Sports Nut

Messi to Madrid!

An appreciation of soccer’s ludicrous, misleading, and fabulously entertaining transfer rumor mill.

Lionel Messi

Ah, summer, when the breezes blow and the international soccer media lose all contact with reality. If you thought the World Cup was the only highlight of the season, or that soccer fans should concern themselves only with events that happen in the real world, then you have been missing one of the game’s distinctive pleasures. I refer, of course, to transfer gossip, a popular but critically underappreciated genre of soccer writing comprising frothy speculation about players shifting teams, usually in exchange for massive sums of money. In most European leagues, the summer transfer window—one of two periods during which teams are allowed to buy and sell players—runs from the first day of July to the last day of August, meaning that the peak of the summer transfer-gossip season is now upon us.

Combining trace elements of journalism with large quantities of inference and embellishment, the transfer-rumor story is a natural outgrowth of the rules governing player movement. Compared to the major American sports leagues, with their salary caps and trade restrictions, the world’s top soccer circuits treat player transfers as a sort of laissez-faire free-for-all. If Manchester City wants to sign a player who’s under contract to Valencia, their most likely course of action is simply to offer Valencia a bundle of cash—nearly $40 million, in the recent case of David Silva. Negotiations are generally carried out under a cloak of intense, slightly farcical secrecy. The press, lacking reliable information and yet having to feed an insatiable public demand for more news, has taken this predicament as a license to print every rumor, leak, or stray scrap of innuendo it comes across, usually without saying which is which. 

It’s widely understood among transfer-gossip aficionados that most of these stories are worthless, but their worthlessness only adds to their charm. The best rumors are finely tuned to tickle the sports fan’s basic desire to know what’s going on, even when something isn’t. Are you a Real Madrid supporter keen to learn how Florentino Pérez plans to remake the club? Then you will be thrilled—dizzied—to read that he’s planning to shock the world with a record-vaporizing bid for Lionel Messi, the FIFA World Player of the Year who happens to star for Madrid’s biggest rival. You realize, of course, that the chances of Barcelona letting Messi go are at a whispering distance from zero. Nevertheless, you click on the headline and allow yourself a momentary vision of how the Argentine might look playing alongside Ronaldo and Mesut Özil.

A really good transfer rumor doesn’t have to be untrue. It just has to make claims that it can’t support, allowing us to fill the gaps with a fizzy sense of impossible possibility. Is it a product of real, pared-down reporting? Was it planted by an agent or a player with an ulterior motive? Or did it spring from a looming deadline and whatever was stashed in the writer’s bottom desk drawer? A glance at the News of the World’s transfer site and the BBC’s rumor aggregator turns up stories that could be all three. It’s a world where managers are constantly “setting their sights,” clubs are always “in the hunt,” and players forever “remain hopeful.” Like old-fashioned Hollywood gossip columns, transfer-rumor lists conjure elaborate relationships out of wisps of quotation and well-trafficked clichés. “Liverpool Manager Roy Hodgson: Wantaway Midfielder Javier Mascherano Has Refused to Return My Telephone Calls,” one recent headline wept.

In Europe, transfer gossip flourishes not only in the cheeky sports rags and tabloids but also in their bespectacled cousins, the broadsheets. The way a paper treats transfer gossip offers valuable insights into its self-image. Team-specific sports dailies like Marcaand Sport break real news but also gleefully peddle nonsense that borders on the delirious. English tabloids like the  Sunpick up the best scraps from the rest of Europe and inject their own tone of beefy certainty. Far up the ladder of sophistication, the Guardian, which prints some of the smartest soccer coverage around, also runs transfer rumors. But it treats them with open scorn, which is sort of like quoting Thucydides during Jersey Shore to let everyone know you’re above it. Dude, you’ve got the remote.

On the surface, the rules for writing transfer gossip are simple: Merely assert that Team X is chasing Player Y, preferably in a way that marries detailed revelations about the inmost thoughts of the principals to a complete absence of evidence. But the best rumors also exploit real-life narratives about a club or a player—a protégé reuniting with his old manager, say, or a homesick player leaving a foreign league to return to his native country. It’s public knowledge, for instance, that FC Barcelona is trying to lure Arsenal midfielder Cesc Fàbregas back to the club where he trained as a boy. Even in these cases, it’s disorienting to read rumors that breathlessly report unverifiable bid amounts (30 million pounds! No, 60 million!) before turning to Fàbregas’ real comments about his emotional turmoil. In a strange way, the legitimate parts of the story (Barcelona’s interest, Fàbregas’ inner conflict) seem less substantial because of the lingering illegitimacy (the specific proposals and the motivations of everyone else involved). At times, the gossip sheets read like the Wall Street Journal as edited by Dostoevsky.

At other times, though, a gust of reality will blow through a transfer rumor in a way that not only validates it, but makes it appear that life has pretzeled itself into the caricature that lives on the page. Early last year, the English club Manchester City, which had recently been purchased by the royal family of Abu Dhabi, tried to buy AC Milan’s star midfielder, Kaká. Rumors foamed around a possible deal for weeks. Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian prime minister and owner of AC Milan, flew back from Middle East peace talks in Egypt to hold his own summit over the attacking midfielder’s future. Anguished Milan fans gathered outside Kaká’s home, singing and holding signs pleading with him to stay. Finally, like a goal-scoring Evita, Kaká appeared on the balcony. He raised a Milan jersey and tapped his heart. Soon after, he announced his intention to remain with the club.

What series of events could have been better suited to the frenzied media fantasy that preceded those moments? The excitement was so intense, and the rumored fee had so many zeroes—Manchester City was reportedly offering Milan about $150 million for the midfielder’s signature—that they could be substantiated only by kings and ministers moving across the earth. And the sight of Kaká angelically hovering over the Milanese love-in turned the negotiation into a geopolitical fairy tale. (One that was tarnished, admittedly, when he moved to Real Madrid during the very next transfer window.) It was a story that seemed made for transfer gossip and that might have been incomprehensible without transfer gossip. That it happened to be true was only a bonus.

What the Kaká story showed is how closely linked the reality of sports is to the unreality. That’s also the secret of transfer gossip. For all that soccer turns on discrete, actual events—goals scored, games won, contracts filed—its appeal also depends on its role as a kind of vast public daydream. It’s a compendium of irresponsible what-ifs: What if Fernando Torres played for Chelsea? What if a player turned down a massive contract out of loyalty to his fans? Sometimes these scenarios come true, but that’s not really the point. We’re all dreamers, especially when our heads are in the sports pages.

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