Robin Yourself Blind

Arsenal, van Persie and getting it as good as you give it.
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Soon-to-be-not-Arsenal's Robin Van Persie

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

As with the thunk-thunk-thunk of your childhood pets dropping dead in succession, you'd think you'd have become used to it by now. It happens almost every summer these days that Arsenal lose a star player. Patrick Vieira, Thierry Henry, Emmanuel Adebayor, Cesc Fàbregas, Gaël Clichy and Samir Nasri have all left since 2005, each departure instigated by the player and prompting a search for the Arsenal soul.

This year, it's Robin van Persie's turn to ride off into the sunset, or where the sunset would be if it weren't obscured by a sheet of black cloud formed by the steam hissing off angry Gooner foreheads. In a statement on his website, van Persie informed us that he and the club "in many aspects disagree on the way Arsenal FC should move forward," and that he would not be staying beyond the expiry of his contract next summer, almost certainly forcing a sale this close season. "The way Arsenal FC should move forward" probably involves the club spending big money on new players, as opposed to their current prudence. Many fans concluded that what he really meant was that he wanted big money spent on him, of the order that (to pick a random example) Manchester City might be able to pay. Certainly, the statement invited such a cynical reading: in a world where corporations truly, deeply, sincerely want us to know how much they care about us, a footballer writing his team's fans a Dear John while addressing them as "you guys" is hardly likely to be greeted with nonchalance. Nonetheless, it's reasonable to imagine that he really would quite like to be at a team that has won actually something recently. Anyway, that's not what's really eating away at Arsenal's minds. It's the fact that he can make such a move in the first place, and that Arsenal seem so vulnerable to such expressions of player power.

"Player power". There's a phrase. It's makes strong men shudder and mute wrecks gibber. It's discussed in tones usually only employed when fretting about that time in the future when computers become so intelligent that they decide they can run the world by themselves: See what happens when you give them too much information? I mean, really. A player pondering on his team's ambitions? And passing judgement on them? Who does he think he is? It wasn't like this in the old days. Player power is far from absolute. For example, if a manager comes into a club while rashly believing himself to possess a "philosophy", and decides that a certain player would hinder its streamlined thrust, the player has little option but to take his trade elsewhere. But a player's power is certainly greater than it ever has been—and by God, do they ever exercise it.

This is usually put down to the 1995 Bosman ruling, whereby true free agency was granted to players, and restrictions on how many foreign players could play for a team (provided the players came from within the European Union or associated nations, or could convincingly fake an Italian grandfather) were lifted. This opened up the transfer market, giving players negotiating clout they'd never before enjoyed.

But what really set the tone was the attitude of the powers-that-be towards the idea, as exemplified by Jean-Marc Bosman's adversaries: his club, the Belgian FA, and UEFA. They weren't merely fighting to retain a particular system—they were fighting for their right to dictate what the system should be. The structure of professional football had been built on it. In England until the 1960s, for instance, players were subject to a maximum wage, and were bound to the club they first signed for until the club decided otherwise. From then until Bosman, players were entitled to something akin to the NBA's restricted free agency. A club could retain an out-of-contract player as long as they matched any other offer; even if they didn't, they were still owed a transfer fee. Unlike the NBA, a player couldn't become an unrestricted free agent, unless the club decided to release him.

Bosman's grievance was that his club could retain him on a reduced salary and demand a nonsensically high transfer fee for him. His was a grossly unfair situation, but his opponents dug in. This is how things had always been, and they were damned if they were going to let them change. There was no recognition that players in sport are not merely employees, but partners. There was no sense that they should be met part-way. They bet the farm on their morally untenable position not also being legally untenable, and they lost.

They thus lost an important element of control. Their intransigent refusal to see that the jig was up rebounded on them. It's now players vs. owners in a near free-for-all. Players have been gleefully working the system ever since Bosman, as if in revenge for their predecessors having been under its thumb for so long. Most players today turned pro after Bosman, and have known no other way.

But the effect wouldn't have been so marked had the clubs not been there first. The Premier League was founded in 1992 on the notion that the big clubs should keep all the money and the rest could jolly well keep away, or risk drowning trying to cross the moat. Brian Glanville called it the Greed Is Good League, and when Sky Sports saw fit to pay the league a nine-figure sum for the TV rights, it was party time, so long as you were on the right side of the drawbridge. An important principle had been established: it was right and proper for clubs to get their hands on as much dosh as possible (even more than was possible, if possible). When Bosman happened, the players got to adopt that principle too. The clubs' pigheadedness had rebounded on them. They knew what they wanted, as HL Mencken might have said, and they were now getting it good and hard.

So it's a rum do to be asked to feel sympathy when a club gets burned like Arsenal have been with van Persie. The players and clubs are in the same bunfight-turned-fight-fight, gilt teapots and Ferrero Rochers darting through the air. Which bunch of knobheads are you supposed to back? It's like a scrap between Piers Morgan and Piers Morgan.

Arsenal find themselves in a perfectly Premier League predicament. Their financial model is based on not spending more than they have. One of the leading proponents of a breakaway league in the first place, who weren't averse to the odd blockbuster signing, have now, in the elevated position into which they levered themselves, gone frugal. On the one hand, it ensures stability of a sort: no overstretching of the budget, and repeated Champions League qualification (for now, just about). On the other, it means that challenging for honours is more and more difficult: since their last league win in 2003-4, they've only been able to put together a decent two-thirds of a decent season at a time, and their European record has been mediocre. The success that was there in the early days of Arsène Wenger's reign is now the property of the likes of Manchester City: clubs who spend not like there's no tomorrow, but like they're buying all the tomorrows. Arsenal may complain about the inflationary effect that this kind of spending has had on the market, but it's the logical outcome of their super league dream. It's party time—just not for them.

The day after van Persie's statement, Red & White Securities, a group which owns a large minority stake in Arsenal, called on majority owner Stan Kroenke and the other shareholders to raise new capital by means of a rights issue. The statement thus marked Red & White out as the progressive voice of the ownership while carefully avoiding the idea that Red & White should put any of its own money into the club. Red & White is basically Alisher Usmanov, who is, it must be said, a thoroughly decent sort. It must be said, because his lawyers are quite insistent on the matter. It may be that Arsenal will one day face a choice between an eternity in fifth place and the kind of spending whose chief advocate is that most Alisher Usmanov of men, Alisher Usmanov. They're rich enough to be the envy of almost every club in the world, but there remains at the very least a nagging concern that they're not quite rich enough.

Maybe nobody is quite rich enough. Dundalk, the most successful League of Ireland club outside Dublin, need quite a lot of money rather quickly if they're to survive at all. Times are hard for football in Ireland as for everything else. While the national team was pratfalling in Poland, Monaghan United resigned from the league because of high costs. Now, Dundalk have found themselves unable to pay their players' wages. Another week in arrears and the players will have the freedom to leave the club. The club is for sale, but only the supporters' group, the Dundalk FC Community Trust, have so far expressed an interest in buying it, and they face a struggle to raise the necessary funds. If there's no sale, there'll be no club. At least Arsenal are only losing the odd star player. Money can't buy you happiness, but it can certainly buy you a better class of existential crisis.

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"...since their last league win in 2003-4, they've only been able to put together a decent two-thirds of a decent season at a time, and their European record has been mediocre."

The first part of that statement is undoubtedly true, but I actually think that their European record is far from mediocre since 2004, especially by previous standards--a UCL final, a semifinal, and a Nicklas Bendtner toe away from beating Barcelona (at the height of their powers) in a quarterfinal are pretty good results when held up next to 1997-2003...

...unless one is thinking also of the 2000 UEFA Cup final, of which let no human speak upon forevermore...

Arsenal may complain about the inflationary effect that this kind of spending has had on the market, but it's the logical outcome of their super league dream.

I have to admit, I'm not clear on how, exactly, convincing oil billionaires to throw hundreds of millions of dollars into a loss-making business is the "logical outcome" of the Premiership. In theory, UEFA's Financial Fair Play regulations will put a stop to this kind of spending, which, if they are actually enforced, will put a damper on Man City's (and Chelsea's and Paris Saint-Germain's and Malaga's...) European ambitions. Don't spend somebody else's money, just to make payroll, seems like a sound principle to me, but we'll see if UEFA is willing to stand up to these clubs.