MONEY is vulgar. Greed is no longer good. The world is either on fire or buried beneath a deadly snowstorm. Patience is thin for articles concerning how many millions Cristiano Ronaldo will earn in a week playing in the oil-soaked Saudi Pro League.
It’s not about the money anymore. A dispiriting 2022 has often been concerned with different numbers: the deaths of migrant workers, sacrificed to build Qatari stadiums that their paymasters no longer need nor want; the latest inflation figures and temperature rises, stalling salaries and climate refugees. This was the year of the right kind of interest being shown to the wrong kind of numbers.
And Ronaldo’s 4K tears do not count really. His reported £173million-per-year salary with Al-Nassr not only feels typically obscene, but also out of touch with an altered reality. Such sums are like flared trousers or Seventies prog rock albums. They felt cool and titillating at the time, but now seem tacky, excessive and embarrassingly archaic.
If Qatar 2022, Ronaldo’s behaviour and the bleating of overindulged superstars concerned with the zeroes on their next contract achieved anything, it was the death of the galactico.
Like the red braces-wearing yuppies of the 1980s, the galactico era belongs to a distinctly naïve period, before global pandemics and Russian invasions, when the tabloid media insisted that transfer fees, ridiculous salaries and the cult of the individual actually meant something important. The superstar sold newspapers and computer games. Fame sold everything. And there was none more famous than Ronaldo.
But the Portuguese constellation turned into a black hole. Nothing else could escape its gravitational pull. No one else could shine in the same way. He almost brought down Manchester United, but their manager Erik ten Hag succeeded where so many had failed. He put the club before the cult. And the club won.
The same storyline played out at international level, with Ronaldo’s startling physical decline leaving him bewildered and his Portuguese team-mates stuck in second gear. They were – and are – better off without him. His time and philosophy are just about done.
This year feels like a watershed moment for elite football, as if Covid-19, the Ukraine invasion, Fifa’s corruption and a dodgy World Cup hosting bid all unwittingly conspired to remind the industry what is and isn’t important now; a realignment of emphasis perhaps.
England’s Lionesses, a proud celebration of different races and sexual orientations, had shown what modern tolerance, empathy and collective sacrifice should look like, winning the Women’s Euro 2022 final by playing only for the name on the front of the jersey.
The cult of the individual has given way, to a degree, to a broader cause. Ronaldo left the World Cup with his 4k tears, reminding us, to the very end, that it’s Ronaldo’s world and we all just live in it. But we don’t really want to, not anymore.
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Marcus Rashford’s world feels more appealing, necessary and vital. He left the World Cup and scored one and created another for Manchester United against Nottingham Forest, edging the Red Devils closer to the top four as he once again played in an unfamiliar position, filling in where required, mucking in with the lads, a fitting metaphor.
He’s using his fame, talent and work-rate for those around him. Lionel Messi did much the same throughout Qatar 2022. He made Argentina greater than the sum of their parts. He turned Brighton midfielder Alexis Mac Allister into a World Cup winner, simply by including him, elevating him to a shared triumph that was beyond them all individually, but achieved collectively.
Obviously, Messi is no pauper or wide-eyed innocent. His relationship with his Qatari benefactors – and autocratic oligarchs generally – is as lucrative as it is complicated. His club contract at Paris Saint-Germain and his different ambassadorships and corporate deals are as tied up in regional wealth and geopolitical one-upmanship as the last World Cup.
But he cries for Argentina, rather than himself. During their celebrations, he was caught on camera running to the lesser lights in his squad, the unheralded heroes, embracing them all, making them feel worthy. Equal. He finds team-mates. Ronaldo finds cameras.
In the school playground, children mimic Ronaldo’s goal celebrations, a ridiculously literal tribute to the man himself (he points to his own name, for heaven’s sake, just in case you needed to be battered across the head with the symbolism a little more.) Beyond the playground, grown-ups look to Messi, to shared responsibilities, to fellowship, to the qualities that’ll feel a tad more relevant in 2023.
In the same week that Messi was recorded singing victorious Argentina songs at his niece’s 15th birthday party, Neymar was sent off against Strasbourg. It was the PSG forward’s fifth red card since his world-record fee of €222 million. That was the angle of most stories. That’s the stick to beat the Brazilian with, in a time of austerity.
Neymar’s grotesque transfer fee is a relic from a recent, uglier past, one of tone-deaf spending. Like Elton John’s diva tantrums in the 1970s, the wealthy, temperamental genius is less tolerated now, especially when Messi has shown a different way.
In North London, Mikel Arteta has pulled together a team of ego-free title chasers, a football-playing Coldplay if you like, filling stadiums with one inoffensive performance after another, except the Gunners are genuinely thrilling.
Erling Haaland is a lab-designed, goal-scoring Frankenstein, but created with peace and love and an aching desire to support his fellow men in Manchester City jerseys, preferably by maiming a few defenders along the way. While Manchester United and Liverpool are both tiptoeing dangerously towards likeability, at the same time, which may turn a stomach or two, but there’s no denying a shift in mindset.
The tortured artist doesn’t impress anymore. The whiny megastar exasperates, rather than illuminates. Self-sacrifice is not only sexy now, but utterly necessary, as we warily look towards 2023. This year ends with the right nations winning the women’s Euros and the men’s World Cup and the right team occupying the top spot in the English Premier League.
Fortunes change, but it’s a time for cautious optimism nonetheless.
The end of the self-absorbed galactico may not sell as many video games, but it’ll play much longer with the public.
The tortured artist doesn’t impress anymore. The whiny megastar exasperates, rather than illuminates. Self-sacrifice is not only sexy now, but utterly necessary, as we warily look towards 2023.
Neil Humphreys is an award-winning football writer and a best-selling author, who has covered the English Premier League since 2000 and has written 26 books.
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