For all those enraged by the hundreds of millions of pounds in inflated transfer fees flying between the stadia of Europe this summer: there was once a bearded man from a long time ago who proposed that the use-value of a commodity or service should determine its price, not market forces. No, I’m not talking about Gandalf, or even Santa Claus — I’m referring to Karl Marx.
Marx fought against wage-slavery long before Sepp Blatter’s little outburst last week, although the former was probably more concerned for the legions of destitute working-class persons across Europe, not 120,000 pound-a-week Portuguese footballers. However, a brief reprisal of Marx’s views on the subject reveals some interesting truths about today’s football transfer market.
Marx thought wage-slavery derived from three primary conditions: ownership of the means of production by a few (the Glazer family today, Real Madrid’s family of shareholders tomorrow), lack of access to the means of production (Ronaldo has no control over the fixture list, team sheets, or television close-ups of his smirking face), and the legions of unemployed workers ready to come in and work for less (Dimitar Berbatov anyone?).
In this light, instead of sounding like an out-of-touch bonehead, Sepp Blatter may have revealed himself to be a very cunning Marxist. For Marx, wage-slavery extended equally to factory workers and writers, proletarians and professors. Although highly-paid professional athletes weren’t much of a phenomenon in the late 19th century, Marx might have actually agreed with Blatter, arguing that Ronaldo is a wage-slave for all the same reasons Joe Six Pack down at the cracker factory is a wage-slave (although Joe Six Pack doesn’t have the GDP of the Ivory Coast in his back pocket).
While I’m not a Marxist and I don’t believe professional footballers are ‘modern slaves,’ the comparison reveals the intractability of the football transfer system. The media needs a story and the public likes nothing better than a villainous mercenary on whom we can unleash our moral outrage, but in reality, players like Ronaldo and Barry are merely victims of bad PR.
Laying waste to contractual obligations has been part of the game well before the famed Bosman ruling, even before PFA pioneer Jimmy Hill successfully lobbied to lift the salary cap in 1961. Scottish journalists at the turn of the twentieth century proudly declared no Scot would be so low as to turn their trade in the English League ‘for base gold,’ but, lo-and-behold, quite a few of them took the opportunity. Players then and now, like everyone else in the football business, are only following the rules of the game by acting in their own best interests (Marx’s idea of slavery).
Every once in a while, of course, a newspaper editorial will rant about how things have ‘gone too far’ since the halcyon days when a team like Burnley could go win the FA Cup, but outrageous transfer fees will still be paid because successful clubs can afford to pay them, and successful clubs can afford to pay them because you and I will pay to follow successful football clubs (well, I follow Villa, so ‘successful’ is relative I guess). This is the reason why the same morally outraged newspaper will go and dedicate a ten-page spread to the European Cup final — football sells.
Which brings us to a truth harder than Stuart Pearce. Whether you buy the thousand-pound season tickets, order the eighty-pound kit on your club credit card, or subscribe to Setanta or Sky to watch your club close-up and edited for the attention-deficit generation, you, the football fan, are fueling player-price inflation. Stop watching the football, clubs go broke, and Ronaldo goes fishing off Madeira.
We may not like him wiping his golden arse with his Manchester United contract, and neither did Bayern fans when Hargreaves did the same thing in 2006, but this will continue as long as the football business is able to stretch your love of the game to its limits. Which will be either until the next Marxist revolution, or when Masters Football really takes off as I’m truly hoping it will.
Richard Whittall lives in Toronto and is the author of A More Splendid Life.