Joy in diminishing returns

December 14, 2010 § 1 Comment

In this life, one thing counts. In the bank, large amounts … — Fagin

There is a very good reason why Ashley Cole is the most generally loathed footballer in the country, and it strikes to the very heart of the ongoing Carlos Tevez stropfest. It’s not because Cole cheated on the nation’s favourite talent show gigglebot. Nor is it because he reportedly took a quick break mid-adultery to vomit on the carpet. It’s not even because he once responded to the question “soap or shower gel?” by saying “Armani bodywash”. It was that autobiography, which thousands of years hence will be analysed as a testament to the hideous vacuity of the times in which we find ourselves.

When I heard Jonathan [Cole’s agent] repeat the figure of £55k-a-week, I nearly swerved off the road. ‘He is taking the piss, Jonathan!’ I yelled down the phone. I was so incensed. I was trembling with anger. I couldn’t believe what I’d heard

Bless. Obviously not all high-end footballers are such overt Coles; otherwise they’d all be despised and we’d all be watching the mighty Dulwich Hamlet. But as well as firmly establishing Cole as the English football fans Jeremy Hunt of choise, this crass extract — in a work of self-justification entitled, with mind-numbing gall, My Defence — firmly established the disjunct between fan and player at the top of the game, a disjunct I’ve decided to call the empathy gap.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that the minutiae of most people’s lives are dictated, in one way or another, by money; specifically, by their access to it. The nature of existence in a capitalist society is that your available capital both describes and circumscribes that existence: you can do what you can afford; you can’t what you can’t. So I couldn’t afford to set fire to my bed every morning and have a new one delivered for the night. Nor could I afford to have leatherclad dwarfs topped with bowls of cocaine ambling around my house, of the off-chance a banker popped round for tea. And I certainly couldn’t afford £200 for a pack of tabs.

But Ashley Cole could. Today’s Premier League kingpins live their lives behind tinted windows and velvet ropes. There can be found the edges of the gap, and into the gap drains the empathy, leaving behind it the following assumption. If you are paid enough to exist largely outside the social constraints that are the natural consequences of limited capital — while getting to play the game we all love, all the time, not to mention the free foreign travel, the lengthy summer holidays, the endless supply of accommodatingly pneumatic women, the free trackie tops — then the trade-off is that your money will serve to dehumanise you in the eyes of those that watch.

In my piece for In Bed With Maradona on depression in football, I included a quote from Ron Atkinson who, when asked if he had any sympathy for the newly-in-rehab Stan Collymore, replied “Not on fucking 25 grand a week I don’t”. It’s worth revisiting that quote here, but this time looking at the wider implication of the statement: Atkinson is saying, essentially, that after a certain economic status is achieved, sympathy for some circumstances can — no, should — be removed. You no longer have any reason to engage or respond emotionally; indeed, you are obliged, by virtue of their status as excessively monied, not to.

After all, these aren’t manly injuries, from which you can make a brave comeback. Nor are these personal tragedies, where you can graciously request privacy for you and your family at this difficult time. These are sicknesses of the soul. Depression is the strongest, but there’s also loneliness, homesickness, isolation, saudade, sehnsucht, hiraeth … Sympathy? Empathy? Not on fucking 230 grand a week.

Economists have known for a while that, above a certain level of wealth, simply having more money doesn’t make you happier. Indeed, the notion that money can ameliorate a sickness of the soul is an odd one. It can distract, maybe, or temporarily relieve; it means you don’t have to worry about the mortgage as well. But Tevez, despite being one of the most highly paid players on the planet, still has to wake up every morning a stranger in a strange land, and go about his business under English skies, all the while surrounded by the chirp and lilt of foreign tongues. Being able to wipe your arse with ten-spots can’t change that.

Whether this is driving his recent agitations is, and will probably remain, unclear (though he’s highly unlikely to get more money anywhere else). But it would be the decent thing to remember that it is (at the very least) possible that he’s nothing more than a lonely young man a long way from home, with two daughters on the other side of the world, who’s spent his career being dragged from country to country for the edification and profit of Kia Joorabchian. Now there’s a man who really puts the culture secretary in money-grubbing tumour.

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