How Uncanny is My Valley

International football is in the early stages of its own fossilisation.
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Image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.

This week in soccer, the clubs give way to the national teams. For some followers of the game — the special, enlightened, deeply attractive ones — it is a time of intrigue, with World Cup qualifiers taking place across the globe, and the final slots in the European Championships being filled. For others, it is anything but; to them, this is the first day of the Interlull. This appellation has caught on in recent years amongst those who dread the intermittent periods throughout the season when the fireworks of the Greatest League in the World—all of the Greatest Leagues in the World—fall silent, and the comforting whalesong of innuendo and scuttlebutt fades, to be replaced by nereids singing the Sammarinese national anthem.

With these benighted souls, the clubs themselves agree. They despise international football. It is they, after all, who are daft enough to shell out such high transfer fees and pay the players such extravagant salaries. (In 2009-10, Premier League clubs spent on average 68 percent of their income on player wages.) Players are not just employees: they are assets. Every few months, players are rented out to national teams in return for nothing but anxiety. When a player gets injured while playing or training with his national side, his club is owed compensation. A player is worth an amount of hard currency, and as far as the clubs are concerned, the national associations can’t pay it. If they could, the clubs would put international football to sleep. They might yet have their way.

Professionalism in soccer began in England in the 1880s, and sprang up elsewhere in subsequent decades. But the industrial levels of professionalisation now prevalent at the sport’s highest echelons are a more recent phenomenon, facilitated by the fantastically and increasingly successful milking of worldwide television markets. Professionalism and professionalisation are not the same thing: the former is merely an economic fact; the latter is a mindset, a worldview. Amateur sports can be professionalised: NCAA football and basketball players are professionals in all but salary; hurlers and Gaelic footballers somehow find the time to both work for a living and rack up frightening numbers of hours in training. For much of its history, soccer has existed in a state of what might be called professional amateurism. Its global landscape arose over the years like a barely-planned city: piecemeal and ad hoc, though with a hierarchical structure. Competitions sprung up because, well, that’s just kind of what they did. When the European Cup — Europe’s first continental championship, and the forerunner of today’s Champions League — was instituted in 1955, it was to satisfy a curiosity.

This type of thing is inimical to the designs of the elite European clubs today. Of course, power has always been tied to money to some extent. But when money was relatively scarce, there was a balance of power, and the higgledy-piggledy soccerscape could emerge, for better or worse. Now, with the top clubs all too aware of their powers of attraction, they plan a utopia of sorts. Thus, their professionalisation entails concentrating their power still further, and consolidating it. It’s rationalisation, both in the euphemistic economic sense and as an expression of a terrible kind of logic: strip away all components deemed non-essential, reassign the rest of the sport to roles as links in the supply chain. Nothing will be left to chance. The stratification of Europe’s top leagues becomes more stubborn each year. The uppermost layers of these leagues might one day be decanted into some kind of European Super League, either separate from UEFA or as near as makes no difference. The Champions League is just a chrysalis. As the best talents in football fall towards the top, the standard of play will be astonishing — see today’s Real Madrid and Barcelona teams for a glimpse into the future. But they will play in a hermetic chamber. The European Hyper League will be a like a picture of a beautiful face tweaked such that it appears perfect according to the eye, but lacks something according to the soul. Europe’s top clubs are marching football towards Uncanny Valley.

In this context, a week of international football comes as a welcome burst of irrationality. There is no overriding reason why football (or any sport) should have as the basis for (part of) its structure the respecting of national boundaries. In the face of the relentless rationality of club football, it counts as a grand eccentricity. That the sources of Big Football’s revenue streams lie all over the world is seen as a sign of globalisation. But the globe was already a globe before it was globalised; all that’s happened is that the clubs have awoken to the fact and wish to capitalise on it. Whatever one thinks of nationalism and its seepage into sport, it is an easily and universally comprehensible concept. It shuns the centripetal forces that govern the club game and allows us to pretend for the day that the sport can exist for everyone’s benefit. It’s a world where a qualifying play-off between Ireland and Estonia — which can at best have a feebly indirect impact on the continent’s best teams — can genuinely be the biggest deal in a universe of its own making, and not just a lower form of life. It’s a world where the Faroe Isles can win an otherwise inconsequential match which means everything to them. It’s a world where (and this is always fun) the biggest teams must travel to places it’s apparently okay to still call “godforsaken” and have to bear the insult of not being carried onto the pitch in a sedan chair.

This grand bastion of recessive amateurism can’t hold out forever. The fact that part of its pleasure is in how it goes against the grain is a symptom. It is governed by FIFA and the continental confederations attached to it, and football geopolitics is truly godforsaken. FIFA used to appear bulletproof, and even through the muck of recent and current scandal, it likes to give the impression that it remains so. Nevertheless, an increasingly archaic system is in the hands of a regime that is struggling to manage itself. Nothing lasts forever, of course. International football is in the early stages of its own fossilisation. Those of us who revel in it are indulging in a nostalgia for the present.


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