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Or Maybe I'm Just Old Now​​


Perhaps it’s because nostalgia is the one true commodity of this century, but as a football fan approaching that first year of life where I’ll be closer to fifty than eighteen, (thirty five, which isn’t old, but totally is), I’ve been looking back wistfully on the Galacticos era at Real Madrid. (Brief excursus here for the unlikely few that mightn’t be familiar: the Galacticos era, circa 2000-2006, being the project ran by Florentino Perez, club president, that was somewhere between football, commercialism, and art. The idea of the thing was noble, if perhaps a little idealistic: build a super team, an ensemble of competitors, entertainers and exhibitionists, or a little bit of all three, with the hope being to return Real Madrid to the continental halcyon days of the late 1950s. What we’re talking about here is the Harlem Globetrotters of football. Every position filled with the best player - and, more importantly, and to its eventual detriment, most box office - in the world. At times, it was poetry, but as a concept it was fundamentally flawed. Which we’ll get to.) The well-worn aphorism about nostalgia is that it comes around in twenty year cycles, (although now really it’s more like one year cycles, with all the reboots and remakes and remember-when-this-thing-happened documentaries) but here the twenty year thing makes sense: it’s satisfying, as it’s just that amount of time since the Galacticos project met the beginning of its end, with the sale of Claude Makelele to Chelsea. While the simple philosophy of ‘let’s buy the best player, every year, always’ was what brought the success, with three European titles in six years, the purist intransigence of it also led to its downfall. Perez’s decision to sell Makelele - by no one’s definition a celebrity player - was one that many described as foolish even at the time, especially as the replacement was David Beckham, a player who, while a commercial monster, was not and never could be the dirty-working, ball-winning, unsung hero type that Makelele was, the type of player teammates respect but fans rarely notice. (Now, you might argue, that football fans do notice that player, but it’s only because of Makelele they notice it, Makelele being, of course, one of the very few (if not the only?) player to have his position named after him.) Beckham as holding midfielder didn’t work, and shirt sales couldn’t hide that. It doesn’t matter how many famous players there are on one team if they can’t get the ball. Civilisations collapse without the worker ants, the noble nobodies. Everyone can’t be Caesar. This was pretty much the exact moment the Galacticos went from footballing project to vanity project, almost even art project, an indulgent, reflexive work, the kind your art teacher would tell you to hold back on, show some restraint or discipline, advice you’d ignore as an adolescent, citing the pain of being ‘misunderstood’ and held back by those who ‘just don’t get it’, but then look back on when you’re middle aged and hardened by worldly experience, and begrudgingly but with a quiet respect, agree with. The folly was probably most perfectly captured when, in the following season’s Champions League semi finals, Makelele and Chelsea took on AS Monaco, a European featherweight, playing with another of Real’s departees in attack, Fernando Morientes. With Monaco having actually beaten Real in the previous round and making it to the final. How almost perfect is that. The big names of Zidane, Roberto Carlos, Ronaldo, Figo, the now famously tautological pundit Owen and, of course, Beckham, all stuck around for a few more withering years, ageing, faltering without their anchor, functioning like substance-dependent prima donna rock stars at increasingly empty venues, remembering how it used to be. The whole thing had lost its pedigree. The team stopped being any kind of European force, which is and always has been at the core of the club’s identity. They failed to make it past the round of 16 for six years, and, at the tail end of 2004, lost six league games in a row. The project revealed itself to be the misguided, egoistic, utopian pursuit it always was, but, although there was much harrumphing and/or gloating at the time of the empire’s collapse, to me, it needed to fail. If it didn’t, it would’ve ceased to be beautiful. It would’ve become Man City: a project with similar footings in the relentless pursuit of perfection but about which there is little artistic. Man City are just a piece of machinery. Well designed, but cold and inanimate, indifferent. Talent without expression, virtuosity without vulnerability. The Galacticos was a renaissance painting; Man City a piece of brutalist architecture. The Galacticos go with classical music; Man City with hard techno. Delete the above as applicable. I remember watching, as a child, in my bedroom with footballs and football boots and shirt numbers all over the red carpeting/wallpaper, on a small white portable television, the now famous hat-trick scored by the O.G. Ronaldo at Old Trafford, probably the most representative display of the whole era - even though they actually lost that game on the night. I remember watching with something halfway between fear and awe, with a little bit of contempt thrown in, but now, that memory is a warm one. Maybe it’s because I was young, but it felt special. Now, a team like that wouldn’t be special. Now, there are lots of squads crammed with players of that status, multiple Galacticos per position: they are Galacticos even if they don’t get labelled it by journalists; even that neologism has lots its power. Squads now are built like those by children playing Football Manager, Chelsea probably being the best example, with their busloads of number 10s, so many they can’t even fit in the dressing room. Despite the grumbling disagreements of older pundits, it seems an evident truth that the standards of the sport have risen. There are, simply, more and better players now than before, with the number rising still. In another twenty years, if the sport doesn’t self-implode (which, likely, it will, beyond scope here) the standards will be even better, squads even more congested with star names. If the Galacticos were around now, they’d be quarter finalists, top four hopefuls. But it’s not just in football that I, and I’m sure others, feel this existential discomfort, this distaste for the over-saturation and over-crowdedness of things. There’s more entertainment, more apps, more stimulation, more content (a term that just the sound of makes me shudder, content to me representing blocks of data, gigabytes, copy, lorem ipsum, anything so long as it fills a consumerist space) than ever before, but it’s impossible to notice or appreciate any of it. Like a canvas with too much paint on, waiting to fall. Even just the Netflix menu is like Chelsea’s squad: bloated and difficult to manage. Perhaps, though, you might read this and give not an affirming nod of agreement, but a dismissive chuckle. Perhaps right here there’s the possibility that the only thing that’s happened in the interim twenty years is this: I’ve grown old. It’s entirely possible that everything, not just football or entertainment, feels less special to me now. Credible scientific research shows that human imaginations peak at six years old, and over the years, the brain’s handling of chemical release is managed, like the flow on the tap of a limited water supply. This is why opening presents get less exciting as you get older. This is why the most exciting thing about Christmas post-thirty is falling asleep, drunk and overfed. This is why life goes by faster as you age: you’re bored with it. There’re well-established links between youth and activist-like hopefulness (ie the belief that good things can still happen in the world), as well as child-like wonder and philosophy, and it’s no surprise that grumbling, realist conservatism is a hallmark of the aged. So, perhaps it could be argued that, football, the actual bit that happens on the grass, is better now than it’s ever been, and my seeing it as monochrome and soulless says something only about me. Maybe the fact that there’re six or seven teams in the Premier League alone with squads that could compete with that famous team from twenty years ago is not bad thing, and I’m just a cynic. Maybe I’m just not a thirteen year old, watching players likened to celestial beings on a small portable television in bedroom decorated with football iconography. Nostalgia, at least etymologically, is a sickness, after all.

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