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Jun. 13, 2018

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SOCCER

In Soccer's Shadow

On the pitch and off, truth is exceedingly difficult to locate

1. “Se queda,” Gerard Pique captioned an Instagram post in 2017. He stays. In the accompanying picture two of soccer’s biggest stars—Pique and his mononymous then-teammate Neymar—hold a mall photobooth pose, deuces at the camera, more smirking than smiling. At the time of Pique’s pronouncement, Neymar had already made up his mind to leave Barcelona for Paris Saint-Germain. Pique later admitted that he had no idea what he was talking about. He was just taking a shot in the dark.

2. Like all ridiculous things the internet catches wind of, se queda has become a meme, two words approximating a thought, reflex-barfed across Twitter and Reddit whenever a big-time player looks like he might switch clubs. It’s almost always used ironically. Se queda now means he’s leaving. (It also means I am in on the joke.)

3. Reports of Antoine Griezmann moving from Atlético Madrid to Barcelona have been circulating since last fall. During the last game of the season, with Griezmann appearing to have finally committed to an exit, a vocal minority of Atleti fans lost it on the prolific forward, whistling at him after he was subbed on in the second half. With Griezmann fighting back tears, teammate Diego Godίn hopped off the bench and jogged over to the stands. Cheer him! he said to a huddle of Frente Atlético supporters in the front row. Se queda, se queda! Or that’s what some people claim he said, anyway. There’s no hard proof, only video and photos of Godίn urgently trying to communicate.

4.  As of Wednesday, Greizmann still hasn’t announced his decision. If Godín knows the Frenchman is staying, he’s part of a very small group.

5. Soccer is a prismatically legible game. It resists concise definition. Matches are often decided by a single goal; players’ individual roles are fluid from moment to moment; draws are common. It’s more novelistic than, say, American football. The left back tries to clear the ball, but it hits off a striker and bounces to the midfielder, who clears it again, to the opposing center back, who misplays it into touch, and so on. You make of this what you will. Few readings are blatantly incorrect.

6. Which isn’t to say it wholly lacks clarity. Leo Messi pinballing through three defenders and making the fourth one fall down is beautifully sensical. But the moments in which the game clicks are revelatory because they stand out against a background of chaos, genius, and intention like a triumphant Jay-Z couplet emerging from the feedback-y bramble of a twelve-minute noise track.

7. There are things you can know about soccer, sure. (José Mourinho is going to look like he ate a wheelbarrow full of canaries after this, is one of them.) But the game is always getting away from you, upending your understanding of its order and rhythm. The way it is actually run—by the various corrupt and incompetent bureaucracies that govern it, by scheming agents trying to manufacture income and influence, by financial titans glowering proudly from luxury boxes or pulling strings anonymously from a continent away—is aggravatingly opaque. What we know about that aspect of soccer isn’t good, but we also know so little.

8. “Play has become spectacle, with few protagonists and many spectators, soccer for watching. And that spectacle has become one of the most profitable businesses in the world, organized not for play but rather to impede it.” — Eduardo Galeano, Soccer in Sun and Shadow

9. Impoverished young soccer talents in South America and Africa have their economic rights purchased by third-party investors. Agents bankrolled by shady conglomerates—holding companies that exist only on paper, incorporated in Gibraltar or the Virgin Islands—find promising kids from the slums or the sticks and kick their families some cash, introduce them to professional coaches, negotiate contracts. Or they cut the kids out of the deal entirely and buy a prospect directly from an established club’s youth team. Once they own their rights, they more or less become the player’s sovereign. The athlete changes hands like an asset, owned like a painting or a plot of land.

10. Carlos Tevez recently retired, officially taking himself off the market. He grew up poor in Argentina and his rights have been owned at various points in his career by companies with names like Media Sports Investments and Just Sports Inc. When he crossed the Atlantic from Corinthians to West Ham, the London club didn’t purchase one hundred percent of his rights. MSI and Just Sports retained at least enough for manager Alex Ferguson to complain, while trying (and eventually failing) to negotiate Tevez's transfer in 2009, that they were “dealing with companies, not a club.”

11. One of the dudes who owned Tevez’s rights for a time was a Georgian billionaire who claimed the Russian government was trying to assassinate him. He employed one hundred twenty bodyguards at the time of his death.

12. The FIFA World Cup, which starts this week, is in Russia. Former British Prime Minister David Cameron says the bidding process was corrupted—an uncontroversial opinion. The tournament will be watched by Vladimir Putin’s paramilitary Cossacks.

13. Tevez may not have had full control of his career, but he did okay for himself. His penultimate season, he made $45 million playing for Shanghai Shenhua in China. Most players who get bought by, say, Georgian billionaires Putin may or may not want to kill, are ultimately unsuccessful, though they do get dragged from club to club, with no real say in the matter, until it becomes apparent they’re not up to snuff. Some of them, by the end of this journey, are stranded in countries where they don’t speak the language, minimally educated and nearly as broke as they were when they left home. We don’t hear much about them.

14. “Many European teams go to Africa to watch boys with a view to bringing them to their club. It used to be only a few players, but now, every year in Cameroon, many children are brought to Europe for trials. A lot of young players in Paris have nothing; they have come from Africa and if their trial doesn't go well they are left on the streets. Some agent will pick up the kid and take them to Europe, and if it doesn't work out they abandon him.” — André Bikey, on the plight of African players who don’t pan out

15. “There is no such thing as ethical consumption under capitalism.” — Sonic the Hedgehog


16. On the most basic level, enjoying sports require giving yourself over, willingly and with great anxiety, to ignorance. We watch games with some idea of what might happen, or some hope, but they continually surprise us. A sixteen-seed beats Virginia in the NCAA tournament. The US Men’s National Team fails to qualify for the World Cup. The jolt we feel while watching these things happen is the elemental delight and horror of the enterprise.

17. The unique thing about following sports in 2018 is that we’re inundated with information about the teams and players we care about: interviews, social media posts, anonymously sourced reports. This stuff can be edifying, but it’s mostly chaff that lends us a heightened awareness of what we don’t know, what’s happening in rooms we’re not permitted to enter. We put our ears to the door and hear mumbling: contract negotiations are ongoing, trade talks are percolating, the locker room is enervated and sour. But we’re fuzzy on the details. If we’re desperate to find out where LeBron James is going to play basketball next year, there isn’t much to do but refresh reporter Adrian Wojnarowski’s Twitter page.

18. There is no Adrian Wojnarowski of soccer. Some journalists are more reliable than others but, as a whole, the soccer press is apt to report rumours many times over until they seem to become facts, to uncritically push the agendas of whoever will fill their notebooks, to blithely make shit up.

19. For five consecutive summers—2011 through 2015—Nico Gaitán joined Manchester United, or nearly did. Interest was mutual. Terms were reportedly agreed to a couple times. There are three “Nico Gaitán - Welcome to Manchester United” videos on YouTube. He stayed at Benfica until 2016, when he signed for Atlético Madrid.

20. In 2016, Dimitri Payet’s agent accused The Sun of fabricating an entire interview in which Payet claimed he was “one hundred percent staying” with West Ham while he was negotiating an exit from the club. The Sun, a Rupert Murdoch-owned tabloid, had once been sued for reprinting a fake Lily Allen interview and generally traffics in reality-distortion and dickish editorializing. At any rate, Payet almost certainly said he was committed to West Ham, then panicked and sicced his agent on the unsympathetic paper.

21. This past March, The Daily Mail ran a (since-deleted) interview with fullback Filipe Luis that never happened. When Filipe called them on it in a tweet, they took the article down and fixed the link so it redirects to a random story about a tennis player.

22. Here’s the strangest one: in February, Hector Bellerin was allegedly recorded in the back of a cab talking about forcing his way out of Arsenal. The clip titillated social media, and found its way to smaller sports tabloids and, eventually, to Sports Illustrated. It turned out to be fake, but the craftsmanship put into it is impressive. It was definitely recorded with an iPhone microphone in a moving car. The speaker nails Bellerin’s peculiar London-via-Barcelona accent. It’s either a prank or character assassination.

23. Beneath all this dross, truth becomes exceedingly difficult to locate.

24. Mino Raiola is one of the most powerful agents in the world, representing Paul Pogba, Zlatan Ibrahimović, Gigio Donnarumma, and numerous others. He’s very available for comment, but far from transparent. He will absolutely come on your radio show, but he’ll use his allotted time to air out grudges and muse about business deals that may or may not actually be in the works.

25. In the past year, Raiola has tried to move Donnarumma away from Milan despite protests from the player and his family, poached a client and immediately put him on the transfer market, poisoned the relationship between another client and his boyhood club, held up a deal between Arsenal and Manchester United over agent fees, called Pep Guardiola “a coward, a dog,” been called “a shitbag” by Alex Ferguson, and been fined $70,000 by FIFA. He’s also reportedly under investigation by the Dutch government for alleged tax evasion.

26. Where Raiola’s a cunning loudmouth, Jorge Mendes exerts control as quietly as possible. He doesn’t give many interviews, but has a relationship with seemingly everybody who matters. He represents Cristiano Ronaldo, James Rodriguez, Diego Costa, and Angel Di Maria. He’s a business associate of Valencia chairman Peter Lim and Fosun International, a Chinese investment firm that owns Wolverhampton. He also has some ill-defined advisory relationship with Doyen Sports, a private equity fund that has managed the image rights of Xavi, Neymar, and David Beckham, and once owned a chunk of Falcao’s economic rights.

27. Mendes, by his own count, conducted sixty-eight percent of all transfers into and out of Portugal’s three big clubs from 2001 to 2010. His influence has since waned at two of them, in part because he’s focused on growing what sociologist Pippo Russo (who wrote the awesomely titled Mendes critique Orgy of Power) calls the Mendes System: a global network of clubs among which Mendes moves his clients, showcasing some for later purchase and getting above-market contracts for others.

28. Portuguese clubs act as a staging area for adolescent talent from South America. A seventeen-year-old Brazilian phenom spends a handful of years at Porto, or a smaller club like Rio Ave, before moving to an English or Spanish club. These players are often represented by Mendes, or a Mendes-adjacent third-party investment group funds some percentage of the transfer. Sometimes it’s both.

29. Are any of the impoverished teenagers who unsuccessfully leap from South America and Africa to Europe victims of the Mendes System? Their fate belongs to someone.

30. Two super-agents and their cohorts are not solely to blame for global soccer’s ills. There are plenty of unscrupulous envoys, plenty of dirty managers and executives, who everywhere on this earth shuttle kids across continents in hopes of making a buck off them.

31. “I got into a car, they took me to the capital. They gave me my passport and said: 'today you travel.’ My dad wasn't at home, nobody from my family knew anything, nor that I was going that day because if they were told then it would cause a lot of problems. I traveled to Spain and it was six or seven months before anyone realized that I wasn't in Ghana [anymore].” — Thomas Partey, on the beginning of his professional career

32. Thomas, fortunately for him, is a wonderful player. Things have worked out for him. He started thirty-eight games last season for Atlético Madrid, alongside Antoine Griezmann. Does he know what his teammate is going to do?

33. That’s a trivial question, and maybe not the first thing you would ask in an interview, but sports fandom is being intensely curious about stuff that doesn’t matter, and soccer fandom is, if not especially this way, especially silly-seeming given the overall sliminess of its business, the transgressions moral and legal committed for the purpose of pumping the best possible product into our living rooms or simply lining the pockets of the people who do.

34. There’s no way not to be glib about this without writing a book, but the sport’s grotesqueries are too sprawling for even one volume. There’s racism and fan violence, match-fixing and vote-buying, tax-dodging and graft. Youth programs around the world have rivaled the Catholic Church both in crime and craven response.

35. Right now, Nepalese and Bangladeshi slave labourers are dying in Qatar, building stadiums for a World Cup meant to service the vanity of a monarchy. These workers are desperate, dirt-poor, and deceived into believing there’s good work for them. They arrive to forty-five degree Celsius temperatures and unpaid wages. They are, as Human Rights Watch puts it, “abused and exploited.”
 

36. Enjoying anything upon which a multi-billion-dollar industry has been built requires some compartmentalizing. Taking the full measure of things, you wonder how anybody could eat meat or own a car, but some of us do, and we like it. Soccer is not as obviously fun as driving along a seaside highway with the windows down. It’s an acquired taste that sometimes deserts us, but we’re here for it, because there is nothing quite like a player, perhaps formed by far-flung and hardscrabble origins, brought into the spotlight by some black hand, though definitely, always, fighting against the intrinsic chaos of the game, hitting a forty-yard diagonal ball into a space the size of a laundry hamper, erasing the keeper with a perfect strike, catching an attacker from behind and daintily and barbarically clipping the ball away from him. There is that—the magnificent feeling it gives you—and there is everything it takes to make that happen, some of which you would prefer not to know, or better yet, prefer not to be true.

37. There’s no resolving this. That is, unless you decide to quit corporatized soccer altogether and engage with the sport only through tracking your local high school team. Your love for something doesn’t meliorate what’s awful about it, nor does your awareness of what’s awful about it accomplish anything.

38. The best you can hope for, the only productive aspect of seeing soccer for what it is, is a deepened appreciation for how splendidly the game itself functions. Twenty-two players, struggling against entropy and each other, at times buzzing unintelligibly and at others ferociously, elatedly, lucid. For a while, watching them, you’re somewhere else, but of course you’re in the world still. Sometimes you need to forget.

Colin McGowan is a writer and critic based in Chicago







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