Wednesday was the final day that European football teams could buy and sell players in 2011. The transfer window closed, only to open again for some more trading in January 2012. Four months without buying anything in these consumerist times is enough to send the newspapers and Sky Sports into a frenzy.
But why does it matter if your team is making signings?
Fans care because they want to see their team improving. They want to see new, better players coming to their team, because they want to win more games, get more points and compete for trophies.
The media cares because fans care. They whip up the tension and create drama where there wasn’t any, in order to drive page clicks, sell papers and keep people sitting in front of the TV watching the advertising.
Advertising and marketing have become extremely important in this modern world. They promise us a better life, if we would purchase something. They create needs from nothing, and transform us into walking, breathing desires which must be fulfilled. We must continue to consume if we wish to remain relevant.
In some ways a modern football club is like the relationship in Woody Allen’s shark simile. For much of the summer Arsenal have looked like a dead shark. They have sold their best players, importantly to direct rivals. They didn’t act swiftly to bring in reinforcements. They have not appeared to be moving forwards. In a society where conspicuous consumption is the yardstick by which progress and success is measured, Arsenal are failing.
The conspicuous consumers are perceived to be dynamic, vital and progressing. When Craig Bellamy signed for Liverpool today it took their summer influx of new first-team-ready players to 7, with almost double that leaving. Undeniably the reinforcements appear to be better than the players leaving, so Liverpool should have a more effective squad than last season. Liverpool want to be competitive so they had to improve the playing squad. Importantly though new players signing for a team creates the appearance of a club ‘going places’, providing an aura of success. This feeling is passed onto the players and supporters and can create the motivation to achieve more.
It is like the thrill received from so-called ‘retail therapy’. Buying things makes us feel relevant and like we are part of things. Walking into a shopping mall plugs us directly into the modern, vibrant capitalist system. We can be a part of the modern world as long as we obey its rules, and purchase. There is even no need to wait as credit can plug us in now.
Likewise in football, a team needs to be overhauled now. A successful atmosphere needs to be created now. The most effective way of doing that is to buy new, exciting players. To spend money, and appear vital. It is the fetishisation of the new, young and modern. Always replacing what has become old and listless.
How long this feeling lasts depends entirely on other factors though. A football team isn’t automatically successful just because it spends money. During the first Galacticos era at Real Madrid, astronomical sums were spent on Luis Figo, Zinedine Zidane, Roberto Carlos, Ronaldo and David Beckham. I remember a friend of mine saying at the time everyone else might as well just give up. Yet the Florentino Perez era began in 2000, and Madrid’s Galacticos won the European Cup in 2002, La Liga in 2003, and then nothing else for three years. Millions and millions of pounds are spent each season, but only a small number of teams can actually win trophies at the end.
It is a collective delusion that constant spending will guarantee success. What guarantees success is having a clear, sustainable plan based on sound, innovative coaching combined with a quality youth training system. There should be a clear path for talented young players to the first team. Much like the system in place at Barcelona. Yet even one of the best club sides the world has ever seen felt the need to buy new players this summer. Did they really need Alexis Sanchez or Cesc Fabregas? Probably not, they would have been competitive again without signing anybody, but it has helped to create that aura of progress. How do you improve on perfection? You don’t, but you have to keep the wheels turning, and keep moving forward.
Demonstrating constant progress through spending is precisely what the capitalist economy depends on. In order to keep the means of production busy and people employed we need to have a growing economy and constant consumption. The same exists in football. A whole industry has now grown around the buying and selling of players. Players’ agents, media, scouts and advisers keep the merry-go-round spinning. It is a self-generating industry, as these people provide us with information to assert their own relevance. Sky Sports feverishly track the number of players signed by each each club telling us how much money has been spent this summer. They display a sideways graph depicting how many players each team has signed, showing a block for each player. Not even a picture or a name, just a block. Get more blocks and you have progressed during the transfer window. Football players have become a commodity.
The deadline day itself is the height of ridiculousness with the build-up of unwarranted drama and tension. A player is having a medical, another is flying in a helicopter to have talks with a new club, everything is watched over by a clock counting down to the deadline, constantly reminding us of how little time there is left to do something, anything… The window had been open since July, yet all of this activity is condensed into 24 hours, presumably for dramatic effect.
The transfer system is an illusion, like the capitalist system which created and sustains it. Like the media that generates it and many of the fans that feed off it. Don’t worry about who your club signs, instead worry about how sustainable their business plan is, how much they invest in developing young players. A football club is now a business like any other, and can go bankrupt and disappear. No amount of activity on transfer deadline day will change that.