Tuesday, July 7, 2009

The Moral High Ground and Football

It has become popular in Europe, after Real Madrid's two blockbuster signings, to assert various charges against Real Madrid and president Florentino Perez. Barcelona president Joan Laporta has gone so far as call Real Madrid's strategy "imperialist" and as having airs of arrogance. But the criticisms have come from far and wide, and most share a one remarkable trait - the attacks are founded in some greater footballing morality, some higher, holier ground from which Real Madrid and Florentino Perez may be properly judged.

UEFA president Michel Platini initially remarked that, "These transfers are a serious challenge to the idea of fair play and the concept of financial balance in our competitions." Platini has gone on to say that he's "embarrassed" by the Ronaldo transfer fee, and considered Maradona's transfer to Napoli "vulgar" (equivalent to 6.5 million euros today). Platini is reported to be considering salary caps in the coming years - an odd solution to a problem that has been driven by transfer fees and not player salaries.

Sir Bobby Charlton also found the Ronaldo transfer fee a bit "vulgar." Spanish president Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero considered the transfer fees, "excessive," but at least acknowledged the social power of football. Spanish Economy Minister Elena Salgado said she was "surprised" and felt that the Ronaldo sum "escapes the dimensions she would consider" for a player. Unamused, she stated she'd ask banks, if they have the liquidity, to make the same efforts to loan money to small business and families. The president of the Catalan Generalitat, Jose Montilla agreed, noting that the sums spent were "not exemplary" considering the difficulties families and small business owners were having in securing loans, and the number of unemployed and underemployed in the nation.

Others have been even more reactionary. Frederic Thiriez, president of the French Professional Football League (LPF), tagged the transfer sums as "morally indecent" and "suicidal for European football in the sporting sense." Daniel Harris of ESPN writes Real Madrid's signing policy is: "morally repugnant, crass and vulgar just as it is in any walk of life." Harris continues, stating that teams should earn money "legitimately" (whatever that means) and passes off his opinion of how team-building should be done as fact. He, like Platini, suggests a salary cap, and takes digs galore at Real Madrid. Indeed to read Harris's apocalyptic view of the transfers and you'd think John Connor will need to save football from Real Madrid and Florentino Perez.

Certainly, there is a sense that the British critics are chomping at the bit to tear into Real Madrid for what the EPL's big four have been doing a lot of recently. These nationalistic fractures, however, are best left for another day. What is surprising, is the play on morality and vulgarity that continually enters the discussion of transfer fees. "Vulgarity" in this context carries the that classist connotation of criticism for being nouveau riche. As in, "Never speak about how much something cost - how vulgar." Think every rapper ever on MTV Cribs as they rattle how much it cost them to frame a Scarface poster in platinum. What this even means in relation to a transfer fee is unclear to me.

Presumably, those finding the fee "vulgar" would have preferred Real Madrid sit contently back (with proper form) and observe their footballing mediocrity, starkly accentuated by their rival FC Barcelona's meteoric rise. Oddly enough, if there is a club in the world that is not new money, it is Real Madrid. Even more contradictory, the classist overtones of this criticism stand in relief to the ostensible goal of the attack - to protect football's "middle class." Attacking a club's vulgarity may make for a good soundbite, or convey an appropriate anger at the moves, but this doesn't mean it's any less outlandish and unfounded of a critique. Particularly coming from ex-footballers and politicians, whose spending habits are themselves questionable at best.

The argument of "morality" is equally absurd. What morality the critics refer to is unclear. How, exactly, does Real Madrid's signing policy in any way affect banks lending to families or businesses? Did Florentino steal people's food to fund the signings? Had Kaka and Ronaldo not been signed, would Perez have donated the money to charity? I think not. Listen, I'm the first person to put AIG or Chrysler or Merrill Lynch to the sword for fiscal irresponsibility. But these are major corporations whose stake in the world economy is such that their actions affect everyone. Further, the irresponsibility of those financial entities has no bearing on the actions of a football club. And actually, Real Madrid's signing are not even fiscally irresponsible. The footballing repercussions are debatable, but financially, these moves are most likely sound. Why?

Because Real Madrid as an entity has only four goals: (1) turn a profit to survive as a club; (2) win; (3) win; and (4) win. Florentino thinks Real Madrid, caught in an extended institutional and footballing crisis for the past five years, has a better chance of winning if they have the world's best players. That's not so preposterous, is it? On top of that, signings like Kaka and Ronaldo, mean money, and lots of it. Observers have estimated that Kaka's signing alone could generate an additional 100 million euros a year for Real Madrid. Ronaldo sold 2,000 shirts in one day. Each shirt costs approximately $100 - do the math. Moreover, what price can you even put on a Champions League title? On a league title? On beating Barcelona? On top of making fiscal sense, these signings carry on a historical tradition at Real Madrid, they from part of the club's tradition too.

Real Madrid's General Director Jorge Valdano spoke eloquently on the subject when put to the flame by a journalist on TVE recently. Valdano explained that Santiago Bernabeu had a plan in place when he built a 120,000 person stadium in the heart of Madrid in 1947. This was to increase the club's revenues by filling the stadium. To do so, Bernabeu (the stadium didn't carry his name until much later), brought the world and Spain's finest players to play in the stadium and draw the necessary crowds (see: Di Stefano, Gento, Puskas etc...). The plan worked.

Valdano explained to the hardheaded journalist that today it's not an issue of filling the stadium, but of assuring that when a TV is turned on in China, Africa or Asia for a weekly football match, that Real Madrid be the match that's chosen. In his usual convincing way, Valdano stated that no one would have the audacity to question a production company's payment for a top billed star or director for the summer's latest blockbuster. Yet, somehow, everyone questions Real Madrid's decision to do much the same thing - produce a spectacle known as football with the highest production values possible. Valdano passingly mentioned, but it is a critical point to consider, that Real Madrid, unlike most of the rich clubs has no owner, and is rather owned by its "socios" or shareholders/season ticket holders (think Green Bay Packers). Therefore, its ability to market itself is its lifeblood. No wealthy Russian, American, or Arab benefactors in the Spanish capital.

And yet, everyone seems to be losing substantial hours of sleep due the vulgar immorality of Florentino Perez and Real Madrid. Needless to say, I'm sleeping just fine. Only two figures in the footballing world have gotten it right. Sepp Blatter commented that these fees demonstrate the economic health of football in the world and acknowledging the societal context of football. Arsene Wenger went further, and even while criticizing Real Madrid, admitted that morality should not be the judge of the signings, leaving all judgment to profitability. And we all know, profits in football come in cash or silverware.

So if morality is, as Nietzsche says, the herd instinct of the individual, then Real Madrid should embrace its alleged immorality. Rather than embracing the collective fear the majority of European clubs used to justify their complacency in the transfer market, Real Madrid stood apart and pushed its chips to the center of the table. Perhaps they had to do so for footballing reasons. Perhaps they owed it to their fans since the world's richest team had become one of the poorest on the field of play (certainly of the elite teams). Whatever the reason, Florentino rebuilt, reloaded, and recharged in the space of one month. He's returned hope to a team, a city, a league, and in some ways a country.

For those who read vulgarity and immorality into such actions, let them. But I assure you, once the whistle blows, it'll be those same naysayers who are tuning in to the end product of that alleged vulgarity - a football team, who madridistas hope, is anything but vulgar. And as for morality, well, there's only one judge of morality in sports, and it's the trophy room. So we'll soon find out how immoral Real Madrid is. If history were to serve as a guide...

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