Wishing the days away

February 3, 2011 § 1 Comment

So. That was the transfer window that was. Now that the fax machines have powered down with a contented sigh, and the microscopic seeds of radiation have nestled comfortably into the grey matter of agents, it’s time to reflect on one aspect of this strange and weird transfer business. Eloquent explanations have been provided elsewhere of the problems with the window itself, or the surrounding circus; but what of the very grist to the mill: the transfer rumour, those strange and fickle will-o’-the-wisps that haunt the football’s sticky marshes, tempting stumbling travellers onto imagined horizons.

To pluck a month and a source of rumours at random, in November 2009 the Guardian’s Rumour Mill reported/regurgitated 185 rumours. Moves were mooted for 124 separate players or managers. But of these 185 rumours, only 11, or just under 6%, came to pass*, and of those 11, just two were completed in the next transfer window, January 2010. This means that roughly one in every two Rumour Mills contains one rumour that, at an unspecified point in the future, will become a fact.

Yet perhaps the most surprising thing about the numbers, though, is just how unsurprising they are. It is an open secret of transfer rumours that they are vanishingly unlikely to come to fruition. This is not to assert that rumours are on the whole made-up — while some undoubtedly are, others are likely accurate reports of an interest that, for one reason or another, doesn’t get anywhere — but to highlight that the football world, or at least those parts of it not involved in actually playing the game, spend an awful lot of time bothering with never-to-be-realised abstractions.

The reason is a simple yet frequently unacknowledged truth of football: outside of the games themselves, nothing much happens. The occasional training ground injury or scuffle, the odd unguarded text message or pap snap, a few months of transfer activity (of which only a few days are actually relevant) … that’s about it. And even these are ancillary events, relevant only in that they might affect the course of a forthcoming game.

Now, even the horizons of the most single-minded of football fans extend beyond the ambit of their own club, at least to the capacities of their rivals in the rest of the league, or their international affiliation. And most will take more than a passing interest in one or two other leagues, either up or down the pyramid, or abroad. But still, once the matches and highlights have been watched, and the scores and the tables absorbed, there is a yawning space that cries out to be filled with football, though football there be none.

So what do we use to fill the empty spaces? We use football-as-it-was and football-as-it-will-be; the past and the future. Looking at this more closely, we might tentatively sub-divide football-as-it-was into nostalgia and archaeology, the former the simple derivation of joy from the recounting and recollection of past events, the latter the analysis of past events in the hope of uncovering truths about the current game. And football-as-it-will-be can perhaps be sub-divided into projection, being the analysis of the future in light of how things are, and speculation, being the analysis of the future in light of how things might be. (These four ideas are of course deeply and inseperably intertwined; symbiotes perhaps resisting strict categorical distinction.)

It is the last category, speculation, which is served, fueled and maintained by rumour. A good rumour — one that is plausible and interesting enough to excite or horrify — is a window into an alternative future: this is how things could be. The fact that the majority of these futures will never be realised is a given, which is why people get so gosh-darned angry when attempts are made to pass off rumours as facts: believe them all, and the disappointment will kill you. By spending our days playing with the future and the past, we ensure that football fills as much of our lives as we want it to, without actually needing very much football at all.

But rumours fulfil another important function: they empower the observer. To consider a rumour is to compose a future; that future is your creation, and it runs as you demand. The powerlessness felt by every football fan, cursing from the terraces or hurling shoes at the television, is set aside. This is your song, and they dance to your tune. Right now, Liverpool fans are day-dreaming of Andy Carroll knock-downs to a greedy Luis Suarez, while any Motherwell fan that read the recent whispers of Francis Jeffers will either be totting up the reasons why the jug-eared disappointment will finally reclaim his foxiness, or loudly deriding the idea to any poor soul in earshot. This is where the will-o’-the-wisps lead you: to the Land of Make-Believe. A land where what you say, goes.

Until the weekend, that is, where it all gets messy and disappointing and real again. For a couple of hours.

* Those accurate rumours in full: Yaya Toure and Edin Dzeko to Manchester City; Marouane Chamakh to Arsenal; Sol Campbell to Newcastle; Sandro to Tottenham; Javier Mascherano to Barcelona; Fran Merida to Atletico Madrid; Marcus Haber to West Brom; Nikola Zigic to Birmingham; and Kenny Dalglish and Avram Grant to takeover as Liverpool and Portsmouth managers respectively.


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