What Football Transfer Gossip Tells Us About the Way the UK Sees the World

Football tells us a great deal about England and how it sees the rest of the world.
23 January 2020, 9:15am
Leicester FC tattoo
Photo: Roger Bamber / Alamy Stock Photo

As the most elusive strands of tinsel surrender at last to the Dyson, and a million massacred fir trees lay betrayed in British gutters, it seems as though 2020 might finally be allowed to begin.

It has, as any miserable uncle will gladly tell you, been a while now since Christmas felt like a "day". Instead, it's somehow been able to rebrand itself as a festival, a mindset, a culture, a vibe: a ceaseless low-level hum of dread and envy that hangs over the nation in a dank fog. It's difficult to know when this shift happened exactly, when Christmas became a six-week piss-up interrupted only by the procession of delivery workers banging down your front door every day like amorous, ruff-necked Shakespearean suitors, horny envoys from the houses of Yodel, DPD and the despicable Hermes, armed with gifts, begging for your name.

But happen it did, and now the sense of January as little more than an extended yuletide hangover, a kind of gutter for Christmas, is only encouraged by the Premier League's winter transfer window. It's a month that has come to hold the same kind of grasping material allure for football fans as Christmas Day itself. Catch one in an honest mood in November and they'll probably confess they're more excited by the business their clubs might do "in Jan" than by any presents they're expecting from loved ones, a position that is depressing but also at least halfway understandable.

What you would rather have: yet another Ottolenghi book, or Gedson Fernandes on an 18-month loan with the option to buy? Deep down, what most thrills you: the prospect of that cryptozoology hiking weekend in Bodmin with your dad, or seeing how Tunde Bayode develops on his loan spell at Curzon Ashton?

It's a mucky business, but beyond what it says about British consumer culture, January is also a month when football inadvertently tells us a great deal about England and how it sees the rest of the world.

First, a necessary preface. At this stage, anyone with even a passing interest in football is wise to the fact that 99 percent of the transfer window takes place purely in the realms of fantasy, speculation and outright lies; barely any of the moves that are predicted actually come to pass. Yet still the daily transfer gossip columns outperform almost every other type of article a sports website is able to post; still, the airwaves of TalkSPORT are jammed with callers winding themselves up with dreams of saviours who'll never arrive; still, Twitter remains a seething snake-pit of ludicrous rumour and two-faced counter-rumour, a screaming house for millions of private anxieties that suddenly find themselves tethered to rumblings in the South American press of a £25 million move for Bruno Guimarães, or Dominik Szoboszlai's agent "liking" Napoli on Instagram.

Simply put, it seems unlikely that all of the people on the internet who are constantly fretting over football transfers are really fretting about football transfers. But the modern game, with its ability to generate data and narrative pretty much infinitely, is the perfect receptacle for any nagging feeling of self-doubt or unease that pretty much anyone, pretty much anywhere in the world, might need to find a home for.

Nevertheless, it's in the transfer gossip columns that England reveals itself not just as an anxious place rigged up to the permanently dripping, data 'n' dopamine pipe of the internet, but also as a country that remains capable of wielding an outsized level of power in precisely one area of global interest. Maybe there's an interesting article to be written one day on how the history of the Premier League – the braggadocios, self-fulfilling story it loves to tell about itself – has contributed to the misguided sense of national status that brought about Brexit. This certainly isn't it, but it's interesting still to see how the old urges of empire are able to live on in the Premier League, a league that sees every other domestic division on Earth as a resource to be tapped, mined and pillaged, harnessed and returned to Blighty for the greater good of the rapacious Barclays.

It used to be the case that Serie A was the greatest, flashiest league in the world, a country home to the planet's best defenders, inviting Earth's sneakiest and most skilful footballing mavericks to come and try to pick the lock. After that, it was the turn of La Liga, propelled by the algebraic insanity of the Messi-Ronaldo dichotomy, men who turned career stats into mantras and did more than anyone or anything else to invent the modern, number-obsessed era. Now, though, the die-hards and the chest-beaters are right when they tout the English game as the pinnacle, and they have been for a few years.

A trickle-down effect of this can be seen in the way we regard those former apex leagues now whenever they come up in transfer gossip chat, how every mooted move of a Premier League veteran to Italy, for instance, comes wrapped in the condescending language of the funeral greeting card, the redundancy handshake. Internazionale manager Antonio Conte's insatiable lust for the Premier League means that the likes of Ashley Young, Olivier Giroud, Victor Moses and Christian Eriksen are all currently experiencing what Romelu Lukaku and Alexis Sánchez have before them; the idea that moving to one of Europe's most esteemed clubs, in one of its most beautiful cities, somehow represents some terminal diminution in status, the start of the end, a one-way ticket to the big bunga bunga party in the sky.

Traditionally, it's been Turkey that has played this role in the febrile mind of the English transfer gossiper, a crudely rendered 2D image of a distant, madcap nation where the Premier League's unwanted deadwood are welcomed at the airport like martyrs reincarnate, the spectre of poor Darius Vassell always barely perceptible in the vids that crop up on Twitter whenever one of the Super Lig clubs reels in a big 'un. French football is basically just a huge hypermarché now, while in Spain, only Real Madrid and Barcelona cling on to the power to resist PL cash, everyone below that tier regarded as fodder for England's biggest fallen giants and insurgent middle class, 18 of the La Liga clubs now seen as stepping stones for future legends en route to Heathrow.

Intriguingly, there's only one league that seems to be turning the tables on the big bad Prem, thanks to a relatively new phenomenon invariably described as "the Sancho Effect", a phrase whispered in a kind of gossip column parcel-tongue whenever a Bundesliga club come knocking for one of the prospects currently overflowing from English academies. It's a phrase that in itself says plenty about the national attitude towards Germany, casting its football talent scouts as sinister characters whose sole ambition in life is to spend their days sidling up to British teens down the park, promising them wealth and fame in distant lands, pied-pipers with designer specs, hummel tracksuits and oddly faecal grins hell-bent on luring a procession of callow Brits to some utopian Hamelin.