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Sunday, October 2, 2022

Erling Haaland and the £300m question: how much is too much? | Borussia Dortmund

In the end it was probably the private zoo that did it. Or the hall of mirrors. Or the talk in the bread queues of drunken banquets where the mille-feuille flowed like wine. Perhaps it was the queen’s private faux-rustic village where she pretended to be a farmhand while glugging porcelain jugs of cream at her marbled bench. I don’t know about you, fellow peasants. But I feel objectified.

Either way historians agree that the March on Versailles, a key event in the French revolution, was sparked by the sense that all this boundless excess – those mirrors, the cream, that alpaca – was in the end just a little too much.

Reading the details this week of Erling Haaland’s proposed transfer from Borussia Dortmund to [A Massively Wasteful Super Club], it was tempting to wonder what it might take for football to feel something similar. The anger and alienation around sport is very real but also diffuse, distracted by the lights. Perhaps it will take some hard details to focus the energy. How much is too much? How much more are we willing to consume passively from beyond those long French windows?

According to the latest figures floating around Haaland’s move will cost £300m all in. That figure includes wages, sale fee and worst of all an estimated £30m cut for the agent Mino Raiola. Raiola has added nothing to the spectacle. But he will still receive a sum eight times the amount Sport England puts into grassroots football each year for doing not much more than a spell-check on some contracts and clamping himself like a parasitic homunculus to this divine, hard-honed talent.

It is tempting to simply goggle at the this gratuitous excess. But it is also vital to remember that this is real money: it’s your TV subscription, your match ticket, your advertising value. It’s every underfunded point of access, every club in danger of going to the wall. Just as the bellows of triumph at each new broadcast deal are the sound of someone else selling this shared treasure back to you for an exorbitant cut.

Then of course there’s the game itself. What is the combined effect of these strange forces? Haaland is already a remarkable figure. There has never been a talent quite like this, so obviously compelling (and he is staggeringly good) and so relentlessly commodified.

This is the first star footballer not just processed through the modern machine but born into it, to the extent the midwife probably insisted on a sell-on clause on the delivery table. His talent is so obvious, such a known quality. There are early stories of his dramatic promotion from the under-fives to the under-sixes. Has there ever been such a sense of inevitability, of bolt-on success ready to be cashed in by the wealthiest party? At times it feels as though this has already happened, that we are already standing outside it tallying up the numbers, the shiny pots, basking in the hall of mirrors.

Erling Haaland celebrates after scoring against Hoffenheim in January
Erling Haaland celebrates after scoring against Hoffenheim in January. Photograph: Alexander Scheuber/Getty Images

It is a tribute to the scale of Haaland’s talent, and to the game itself, that he is still fascinating. Those who saw his father play will remember a really good bad footballer. This is not a slight. English football was like that. Haaland Sr, who kicked the ball like a steam engine shunting a cart, who moved at right angles like a mobile crane manoeuvring, was good enough to win that first battle for space and time.

Erling is something else altogether. Watch him and immediately the pitch looks too small, the game too simple, the other players too flawed. There is no real element of surprise here, no corners, just a player able to execute every basic skill with supercharged technique, power, conviction. He moves in straight lines because straight lines are the best lines. He scores goals because goals are good and make you win.

Watch his Bundesliga highlights reel back and at first you think, OK, he loves crosses. He just has that preternatural eye for finding space, a skill that would make him utterly irresistible at Manchester City.

But before long teammates are discovering he can do anything, from cute diagonal runs to headers to balls pulled out of the air via some kind of time-freezing power, to moments where he takes possession in his own half, devours the ground like he hates it, and annihilates the ball into the furthest corner past some poor cowering human. He doesn’t get bored or seek unnecessary variation. He doesn’t want to stop or fall over (Haaland is 120th on the list of 139 most-fouled regular strikers in Europe).

Is it entertaining? Can you love this? Even with Kylian Mbappé, more of a one-off, self-made player, there is a sense of edge, fragility, the unexpected. With Haaland you just wonder about the numbers. How many can he score? How much can he win? Which of the available super-teams will he make into the winning super-team?

This of course an illusion born out of his style, an appearance of easy efficiency that comes from that same old place, talent and hard work. And there is jeopardy here. Haaland has had injuries and missed games in the last year. No real cause for concern, but he has also played 200 games already, processed through every level as the asset, the show, the thing to be stretched to its limits.

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There are other kinds of drama too. Signing for Manchester City would be a deeply logical step. Everything in this equation points to success. But let’s face it, given the maths of this, the feeling of irresistible forces gathering, failure would be so much more of a twist.

More importantly, can he remain happy? Will we break him? Haaland seems smart, fun and mischievous enough to survive this process. Quite what the numbers, the leeching of wealth, the extreme monetising of an extreme talent does to the rest of our game is another question.

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