On the face of there is nothing in common with sagas of Papiss Cisse and Gareth Bale. The Newcastle player did not want to wear a shirt carrying the logo of Wonga claiming that this was against his Islamic faith which prohibits profiting from money lending. Gareth Bale, by all accounts, merely wants to exercise his right to play for another club. And who can deny this right given how ideal this move must seem to a player at the top of his game?
But there is a link. Both are expressions of player power and both reveal the modern face of a game controlled by players and their agents. This world is not only very different to the football world of a few years ago but totally removed from the one most fans and football supporters live in.
Take Cisse for instance. He has had no problems wearing shirts carrying logos of previous Newcastle sponsors such as Northern Rock and Virgin Money, who also charge interest on loans. He also has no problems being seen gambling in a casino, not something that Sharia law would approve of. Yet Wonga seems unacceptable. True its interest rates are shockingly high and, after Cisse highlighted the company, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, joined in the fight against Wonga. It is, however, extremely unlikely that Welby, who lists sailing as his hobby, was remotely inspired by what the Newcastle player said.
Cisse, who has since accepted the shirt with the Wonga logo, and even scored a goal in a pre-season friendly, has explained that he decided to change his stance after “some useful discussions with my club, my family and Islamic teachers.” And in the time honoured phrase he now declares: “It is important for the team and the fans that we concentrate 100% on football.”
This explanation raises the question how did he come to make his initial and momentous decision not to stain his body with a Wonga shirt without having such consultations? Football players, like all sportsmen and women, are often impulsive on the field of play. But can they also be so impulsive off it that they decide not to do something on moral grounds without seeking advice from those round them? And if now Muslim clerics have convinced Cisse that Wonga is all right then are we conclude that Cisse was not well versed in the principles of the religion he believes in? However you look at it this episode suggests Cisse was behaving in a very strange manner indeed.
What is even more strange is how removed this is from the way the rest of the world behaves. Consider what would happen if you and I decided to do what Cisse did. Our company acquires a new sponsor or gets into a marketing arrangement with a new company. We, whether for religious or other strong moral reasons, do not like this company. We go to our boss and say we will not work if the arrangement continues. I am almost certain that our boss will not have to consult an employer lawyer before he decides to hand us our P-45 and say, “well bye, bye then”.
Given all this I can see why, despite the fact that Cisse’s stance was dressed in the high moral pose that seems to come so naturally to all our football players, it fuelled speculation that he was really using this for his own purposes – either to get a better contract or perhaps engineer a move away from the club. Cisse, I am sure, will deny this, but the explanation he has given does not suggest we have had the whole story of this remarkable episode.
Now the Bale saga, in contrast, is the classic modern transfer story. A player emerges in a club once great but now seeking glory and which in the past has not always succeeded in keeping its brightest jewels. Then another club, arguably the greatest club in the world, comes calling for the player. And soon we hear noises suggesting the player wants to move, the only thing stopping him is the obduracy of the club he plays for.
And let me make it clear that if Bale wants to move, as I suspect he does, then I can well understand. Tottenham may claim they have made him. When he arrived from Southampton six years ago for £7 million the club was clearly taking a punt on a player hoping he would be worth the investment. They could not be sure. Indeed for a long time it seemed it was money wasted and they tried to offload him. Remember it was a record 24 league matches before he played in a Tottenham winning team. But now he has so realised his potential that he is, arguably, the third most coveted player in world football, after Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.
But for all the credit Tottenham may claim for Bale’s emergence, albeit that some of it may have been accidental, the fact is he is at the age when a move to a club like Real Madrid seems absolutely right.
There are some prominent ex-players who disagree with that view. As Glenn Hoddle told me, “I would like him to stay and I think he should stay for himself. The way he is playing he should enjoy his football. He’s playing inspired at the moment. He won’t do that if he goes abroad straight away. He might in three or four years.”
However such advice ignores the fact that players always operate from a sense of insecurity. They could get injured and may never be the same or even play again. Another player may emerge just as Bale emerged quite unexpectedly and the interest of a club like Real Madrid may get diverted to him. So why take a chance on what seems like a life changing career move? Would you? I would not.
So far this is very like any other transfer story.
However, what makes it different is that in all this talk we have not heard directly from the club wanting to buy the player or the player himself. In that sense it is like the Cisse story. You feel there is a lot more going on to which we are not privy. To judge it properly we need to be told what is the nature of Bale’s existing contract, what sort of new contract negotiations have been going on, what promises, if any, were made about Tottenham allowing Bale to go. Indeed the promises story sounds a bit like the promise Tony Blair is supposed to have made to Gordon Brown about vacating No 10 after two terms. And the Bale saga has all the flavour of the sort of briefings that might emerge from Westminster when unhappy MPs want to engineer a coup against a sitting Prime Minister.
But then that is the problem with modern football. It has become a business but, unlike most other businesses, there is a great deal of secrecy. If it was like a normal business a club wanting a player would contact him, offer him a contract, he would go to his existing club and negotiate his departure. This is what all of us would do if we found a new employer keen to hire us.
And for those who say football’s special nature means this cannot happen you only have to see how the Americans manage their sport. They provide much more information, very detailed about players’ wages and contracts, and also about contact between clubs.
But to ask for such transparency in this country is like asking for the moon. In the old days when there was little transfer of players between clubs, such secrecy did not matter. Now with players transferred regularly it produces the sort of soap opera the Bale saga is producing.
We may think we know how the saga will end but will not be able to follow the drama as it reaches its climax. We will only be told the conclusion and, as in the Cisse saga, the conclusion will be so full of clichés that it will leave many questions unanswered.
Mihir Bose was the first sports editor of the BBC. Now a freelance journalist his latest book: Game Changer: How the English Premier League Came to Dominate the World has been published by Marshall Cavendish for £14.99