bale is now earning £300,000 per week, an amount slammed by, among others, Southampton legend Matt Le Tissier as “obscene.” Is it?

We’ll never know whether the oft-reported line that a player “wants Champions League football” is a euphemism for “wants Champions League wages.” It’s reasonable to assume that, as professional athletes, footballers first and foremost want to play at the top end of the game. If someone wants to pay them 56p per second to do so, they’re not likely to turn around and say, “I will only take the average wage of a skilled worker and give the rest back to the trade union movement.” There are, alas, these days as few convinced socialists in the game as there are in society at large.

In short, the economic state of the modern game is, and I can’t stress this enough, not the fault of the players. For sure, there are football agents stalking the continent for whom the hopes, dreams, and wishes of whole communities of fans are nothing more than a mild inconvenience to be sidestepped. But aren’t the players just getting the best deal for themselves from their employer? Isn’t that what we want all wage earners to be doing?

Of course it sticks in the craw to think that a man, after his first day on the job, could earn enough money to put a deposit down on a house, which would take a couple two years to save for. How could it not? The screwed up logic of the capitalist labour market has decided that being good at football is a skill worth umpteen times more than, say, care work, giving debt advice, or teaching. This is clearly wrong.

But it’s not the greed of footballers that has made the modern game. The reservoir of money in the game comes from the huge TV deals which Premier League and European level clubs are entitled to. Without breaking the grip of huge media conglomerates on broadcasting rights, things will stay that way. The problem is, if we legislated Sky out of English football and had it all on the BBC, English clubs would not be able to compete in the transfer market and the Premier League would get, to put it bluntly, much shitter. Like so many things, it’s a problem which can only be tackled internationally.

Bale’s transfer may seem silly to the point of being other-worldly to most of us, but it’s no new departure for the game. It’s just the price we pay for being able to watch great football.

Or at least, watch it on telly. Or at least, watch the highlights on telly. Or at least, watch the highlights on iPlayer, after Tuesday evening.

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