Guilty pleasures

wsc299 The money that added flair to Manchester City’s functionality has put Barney Ronay in a quandary

Imagine how boring being a billionaire must be. Not so much the process of becoming a billionaire, which is presumably studded with the thrill of ticking off those billionaire-entry marks: beachhouse-overload, mistress-profligacy, servant-saturation. But just being a billionaire, sealed within your own frictionless seven-star world, conveyed by helicopter gunship from lobby to suite to private island. This must surely be quite dull.

Kingsley Amis once wrote that it was only the first stage of getting drunk, the move from sobriety to drunkenness, that was actually enjoyable. Remaining drunk for any length of time was always a bit of let-down, a doomed attempt to recapture the magic of those transitional glasses. Surely billionaire-dom must be similar: like being perpetually drunk, deprived of the vital thrill of thirst or need. And so for all his power and status, the billionaire is still to be pitied, a castaway within the industrial machinery of his own pointless wealth. Oh yes. What a comfort.

Until about two months ago I found this vision of a tortured, alienated overclass particularly useful when faced with the billionairing over of Manchester City. Hurling vast hunks of carbon-wealth at a football team may have a cheapening, diluting, stratifying, panicking, blinkering, deflating and disruptive effect on those in its near and far orbit. It may bring ever closer that decisive end point when English football is reduced to a single endlessly repeated Wayne Rooney overhead kick staged 24 hours a day inside a population-sized out-of-town arena called the Alumo-Oil-Gas-Smokeless-Fuel-O-Drome, while the phrase “RARRRGHOOONNEYY!” is repeated at skull-splitting volume and a giant-scale hologram of Jamie Redknapp performs acts of obscene desecration on the exhumed skeleton of William McGregor. City’s owners may end up capturing the League title and the Champions League. But are they happy?

For a while this line of thinking seemed to add up. I am not talking about the City fans who have appeared deliriously happy since this process began, and whom it is hard to begrudge, if only because City were always one of those neutral-friendly clubs it was easy to like. But the project: the project was not a happy thing. Under Roberto Mancini, City had become masters of a kind of juggernaut-football, stuffing their team with high-priced destroyers, advancing downfield in formation, biceps linked, with the towering defensive anchor Yaya Touré the dominant figure in a midfield peopled by cosmopolitan bouncers. Drawing their sprit from the variable-free world of their sponsors, City would grind you into the dust: deliberately and very expensively. This was the world of billionaire-football and frankly it deserved itself.

There is clearly a problem with this though. Roughly two months ago City stopped being sterile, bludgeoning and machine-like. The turning point came with the brouhaha over Carlos Tévez’s failure to come on as a substitute against Bayern Munich, an incident that, at the time, looked like a delightful moment of hubristic self-destruction, something rotten beginning to seep out through the elite cladding.

Instead, post-Tévez, City emerged from within their cocoon a beautiful soaring winged beast. They won their next nine games, scoring 33 goals and playing wonderfully liberated football. They also look happy, even a little ditzy and fun, with Mario Balotelli a defining figure of the mini-age – an alarmingly magnetic superstar in the making, apparently uninhibited by infused billionaire neuroses, accumulated expectation or indeed anything at all.

It is here that the insidious power of football has begun to make itself felt, the basic joy of the spectacle that can still hurl a grappling hook across even the most po-faced abyss of moral disapprobation. The game can still creep in through the gaps and tickle your toes. It has been impossible not to melt a little when confronted with City’s revolving four-man attack of ferrety little creators, sidling finishers and the newly jaunty James Milner.

For the innate billionaire-refusenik, the challenge has become more complicated as a result. Surely nobody wants it to be quite this easy. If there is still room to retain some reservations about this loose and limber City team, a case might be made that there is something a little pornographic about these hair-raising thrills, something a little too easy and gluttonous in this endless succession of money-shots, a tableau of unreal and   cartoonish perfection.

These are the voyeuristic thrills of fantasy football. Are you really – really – enjoying it? Or is there a flicker of unsustainable fiction about all this, a dim yearning for the old democratic virtues of team-building, persistence, collective effort, from before money made a mockery of us all? For the sake of the leering and titillated neutral, I can only hope so.

From WSC 299 January 2012