Thucydides & the transfer window

This is the second in a series of posts attempting to explain football through international relations theory; or international relations theory through football; or drawing tenuous links between both.

Why Arsenal will sell Fabregas, and why Manchester United signed Phil Jones.

Thinking about Thucydides and the Melian Dialogue, the most (in)famous passage in his most well-known book, ‘The Peloponnesian Wars’, immediately puts me in mind of the transfer system that is in place across world football leagues.  The time that clubs could buy players was shortened during the 2002-03 season, ostensibly so teams could instead concentrate on football during the season.

The window when players are available to move between clubs is open in the summer off-season (transfers between European clubs can began again as of Friday 1st July), and again in January.  Having restricted the time when players can be bought and sold has resulted in a fascinating, and slightly ridiculous, period at the end of each window when teams frantically try to sign players they presumably didn’t realise they needed to during the rest of the window.

Another, more cynical, reason for the concentration of activity at the end of the window is that agents and teams know that if they can hang on until the last minute the team who wants to buy may get desperate and offer more than they would have if the deal was done a few weeks earlier.  News reports are full of players being ferried from club to club in helicopters across the skies of Europe, and television reporters wait expectantly outside the gates of training grounds for a sight or sniff of a rumour.  It is like watching a car crash, gruesome but you can’t tear yourself away.

The last transfer window was illuminated by the Premier League and the triangle of money flying between Chelsea, Liverpool and Newcastle United.  £50m from Chelsea to Liverpool for grumpy Spanish striker Fernando Torres, £35m from Liverpool to Newcastle for pony-tailed boozehound striker Andy Carroll.  Deals were completed with hours to spare.

The fees were so high because the selling clubs, outwardly at least, didn’t want to sell.  The first buying club, Chelsea, had to offer an outlandish amount in order for Liverpool to sell.  I believe Liverpool wanted to sell but the money had to right, in order to enable reinforcements.  Newcastle then requested an even more ridiculous amount for Carroll, but Liverpool agreed to it and they had to sell.

This year it seems that Arsenal and Aston Villa are to be the whipping boys in the Premier League’s transfer season.  Cesc Fabregas, Gael Clichy and Samir Nasri look likely to depart the Emirates for pastures new.  Aston Villa have lost Ashley Young and look likely to lose Stewart Downing, arguably their two best players.  The selling teams appear to have no choice, if a player wants to leave and the buying club offers enough money, the deal is done.  The transfer window has also been characterised by the top teams in the Premier League spending large amounts on young, English players with little experience.  Jordan Henderson, Phil Jones and Conner Wickham, with one full England cap between them, went for a combined fee in the region of £46m.

Thucydides’ Melian dialogue can give us some insight into the psychology behind these transfers.  One of the most famous quotes is: ‘the strong do what they have the power to do and the weak accept what they have to accept’.  Of course Thucydides was writing about warfare between city states but he was also making important points about human nature, something he believed would be eternally true.  If the comparison can be made between warfare and sport (and it often is, as far as language and metaphors are concerned) then Thucydides is saying that the smaller clubs with the valuable assets will always have to sell to the larger teams.  These bigger sides will also do whatever they can in order to get what they want.  Very rarely does a smaller team hold out, one thinks of Blackpool and Charlie Adam in January, they didn’t sell to Liverpool but Adam wasn’t the same player after the window had closed and Blackpool were relegated.

One other ‘eternal’ value described by Thucydides in this passage is that large empires will do all they can to protect that empire, such as pre-emptive attacks.  The Athenians told the Melians they were going to attack Melos because it was ‘for the good of [their] empire’.  They felt it necessary to bring Melos under Athenian control in order to prevent their rival city Sparta from doing so.  The transfer of Phil Jones to Manchester United is an example of this kind of thinking.  Reports later suggested that United didn’t plan on signing Jones until next season but when they discovered Liverpool were interested in the Blackburn player they had to place their big money offer immediately for fear their rivals would make the signing.  Larger teams have often ‘stockpiled’ promising young players for the sole purpose of preventing any other team buying them and gaining a competitive advantage.  Thucydides would tell us that for the good of their empire United signed Phil Jones.

Many politicians have used this political theory to make any predictions about the future, and to make decisions based on what they think is going to happen.  Looking at the European transfer window this season a reading of Thucydides would tell us that Arsenal will sell Fabregas because they have no choice, as much as when Mascherano left Liverpool last season and went to Barcelona, Fabregas will do the same.  Barcelona will take him because they can, whether they actually need him or not.  Also if the rumours about Real Madrid being interested in him are true Barcelona will sign him to preserve their empire.  Like when Manchester United signed Phil Jones.  Arsenal will not spend recklessly, Wenger has a strategy and will not deviate from it.  He has always sold Arsenal’s best players when they are at their most valuable.

One important point often overlooked in the story of the Peloponnesian Wars is that Athens was the ultimate loser.  They were over-run by Spartan forces and the Athenian empire crumbled.  A key lesson repeated many times over is that empires eventually fall, and in the case of Athens an aggressive foreign policy may have appeared prudent but it wasn’t enough to sustain Athenian power in the long run.  The short history of football can already show us examples of such a thing, all-conquering teams lose their power and competitive advantage and find themselves in the position of a smaller club forced to accept what the new powers tell them.  When Fernando Torres went to Chelsea, or when Gareth Barry went to Manchester City instead of Merseyside, or any of the other targets Liverpool have supposedly missed out on, some took it as a sign of just that.  The once-dominant Merseyside team now had to accept a different financial reality, they do not have as much money as the new powers, neither do they have the coercive power of Champions League football.

But all things shall pass, that is another eternal truth Thucydides would have acknowledged.

See the other posts in this series here: Football & IR Theory

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