On The Left Side

What is really important in football now?

Is it the talent on the pitch or is it something much more material, more marketable?

We’ve just witnessed the passing of this season’s grand finale, The Champions League Final… and what a game it was! The first half was a classic and the second half saw Real Madrid tear apart Juventus, the Old Lady of Football in the biggest hammering for an Old Lady since Wayne Rooney decided to spend his hard earned cash on a Liverpool backstreet. Predictably, the star of the show was Christiano Ronaldo who bagged a double and led the Galacticos to victory, but you could argue that what he did OFF the pitch had an even bigger impact.

The day after the final Ronaldo took to Instagram to post a picture of his new cropped haircut with the caption “Do you like it?”. His followers did indeed like it. 4.7million people liked it (and rising). That’s double the population of Lisbon.

How much time do you think Ronaldo spend on taking that Insta-snap? Even given the expected amount of preening, pouting and lighting options you would find it hard to argue it took more than 5mins out of his day. So we have one footballer, attracting almost 5 million pairs of eyes with a very, very small amount of effort.

Compare that to the Champions League final itself and its return compared to man hours.

In Cardiff, we had 28 players toiling for 90mins, TV crews, catering staff, management teams and countless others toiling endlessly and getting, in return a global audience of around 200million. Don’t get me wrong, that’s impressive. It’s a figure that makes the Champions League final the most viewed sporting event on earth. However, it also takes a lot more effort than a dude sitting in a car taking a snap of his new haircut. I realise this isn’t a fair comparison, Ronaldo wouldn’t attract the audience he does if he wasn’t (one of) the world’s best footballers but it DOES help that he’s also quite pretty!

It’s an interesting question. How much value do football clubs put on signing new players based on pure talent and how much is based on the number of shirts a player is going to shift? I have no doubt that when Manchester United forked out the GDP of a small developing nation to bring Paul Pogba and Zlatan Ibrahimovic to Old Trafford last year the maths had already been done. They knew how much cold hard cash was going to be ringing through the cash registers over the next 12months to help them recoup their outlay (and that’s not just because at £3 a letter IBRAHOMIVIC is a potential goldmine).

It’s also an interesting question as to how much a player has to invest into that brand to up his market value. There is no doubt in my mind that the branding circus that has surrounded Pogba’s arrival in Manchester has distracted from the player’s potential performance on the pitch. Here we have a player who’s first consideration seems to be “What would look good on an end of season DVD” rather than “What would be most effective in this scenario” and that has to come down to the pressure put on him to “be the brand”. It can be no coincidence that one of his worst performances of the season came when the most eyes were on him and the #Pogba emoji was launched with most of the world asking if #DidYouKeepTheReciept would be a more suitable hashtag.

It could be that global brand Manchester United are the worst offenders in this phenomena. They signed Pogba, they signed Zlatan. Ronaldo is a product of their environment and David Beckham is the archetypal example of a player whose brand grew bigger than his not inconsiderable talent.

So, it’s not a surprise that Antoine Griezmann was (and maybe still is) on their summer shopping list. The Frenchman is still building his brand and a move to the Red Devils would fit perfectly with that ambition. An opinion echoed by Antoine’s “image consultant” who suggested that the move, along with being handed the iconic No7 shirt would do him no harm at all… yes, that’s right, not his agent his image consultant.*

Arguably, every team needs a superstar, an icon. Every fanbase needs a player they can idolise, that will adorn the walls of every young fans bedroom wall (if for some reason they don’t want posters of Kelly Brook that is). But, where is the tipping point? If these players primary concern on the pitch is how do they build their personal brands then how many can you afford to have in one team? When does it upset the equilibrium and how much hero worship can one fan-base possibly produce?

It’s certainly a trend that shows no signs of slowing. Each week there are more endorsements, more brands, more hashtags, more signings, more dance moves and more Instagram posts. We see more of our players off the pitch now than we ever have before and it leads me to wonder where it will all end.

It’s only a matter of time before we see Simon Cowell sitting alongside John Terry and Rio Ferdinand on reality television picking the next big signing for Liverpool based solely on the complexity of a haircut and the ability to DAB.

That day, is the day I am done with football.

*For the record, I also have an “image consultant”. It’s my wife who tells me “that looks bloody ridiculous” everytime I buy a new shirt.


Jim is the man behind On The Left Side, the satirical football show.

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