Half the time, the media actually anticipates my desires: there I’ll be, browsing through the headlines, with no thought of wondering how much muscle Emanuel Adebayor has put on during the past five months, when along comes Sky Sports with a meticulously sourced piece to tell me. Before I read “Adebayor – I’ve Bulked Up,” I was in the dark and I didn’t even know it. After I read “Adebayor – I’ve Bulked Up,” with its thoughtful allusion to yesterday’s Daily Mirror and its carefully placed section break (“Muscles”), my world is a richer place.
I’ve been especially conscious of this over the past few days as, for one reason or another, I’ve been thinking over the question, “What is the soul of football?” Some people will tell you that the soul of football is a solitary child dribbling a ball under a street lamp while his heart fills with left-wing political principles. Others would say that the soul of football is a beautifully executed Johan Cruyff stop-spin leading to a magnificent goal. Still others would argue that the soul of football is a mysterious twinkle which Sepp Blatter keeps hidden in his eye.
But me? I think the soul of football is transfer gossip.
Think about this. Where else in the universe of sport do we encounter a realm of such perfect ethereality, such boundless creativity, such unrestrained enthusiasm? Spirituality is to each person what each person believes it to be (™), but isn’t there something spiritual about the thousands of items of transfer gossip that pass by us every day, airy and largely unseen, like angels’ whispers? “Are you a Tottenham fan?” the wind breathes. “Take heart, there’s hope”—and then, murmuring something about “Cardiff’s 18-year-old Welsh international defender Chris Gunter,” the voice is gone. “Do you love Chelsea?” it sighs into someone else’s ear. “Nicolas Anelka thinks he deserves to play for you.” And the wind doesn’t even snicker—not once.
Like the soul, transfer gossip comes into the world—no one knows from where; passes through the world—no one knows how; and departs the world—no one knows why. It can’t be bound by the crude material of fact, or even of sensible opinion. If it wants to say that Ronaldinho is going to Chelsea, it just says so, animating itself insubstantially, like the soul. For some people, it may be “unfounded” or “dishonest” or “impossible to prove.” It may be “unbelievable.” But then, doesn’t faith mean believing in the unbelievable? Isn’t that how we recognize the soul?
When the body dies, the soul is the last thing to leave it; one day football too will pass, and when it does, my guess is that the last thing we’ll see, after all the clubs have folded and all the fans have gone home, is not the spirit of youth or the pageantry of national competition, but some twenty-third century newspaper report asserting that Yakubu is being linked with Middlesbrough. It won’t say by whom, and we won’t ask. It will just drift away, rustling, on a rising current of air, while the clouds part, and sun breaks through them.
Brian Phillips is contemplating a £650 move to Partick Thistle at The Run of Play.