Following last night's England game, I wonder if maybe the analogy between football and finance works after all. Bankers and CEOs like to defend their bonuses using the rhetoric of 'talent' and 'competitiveness'. The boss of Barclays argued that if you tax or limit bonus payments, you disrupt the 'playing field' on which nations and firms compete for 'talent'.
In fact, the de-regulation of football labour markets, achieved principally thanks to the 1995 Bosman ruling, then the considerable shift in the football industry towards the exploitation of copyright and image rights, a result of Rupert Murdoch's strategy through the early 1990s, has created the sort of over-blown rent-seeking industry that is indeed quite similar to banking. 1995 was football's 'big bang', Chelsea football club is RBS and John Terry is Fred Goodwin: the leading 'talent' of their generation showing zero shame for the fact that they have achieved a stranglehold over the national media, merchandising and their own employers, despite doing nothing of any value for the public. They are, as Adair Turner said of derivatives, 'socially useless'.
Of course they're not the only actors in this tragedy. Just as the banks had their sympathetic rating agencies, Wayne Rooney et al have Nike, Adidas and copyright industries, prospering hugely from the illusion that these players are actually brave heroes. Adidas in particular have taken the extraordinary rent-seeking path of using their monopoly over the ball to dominate the headlines, with no regard for the fact that this has damaged the quality of the game. Look at how it was dramatically 'unveiled' as the best thing ever, rather than taking the far gutsier and more boring strategy, which would have been to select an existing ball that was known to please goalkeepers and strikers alike. But then again, it would have been far gutsier and more boring for RBS to treat savings as things that sit in a bank acruing interest.
It now looks entirely obvious in hindsight that a competent, English club side such as West Bromwich Albion could have produced something more worthwhile - more, if you like, competitive - than England did last night. They would certainly fancy their chances against Algeria. Equally, Britain as a whole would be a damn site more competitive if Northern Rock had remained an average regional building society, and not attempted to (as Nike likes to put it) 'write the future'. I guess they did write the future, just as England did last night: dumped their incompetence on the public and expected them to simply accept it. Rooney complaining about the fans afterwards has all the grace and self-awareness of the free marketeers who complain about new financial regulation.
I can't help but feel these are all symptoms of what Paul Gilroy terms 'post-colonial melancholia', the difficulty England has in letting go of its imperial aspirations. It can't, as Freud would see it, mourn its loss of pre-eminence, because it clings to its past too tightly. This, in answer to Marina Hyde's piece today, may be why the England football shirt leads to psychological melt-down. It may also be why we've become a society that goes weak at the knees at the sight of money, why we've come to not only tolerate unaccountable power but actively celebrate it. Once a society accepts that it is normal, then it can take steps to improve itself. Only if it is convinced of its inner greatness does it turn its capital city and national sport into a playground for oligarchs.
So, yes, true. If you want to retain the 'John Terrys' and 'Frank Lampards' in the City of London, if you want to attract the 'Fred Goodwins' and the 'Fabulous Fabs' to The Premiership, then you will indeed need to pay them sky-high salaries quite regardless of any personal risk they take or value that they create for society. This is, apparently, how you maximise shareholder value while winning in the war for talent. But, as England beautifully underlined last night, why would you want to go and do a thing like that?