Thursday 21 September 2017

Comment - Details of Paul Pogba's transfer deal and Zlatan Ibrahimovic wages show how rotten the Premier League has become

When sums like those paid to Raiola and Ibrahimovic hit the headlines, the word 'obscene' usually gets bandied about
When sums like those paid to Raiola and Ibrahimovic hit the headlines, the word 'obscene' usually gets bandied about

Eamonn Sweeney

Reading about the vast fee pocketed by agent Mino Raiola for his role in the Paul Pogba transfer deal and about the exorbitant wages paid by Manchester United to Zlatan Ibrahimovic, I was struck by a feeling of déjà vu.

The impression of arrogance, of greed and, above all, of decadence reminded me of books about Hollywood, the likes of Final Cut and High Concept, when all sense of proportion had gone out the window as the moguls began to revel in excess for its own sake. Or of similar volumes about Wall Street, back when the money men thought they were invincible and just before they caused the world economy to collapse. My visceral reaction was the same: “Jesus Christ, these are awful people.”

Like Hollywood at the height of its hubris and Wall Street before the crash, the Premier League is a world with something rotten at its core, something which probably contains the seeds of future disaster. The problem isn’t confined to Manchester United. The Premier League itself is a horrible institution.

There is something mind-boggling about the fact that Raiola allegedly managed to extract £41m in fees out of the £89m transfer. He did this by working for  two sides at the same time. Juventus hired him to screw as much money out of United as possible while United wanted him to ensure the deal went through. You could say there was a potential conflict of interest there. You could even observe that if conflicts of interest were a sport, Raiola would be an Olympic gold medallist.

The poor old devil apparently had to bear in mind the interests of Juventus, of Manchester United and of Paul Pogba, of course, while ensuring — though I’m sure this was the last thing on his mind, — that Mino Raiola was looked after too. The layman may wonder how it’s possible for someone to represent two apparently conflicting sides in a deal and even wonder why United would fork out millions of pounds to a man who, on the face of it, was working against their interest.

Said layman might even wonder if the money gave Raiola a little incentive to persuade Pogba that Manchester was the place to be. I’m sure everything was above board. Because Mino’s lawyers says it was, and Mino is an honourable man.

We are fortunate that football agents are a breed renowned for their impeccable ethical standards. Otherwise, given the potential for making a large personal killing from transfer deals, it would be in their interest to maintain players in a state of perpetual unhappiness at their current club, to ceaselessly promote transfer speculation and to ensure players make as many big moves as possible, all circumstances unlikely to make their clients perform to the best of their ability. Thankfully this never happens.

The most remarkable thing about Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s deal is not the fact that he was on £367,640 a week. The man has to eat. No, the eye-opener was his goal bonus — £395,000 extra when he scored six, £555,000 for 11, £715,000 for 16, and so on all the way up to an extra £1,910,000 if he scored 36. The deal was negotiated by . . . who else? The talented Mister Raiola. Whatever else, the man can’t be accused of only being interested in his own enrichment.

One intriguing facet to the deal is its implication that Ibrahimovic couldn’t be expected to do his very best for a shitty £367,640 a week. But there is a footballing implication there, too. It can hardly have escaped anyone’s notice that the striker is remarkably selfish when a chance of a goal presents itself. All great goalscorers are single-minded, of course, but it’s scarcely believable that the chance of those bonuses didn’t affect the way Ibrahimovic played this season.

You could say that given the money he was already on, the bonuses wouldn’t have made that much difference to him. But if they weren’t important to the player, they wouldn’t have been in the contract, would they?

The bonuses may go some way to providing an explanation for an odd anomaly. While Ibrahimovic enjoyed a fruitful season in front of goal, though not as fruitful as that enjoyed by Messrs Lukaku, Kane, Sanchez, Costa and Aguero, the attack he’d been signed to lead functioned only fitfully. United’s goals total in the league so far is 51, a long way behind those of their rivals for a top-four place. The lowest total among these contenders, aside from United, is the 68 scored by Arsenal. Eleventh-placed Bournemouth have scored more than United. That the club’s main striker had an incentive to play as an individual rather than a member of a team surely had something to do with it.

Lukaku, Kane, Sanchez and Costa have also contributed more assists than Ibrahimovic. Don’t bother bringing Ibrahimovic’s suspension and injury into it — Lukaku, Kane and Aguero have all scored more goals per minutes played. And the Swede’s achievement of getting 55 per cent of his shots on target pales compared to Kane’s 66 per cent and Lukaku’s 63 per cent. The bonus scheme’s efficacy as a performance booster seems pretty questionable. Ibrahimovic hasn’t scored fewer goals in a season since he was struggling at AC Milan in 2010-11. His defenders may point out that the man is getting on. Yep, which is why they shouldn’t have paid him so much money.

When sums like those paid to Raiola and Ibrahimovic hit the headlines, the word ‘obscene’ usually gets bandied about and it’s suggested that the money could have been better spent on ‘The Homeless.’

But given that United is an organisation whose business is football rather than charity, it’s a bit of a stretch to claim that Zlatan and his agent are snaffling up money which would otherwise have been spent on the alleviation of poverty.

However, the sang froid with which United paid off Signor Raiola does cast an unflattering light on how the club does business in other areas. Look at the case of Nobby Stiles, suffering from dementia, a victim of a heart attack and stroke, struggling to make ends meet for years. In 2009 when he wanted to bring his granddaughter to a game and asked United if he could get tickets, they told him ‘yeah, and you can pay for them like anyone else’.

The following year Stiles was forced into the humiliating expedient of putting his medals up for auction. At which stage United finally stepped in and paid £200,000 for them. We know the sum because they made sure to tell everyone and make it clear that as far as they were concerned this more than discharged their debt to Nobby Stiles. Eight years on he’s struggling again.

Stiles isn’t the only former player who’s had to sell his medals and who’s struggled financially in his latter years. The irony is that these players are used as a stick with which to beat the big earners of today. Look at the obscene money earned by Y while X is broke — that kind of thing. Yet it’s not up to the modern player to look after his aged counterpart.

Stiles, and players like him, played a key role in creating the legend which enabled today’s big clubs to become the massive corporate entities they are today. It’s not surprising that many of them struggle in later life: they come from an era when clubs insisted players leave school to sign with them at the age of 15 and did nothing to further their education. If they’re lucky they can make an undignified few quid hawking their anecdotes on the after dinner circuit.

Yet when Stiles’s current predicament surfaced, there were quite a few journalists and keyboard warriors who declared their support for United. They couldn’t look after him for the few years he has left, it was argued, because then they’d have an obligation to help other former players who’d fallen on hard times. As if that was too much to ask for. Able-bodied young men argued that an old man in bad health and suffering from dementia should stand on his own feet and stop bothering one of the world’s richest sports clubs.

You saw the same reaction when Marcus Rashford’s old schoolboy coach wondered aloud if United might help out his club and suggested a few footballs now and again would be a nice idea. He was berated — the Daily Mail were to the forefront here — for his cheek in doing so. Again the argument was that helping out the old schoolboy clubs of their players would impose an unfair financial burden on the club.

Well, United have just paid £16.3m to a man whose sole connection to the club was involvement in a deal in which he was working against them. They could have bought Nobby Stiles’ medals 81 times for that. You work out how many footballs they could have bought.

And when Accrington Stanley chairman Andy Holt indignantly observed that Raiola had made around 20 times as much money as his club spends in a year, what was the reaction of the Premier League? A letter containing a veiled threat to cut the money, a relative pittance, which the Premier League  pays to the lower division clubs who have provided many of its players.

What a rotten pack of bastards. What a rotten league. What a rotten game.

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