At this time of year it was a common thing for elegant young men of the 19th century to set off on a Grand Tour of Europe. Shuttered inside his velveteen stage coach, the brave traveller would wind from royal court to ancient city, taking in the rites of passage: harpsichord studies in Bologna, a marzipan banquet in Nîmes, a wonderful six-month tuition in the fine art of Etruscan wrestling from a youth called Hercule on the Istanbul docks.
It was interesting to see Erling Haaland embarking on a kind of modern-day superstar athlete equivalent this week. According to reports first published in Spain, Haaland has been seen winding his way from Dortmund to Barcelona in the company of his father and – more importantly – his agent, the fascinating, reviled, devastatingly effective Mino Raiola.
Further stops are planned – it is said – in Madrid and Manchester. And so here we are, poring over pictures of sullen men in masks getting into airport cars, picking over the details of meetings and personnel, another high point for the modern phenomenon of the transfer as a grand public theatre in its own right.
All that seems certain right now is Haaland really will leave Borussia Dortmund this summer. Two things have wound the clock forward on this.
First the convulsions, cooling and imminent downshift in the European transfer market. Transfers themselves are said to be in crisis. In 2019 the big five leagues spent a record €5.5bn on player deals. This dropped by 40% in the first year of Covid. How, you wonder, will anyone survive on such thin gruel, so few spare millions? If you’re holding the most valuable bauble in the room, this is the moment to cash it in.
Second, there is of course Haaland’s own astonishing progress, the sense of a man making the pitch look too small, the game too simple. He is that rare thing, a footballer who is thrillingly simple in what he does. He runs, he shoots, he travels in straight lines. He does all these things to a more intense human degree. He will hunt you down. He will find you. He will trample across your traumatised form on the shortest route to goal.
This kind of talent carries its own burden. Haaland is too big, too heavily stacked with potential energy to be allowed to remain in one place. Money, and the demands of money, will not let him rest. When Raiola said this week “With Haaland, everybody was wrong”, he sounded almost resigned, forced by powers outside his grasp to set in motion this obscenely overvalued public trade.
And there is something grotesque in the numbers involved here, evidence of football’s utterly skewed sense of value and scale, of where its wealth should be spread. At this point it would be all too easy to rail against the influence of agents, a source of constant financial leakage, and also of unrest, churn and supplication to the market above all else.
Raiola in particular does himself no favours, a super agent who embodies the small-round-sunglasses-plus-elegantly-straining-gut aesthetic, and who looks in most pictures like a friendly and successful local butcher who secretly wants to kill you. But he is a genuinely fascinating figure, and one of the few people close to the edge of this volcano who does at least seem to be looking at it with open eyes.
Even his early deals in the post-Bosman frontier times stand out now.
Dennis Bergkamp and Wim Jonk to Internazionale? What strange witchcraft was this? Raiola sold Robinho, sold Henrikh Mkhitaryan, sold Zlatan repeatedly, sold Paul Pogba to Manchester United. If the British Museum ever does get tired of polishing the Elgin marbles it could probably finance an entire second imperial pillage by getting Raiola to sell them back to the Greek government at a special Mino premium.
And now this: Haaland to somewhere else for £150m in a time of economic collapse. It is right to feel appalled, alienated and generally overpowered by the sums of money here. Most mega‑money transfers are a nonsense in any case. Look down the list and of the top eight deals of all time only Cristiano Ronaldo to Real Madrid actually looks a solid return – a function of Ronaldo’s miraculous talent rather than any kind of logic.
The unpalatable heart of this deal is that it is happening right now, at a time when there is contraction everywhere else, when community clubs are menaced by collapse and when the everyday people who fund this show, noses pressed against the glass, are suffering.
This is not magical money. Raiola’s cut, Haaland’s fee: this is your TV subscription, your match ticket, your club merchandise, your advertising value. This is what feeds this overheated soufflé, just as the whoops of shared national pride at each fresh TV deal are the sound of someone selling your own game back to you. Will this process meet any genuine resistance?
Those in power but excluded from the transfer circus seem most likely to do anything about it. There is some talk of new “solidarity rules” that would ban Champions League clubs from selling to one another – a strange idea until you twig its intended effect, the capping of massive-money deals fed by wealthy owners that have terrified some of the more established clubs.
It is across this fraught, changeable landscape that Erling and Mino are now striding out to strike what could be the last truly wild deal of the boom times. Manchester City probably have the will if they could find the finances, despite the current messaging: Haaland would transform the team into something irresistible. The two Spanish clubs have the cultural history and their own ways of rustling up finance. Raiola has the will and the levers to make it work.
But the vast, alienating sums, the loss of human scale, the continued tolerance of all this – well, that’s entirely our own.