Last week on holiday, idly scrolling through algo-served transfer gossip, I came across a 40-second video compilation of a 51-year-old man ambling about in various, unremarkable scenarios, soundtracked by Drake’s No Friends In The Industry.
In one section, he’s walking through Old Trafford in a gilet; in another he’s holding court in a suit. The subject is John Murtough, Manchester United’s football director, and therefore the person nominally in charge of the club’s transfers. The clip – captioned “Murtough Madness is in full flow” – is a pretty disposable piece of overly dramatic content, and it’s hard to buy into the idea that this guy deserves to be presented as though he’s Maverick from Top Gun. It is, however, evidence of the hysterical theatre that now surrounds the buying and selling of players. It’s an element of the game that’s become an addictive, competitive sport in and of itself. One that, to my dismay, I am all too happy to play.
In the past few years, a transition has taken place in line with a wider cultural shift that plays into the depressing “CEOs are the new rock stars” train of thought, whereby football journalists, directors of football, owners and agents have somehow become celebrities in their own right.
Todd Boehly is a 48-year-old businessman from Connecticut who’s part of a consortium that recently acquired Chelsea after Roman Abramovich’s alleged ties to the Kremlin left his position untenable. There are now countless Twitter accounts with handles like @boehlydaboss or @boehlyera22, who post slavish testimonies to his business acumen. Todd Boehly! A man who nobody could have named two months ago, who started out in the investment banking division of Credit Suisse, is now someone that online fans idolise and impersonate like he’s got the flamboyance of Neymar, as opposed to a behind-the-scenes billionaire looking to make some more cash (Disclaimer: I have never met Todd Boehly so, really, who am I to make assumptions about his charisma?).
It wasn’t always this way, but in the new sport of football transfers, these guys are the players with the power. We live in an era of the game that feels almost lab-controlled, each elite team a mainframe of systems and structures, both on and off the pitch. Fans don’t just clamour for the signing of players anymore, but the directors of football, scouts, assistant managers, owners, too. Fans are now interested in the fiscal affairs of clubs in a way that I don’t think they were ten years ago. Not to get all “the game’s gone” about it, but football is now more serious than it used to be, an intensely examined world of meticulously regimented diets, VAR, and xG.
Today’s football journalists occupy a crucial position as constantly scrutinised gatekeepers and gossip shepherds, herding trading information around the internet. They’re separated into tiers of reliability by rabid fans who criticise them, eulogise about who has the best sources, and harass them for news on certain players under totally unrelated posts. Once simply writers, football journalists are now also always-on YouTubers, Twitch streamers and podcasters, continuously plugged into the electrical matrix, legacy acts catching up to the fan channel explosion of the 2010s.
Even star transfer journalist Fabrizio Romano, whose trademark “Here We Go!” catchphrase became the de facto seal on a completed transfer, has seen the tide turn on him. Fans have accused him of being a “tap in merchant” feeding on the exclusives of others, comparing him to his contemporaries as though he’s a striker. Meanwhile, a strange extension of football journalists are the ITK (in the know) Twitter accounts that pretend to be well-connected and type in hushed tones about “their sources”, when it’s obvious to pretty much anyone that this is strictly a bedroom project. Ronaldo’s agent ain’t telling an anonymous avi off the internet if he’s moving to Bayern.
But in this swirling vortex of football fans desperate for information about who their team is going to sign, these accounts act as pillars of hope, something for people to cling onto. Why do they do this? Is there money in this racket? Attention? Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter if they’re telling the truth or not. Their unreliability is a useful cog in the content machine and keeps things whirring.
This new culture is emblematic of a constantly online, data-obsessed, scam society that has ended up with John Terry hawking ape kid NFTs. The modern transfer window is a phenomenon born from it that encourages a millenia-old affliction of the human condition that’s gotten much worse since the advent of the internet: Pretending To Know What You’re Talking About.
With each strong rumour of a player being transferred to a club comes a “Welcome To…” compilation clip soundtracked by faceless, royalty-free beats, followed by endless stats referencing and debating about the merits of said player, regardless of whether or not they’re playing in leagues that anyone ever watches; regardless of whether or not they’re definitely joining. It’s this specific brand of mania that emboldened executives to pitch the Super League, a competition that will prove to be a large-scale, sterile spectacle, and will court the screen-glued eyeballs of “fans of the future”, rather than match-going punters written off politely as “legacy fans”.
The transfer window is a content-driven game show that’s exclusive to the money merry-go-round of the world’s top leagues, a strangely compelling drama full of targets and pursuits, with millions of willing players. In the dry, football-less months of summer, this period becomes its own multibillion pound contact sport, a battleground where fans fight over their beloved clubs’ hiring policies, argue about things like “net spend” and @ left backs playing in LaLiga 2, begging them to join their team. The beautiful game has just under two months to run, ending on September 1st, when the window slams shut. Here we go!