Smells like team spirit but game's up

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CONSIDER the plight of the rural American consumer. There he is, on his porch, sucking down the grits, mint juleps or what have you, staring down the road waiting for express delivery of the new Sears Roebuck catalogue. Which never turns up, because all the best employees of the US Postal Service are whizzing around the boulevards of the cheese-eating appeasers in a goddamned cycle race.

Similarly in Spain, the national lottery ONCE is bedevilled by the absence of the lads who deliver the jackpots, all of whom are pedalling frantically in search of a yellow jersey that you could get in any half-decent Bilbao Zara outlet for a paltry 22.

The Tour de France, which they promise me will finish this weekend, is that rare phenomenon, a sport with an essentially socialistic ethos, despite all the sponsorship.

While it is difficult to envision Lance Armstrong or Jan Ullrich as a people’s champion, the structure of the race is about the sacrifice of the proletarian peloton in the interests of the team.

Of course, being a French cultural invention, the socialism is tempered with sex, existentialism and lots of drugs, but you get the gist.

At the other extreme of the sporting political spectrum is golf, essentially a sporting expression of rampant individual greed, where every shot affects your personal ranking like a fluctuating Dow Jones index of fiscal worth.

A missed putt has the shareholders (the golfer’s missus) screaming, and a holed bunker shot can restore Thomas Bjorn’s market confidence like rumours of a takeover bid.

You can plod along steadily, or make some risky speculations in the hope of swift gains.

Perhaps this easy affinity with capitalism is the reason that Americans are so good at the game; for a starry-eyed Ohio boy like Ben Curtis it sure beats being a potato farmer.

Like its continent of birth, Europe, forever dithering between romantic individualism, and worthy collectivism, football lingers somewhere in the middle. It is a game beset with crooks, financial shenanigans and greed that still, at root, relies on the team ethos. Sometimes the contradictions, and the impossibility of their reconciliation, can claim a high-profile victim. The latest is Juan Sebastian Veron.

This week representatives of one of the game’s leading brands, Manchester United, have been wondering whether they could grab themselves some of Roman Abramovich’s lavish, ready cash, and recoup a little of the 23 million-plus they splashed out on the player back in 2002.

Post-punk headline writers quickly splashed ‘I Don’t Want To Go To Chelsea’ over stories of Veron’s reluctance to leave Old Trafford.

Funnily enough, the Elvis Costello songbook could be plundered for an entire opera devoted to the unhappy Argentine’s last year at Old Trafford, and wariness of Stamford Bridge, with numbers of poignant pertinence like Brilliant Mistake, A Man Out Of Time, All This Useless Beauty, Almost Blue, London’s Brilliant Parade . . . (not to mention Veron-ica).

Veron’s is the salutary tale of a peerless individual failing to fit into a team where individuals have had to suppress their personalities for the benefit of the unit. Veron became the Latin artist in a Soviet-style system.

It boiled down to a clash of ideology. In position A (ten yards in front of your own penalty area, about to be pressed by some big sweaty forward from Bolton, Blackburn or Southampton), the Ferguson-instilled Manchester United orthodoxy says the only permissible actions are a sensible ball over to Gary Neville or a short pass to Keano. The problem is that the element that made Veron one of the finest midfield visionaries of the 21st century is the instant mental calculation that tells him if he curls a long angled pass with just the right degree of backspin, it will send Ruud van Nistelrooy surging beyond the last defender with only the goalkeeper to beat.

Watching Veron last season was like being witness to an endless series of psychological torments. You could read it in his face: ‘Back-heel it over the defender’s shoulder then play a cushioned disguised pass to Ole-Gunnar, or just lay it off to Scholesie; oh bugger, too late.’

Ferguson found himself in the position of the millionaire who has splashed out on a Picasso, only to decide maybe a nice Jack Vettriano print would go better with the kitchen decor. His dilemma is that his plc board, yet to be taken over by his Irish racing chums, is keen to cash in on an asset that is losing value daily, while the manager realises losing the Argentine is tantamount to admitting his is a side too structured to be able to accommodate the world’s finest players.

From Veron’s point of view, a departure to Chelsea would be an admission that he is a show pony, unable to cut it in a disciplined Premiership outfit. It is to his credit that disappointment at Manchester United has been received with what seems like a redoubled determination to prove his critics wrong. Still the suspicion remains that his patient, cerebral gifts might be more suited to the more technical demands of Italy, where he would be welcomed back with glee, for a fraction of his original transfer fee.

Veron is smart enough to come around to that way of thinking sooner rather than later, and Italy may be where he will end up after the summer.