Sadio Mané was in a playful mood. Naturally, the Liverpool winger had seen the speculation surrounding his future at Anfield. Maybe if he had been a little younger, sooner he would have deflected the question, mumbled something beige about staying focused on the game ahead, in this case Senegal vs Benin in of a qualifying match for the African Cup of Nations. Instead, he said, “I watch social media, like all young Senegalese. Sometimes I see the comments, and 60-70% of Senegalese want me to leave Liverpool, right? OK, I’ll do what they want. At that moment, he smiled the knowing, enigmatic smile of a man who knows his words will make headlines around the world.
Not so long ago, footballers rarely talked about anything. Certainly not about something as tacky and catchy as transfer gossip. But it’s 2022, Mané is one of the hottest properties in world football, and for many contemporary stars the transfer industry is no sideshow. It is a play in which you are the main protagonist. The press conference stage, the iPhone Notes app, the Instagram “like” button: everyone is a stage, and all the actors on it feverishly navigate their exits and entrances.
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And so to Munich, where Robert Lewandowski – arguably the best striker in the world – has signaled his intention to leave Bayern after eight trophy-laden years. Bayern would like to keep him, but if he leaves they want to replace him with Mané, who would be looking for a move away from Liverpool. Barcelona would like to sign Lewandowski but will first have to clear their monstrous debts by selling a number of star players.
The first of these is striker Ousmane Dembélé, who has been linked with a move to Chelsea. But that in turn may hinge on whether Chelsea – under new ownership following the departure of Roman Abramovich – find a buyer for the ailing Romelu Lukaku, signed for nearly £100million last summer.
If this is all starting to sound like the plot of a throwaway American teen drama, that’s because that’s largely how it’s sold: a high-pitched soap opera in which the players are often willing participants. . Mané and Lewandowski, both still under contract, have pressured their clubs to sanction a move. Paul Pogba, now a free agent after leaving Manchester United, is rumored to be using an upcoming Amazon documentary to announce his next destination. And after months of speculation over a move to Real Madrid, Paris Saint-Germain’s Kylian Mbappé staged a lavish media event to announce that, in fact, he wasn’t going anywhere at all.
Of course, big name transfers have always sparked interest. But these days, content is less a by-product and more the purpose of business: an entire industry that runs on buzz, rumor, myth and wish. Indeed, the ubiquity of the modern transfer market is such that describing it as part of football seems inadequate. Increasingly, it looks like something entirely separate: a football spin-off series, a complete entertainment product with its own liturgy, its own internal logic, its own ensemble cast.
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There are journalists who will never set foot in a stadium, whose entire job – extremely lucrative at that – is researching and reporting transfer stories. And agents whose sole function is to keep their customers in constant motion; repairers, intermediaries, negotiators, whose importance for the ecosystem is both essential and mysterious. Millions of words and pixels are spent on transfers that never happen, that were just a figment of an agent’s imagination. How did we come here? How did the seemingly prosaic act of signing a footballer to another club take on such cultural significance? When did football become so obsessed with transfers?
In part, of course, this is the very nature of sports passion: a dream act. In the imagination, each club is only “a few good signings” from the next level. Training good players to make them better is difficult. Generating a distinct and cohesive gaming identity based on a shared sports culture is difficult. Buying footballers is easy, and so transfers – even in rumored form – offer the prospect of instant transformation, rebirth, hope.
But wherever hope exists, there will always be people to exploit it. Fan optimism and aspiration are piqued and teased by click-hungry media organizations, by clubs hungry for social engagement, by players eager to regain control of their own narrative. It’s a drama, after all, and like all long-running dramas, it needs its share of plot and gossip, new characters and plot.
The irony is that signing star players for big bucks is one of the riskiest and least effective ways to improve a football team. Examine a list of the world’s most expensive signings and it’s striking how many of them ultimately failed – Philippe Coutinho and Antoine Griezmann at Barcelona, Lukaku at Chelsea, Eden Hazard at Real Madrid. Pogba, once the world’s most expensive footballer, escaped Old Trafford for free, unloved and unmourned. Gareth Bale, the former record holder, has just done the same in Madrid. New signings are easy; getting them to work is the hardest part. Everyone already knows that, of course. But no one ever got rich saying it.
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This article originally appeared in the June 08, 2022 issue of The New Statesman, Marked Man