In the run-up to the 2010 World Cup, Nike ran its Write the Future video, a long commercial which showcased many of football’s greats at that time – Ronaldinho, Franck Ribery, Didier Drogba, Cristiano Ronaldo, Fabio Cannavaro, Cesc Fabregas. Set to the catchy music of the 70s Dutch group Focus, and with moments of humour that included cameos by none other than basketball star Kobe Bryant and the somewhat unspectacular Homer Simpson, the three-minute video was a deft piece of film-making. By dramatizing the risks and returns of playing football at top level, Write the Future presented world footballers as a sort of modern hero, risking all in pursuit of glory.
This theme gains prominence in a middle sequence, which starts with a Wayne Rooney pass being intercepted by Ribery. At once, the film cuts to visions of the avalanche of anger and ridicule England would rain on him, the sequence closing hilariously with a bearded and dishevelled Rooney looking up from the groundskeeper trailer in which he now lives and seeing a poster of Ribery as the Nike sponsor. We then return to the pitch, where Rooney leaps to his feet and in one of the heart-filled runs for which he is famous, he chases back down the field and reclaims the ball, setting the scene for a new reverie-sequence in which he is feted as the hero of England – knighted by the Queen, ‘Wayne’ revealed as the favourite baby-name of new mother, and his football foes throwing down newspapers of his achievement in disgust. Juxtaposing scenes of spectacular skill by the film’s heroes with the passionate outbursts of their fans in different corners of the earth, the film closes with a sequence in which Cristian Ronaldo places the ball for a free kick that could determine the outcome of a match – and with that, his place (or not) in history.
The film thus highlights both the glory and adulation that accompanies triumph in world football, and the outright collapse that goes with failure. As the father of someone who had a brief career as a professional footballer, the message resonated with me. Whenever people lament the obscene salaries paid to professional footballers, I recall the long lonely days on windswept fields and in empty rain-drenched stadiums when the only return was the hope that one day, all this might amount to something. I have always reckoned that, in the aggregate, footballers are in real terms paid not much more today than they were in the days after World War II; then, when the Horse Guards band led the players out onto the Wembley Pitch for the FA Cup final, they drew a bigger paycheque for their day’s work than the players did. It’s just that today, a tiny fraction of players earn almost all the money. The remaining ninety-odd percent of the world’s players, struggling in lower-division teams, on academy and reserve squads, or working day jobs to cover the cost of traveling to every open trial they can get a crack at in the hopes that one day they may break through, have to divide up the meagre remnants among themselves.
In that concentration of riches at the top amid poverty below, football’s arc mirrors that of the wider economy, particularly in the developed world. A few university graduates get good salaried jobs with pensions and benefits, whereas most are left to make do with poorly-paid temporary positions that they try to cobble together into some semblance of a career. The difference is that while the gap between a good job and serial contract-work is disappointment and a set of unfulfilled expectations, that between a successful footballer and the rest is a massive fall. For the majority who do not attain glory, untold wealth, an endless supply of women and immortality, all that is left is a dawning sense that the one thing which defined your life is gone and you are left with no marketable skills and no prospects. You will, like the parallel-universe Wayne Rooney in Write the Future, be left with the equivalent of bar-tending and life in a trailer.
Thus, those who dream of football glory are left literally to risk everything for a slender hope of triumph. In that sense, they have become our modern heroes, who embody our dreams and enable us to vicariously experience the thrill of risking it all for glory. So it’s not surprising if we accord them such exalted status that they can trade it in for riches we could only ever imagine.
To judge from the willingness of people of modest means to crowd the turnstiles and buy the team jerseys and scarves, we seem not to begrudge them the money – unless, that is, they don’t take the risk of losing everything. I was thinking about this on the night Floyd Mayweather defended his world boxing championship against Manny Pacquiao. After his victory, won in classic Mayweather style — technically perfect, cautious, plodding and largely devoid of drama — he rose to accept the adulation of a home-town crowd and instead got boos and jeers. Floyd ‘Money’ Mayweather has defined himself not as a hero, but as a capitalist. In that, he has excelled, making himself the richest athlete and history and thereby allowing himself an ostentation the rest of us will only ever read about – never wearing any pair of shoes more than once, sporting a $6 million watch collection or conducting an Instagram poll to decide which of his luxury cars he should drive on a given day. But he has done this less by winning than by not losing. Many — I include myself — believe that had Mayweather fought Pacquiao five years ago, when the much-loved Philippino was stronger and Mayweather had not yet perfected in his technique, that Pacquiao would have come out the victor. When the two finally did fight, Mayweather made the bout resemble a Chelsea football match: so technically perfect and cautious, taking few risks in order to minimise the chance of defeat, doing just enough to squeak out a victory, that the passion and heroism one normally associates with boxing was emptied completely. People didn’t mind the lunacy of dropping thousands of dollars to sit in a nosebleed seat for forty-five minutes of action. But they wanted the gladiators to put all on the line for their taste of glory.
Some historians say that the age of heroes died its final death on Europe’s battlefields in World War I. The doomed cavalry-charges of a decadent nobility, meant to showcase the willingness of great men to put death before dishonour, were roundly minced by the brutally efficient fighting-machines that industrial capitalism had produced: tanks, machine guns, airplane bombs and Mustard gas. Mayweather’s triumph may have represented the victory of capitalist efficiency over Pacquiao’s nobility – the challenger suggested to Mayweather before the fight that they each forego a purse and donate the proceeds to charity, an idea that needless to say got no traction in Mayweather’s camp. But we still seem to want our heroes. We’ll buy non-fiction books about how to get rich, but we want our novels and films to dramatise heroes who live and die for glory. Mayweather’s personal rags-to-riches story could have given us a different narrative. But his determination to make money, above all else, left a bitter taste in the throats of all but the most jaded of viewers. It would appear the world still lies in wait for its champion.