The Run of Play is a blog about
the wonder and terror of soccer.

We left the window open during a match in October 2007 and a strange wind blew into the room.

Now we walk the forgotten byways of football with a lonely tread, searching for the beautiful, the bewildering, the haunting, and the absurd.

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As the days lengthened, as the talks spilled over and became negotiations, as figures that were once reported in pounds began to be converted to euros in order to make them look bigger, you might have noticed that we wrote no words on the subject. We’ve seen huge gray tufts of time seized at their tables, dragged out behind the saloon, and shot between the eyes far too often to want to be bandits ourselves. But now that Manchester City’s “audacious” £100-odd million attempt to buy Kaká from AC Milan and Jesus has come crashing down like the roof of the player’s favorite church, it’s worth five minutes to look at what all this means.

I don’t think it means very much, or I would have said something earlier. It seemed as though the English media were caught in covering this story between two mildly contradictory storylines, both of long service, and never quite knew how to proceed. The first storyline involved the economic power of the Premier League, which they generally cover with trills of excitement; the second involved the moral decline of football, which they generally assert with operatic despair. Heat those over the light boil that starts rumbling the water whenever a three-digit number appears to the left of the word “million” and you wind up with the queasy enthusiasm that pervaded the transfer reports.

On the one hand, the Premier League looked set to prise one of the best players in the world from Serie A for a record-smashing fee (yes!) On the other hand, the football star most likely to have been touched as a child by King Midas looked set to abandon his loving fans for a mercenary move to a second-tier club with no prospect of immediate success (no, but maybe we secretly like to complain about it!)

The trouble with both these storylines, and the reason the millions of words spilled in covering them this week seemed so overblown, is that they’ve lost their power to shock: they can no longer impress us with anything but scale. After the first death there is no other, and after the first time football loses its soul to a tycoon with a deep pockets there’s no other but a bigger number. Every time we’re told that the Premier League is THE BIGGEST THING ON EARTH or that football HAS TRADED ITS INNOCENCE FOR LUCRE the capitals get a little smaller and the dollar figures loom a little more to compensate. After Chelsea, Manchester City were just next summer’s sequel, and while the media seem to have an inexhaustible ability to find another finish line a little farther on, personally I’ve already seen a lightsaber. So the revolutionary-moment-in-world-football aspect of this didn’t really feel like much.

In my mind, the storyline that ought to emerge, now that Kaká has had his Evita moment and revealed his heart on a balcony, is the one about how having an oil fortune doesn’t mean you know anything about soccer. Manchester City are coming out of this looking like fools: fools for pursuing Kaká in the first place, when there was so little chance of getting him and so little evidence that he was even what they needed, fools for publicizing the pursuit, fools for failing at it. It doesn’t help that they already look like fools for having boasted about their unstoppable wealth to the point that every club they deal with can hold them hostage for an inflated transfer fee. Maybe the £14 million they’ve spent on Craig Bellamy (Craig Bellamy!) and the £11 million or whatever it was they’ve spent on Wayne Bridge (“a genuine England left-back”!) actually mean nothing to them, but at the very least it gives a leg up to their rivals, who have a chance to put that money to more efficient use.

What the whole thing really makes me think, not for the first time, is that Chelsea did an incredibly good job of playing the role of villainous title-buying parvenu. Say what you like about the concept, but at least they applied it effectively, putting people in place with some idea of how to grow a medium-sized football club into a powerhouse, hiring a brilliant coach, pursuing (with a few exceptions) the right players for their system and making sure they got them. Manchester City are admittedly starting from a worse position than Chelsea were in when Abramovich rose on the horizon, but they have more money, too, and they’re looking by comparison like the taller kid who still can’t play basketball.

In the end, this was all just transfer gossip, maybe based on more accurate information and arousing more intense emotions, but coming to exactly the same result. If we remember it at all in two years, it’ll be the way we remember the neighbors with the obnoxious Christmas lights, who also belonged to Jesus. I don’t mean to exempt Milan from this, either:

Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi, AC Milan’s owner, returned from Middle East peace talks in Egypt and met for 1 1/2 hours with team vice president Adriano Galliani, then made the announcement on Italian television.

Kaká is a wonderful player, and personally I’m glad he’s staying with the club that gives him the better chance to show it. I just hope the fog of thwarted meaning around this move blows away quickly, so we can get back to watching him play without all the pointless significance.

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by Brian Phillips · January 20, 2009

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