The people who make a lot of money playing sports are always telling you they’d do it for free. If that was true (it isn’t), this is what it would look like.
Tottenham Hotspur blew through town this week on a preseason tour. Ostensibly, it was here to play a soccer game. Actually, it’s here doing what we should all be doing every waking moment of our lives – growing the brand.
If the goal was to get you to like Spurs, the ragged 90-minute shift they put in against Toronto FC won’t have helped much.
There was a final score. It doesn't matter what it was. All I can tell you is that Tottenham’s Erik Lamela scored twice. No game in which that happens can be described as “competitive.”
The result was beside the point, as the presumptive focus of the whole show pointed out.
“[I]f we’ve got to play, we’ve got to play,” TFC’s Jermain Defoe declared Wednesday, presumably at high volume while thrusting a sword into the air. I’m not sure. I wasn’t there. “It’s not going to be as serious. I can’t imagine the tempo’s going to be too high. But we’ll still try to win the game.”
That doesn’t sound like an advertisement for ticketed entertainment. It sounds like the sort of thing you think while lying in bed on a Sunday morning, trying to convince yourself to go to the gym.
And then you decide not to.
This friendly match was part of the deal that brought Defoe to Toronto from London in January, a mutually profitable afterthought tagged onto the transfer contract.
His former team fully embraced that slip-shod, “Oh, why the hell not?” vibe.
Pregame, Spurs didn’t bother to take a team photo. Mid-game, they drifted around, as though suffering through a forced constitutional. Post-TFC goals, they looked around at each other like guys who’ve just been judo-flipped by their kid sisters.
Toronto gifted them with a commemorative plate and a jersey signed by the entire roster.
Does Tottenham’s museum have a sub-basement in need of decoration?
As usual during one of these shams, there is a sense of the queen’s representatives sent to introduce iron tools to the dirt farmers of the New World. There’s nothing like the arrival of a Premiership team – any of them – to remind us how second-rate our brand of soccer still appears to European eyes.
Full credit, then, to Toronto for fielding a team so denuded of starting talent, it qualified as a passive-aggressive insult. Whether to Spurs or the paying fan, I’ll leave you to decide.
In all, 19 of 20 Premiership teams went barnstorming this summer. Even Burnley. Burnley! One assumes that if a foreigner finds themselves sitting in the stands through a preseason Burnley match, it’s only because he or she misread the date on a ticket for some other, better contest – the regional qualifiers for the 2015 Wife Carrying Championships or some such – and showed up by accident.
British clubs travelled to, among many other glittering jewels of global culture and industry, Auckland, Bangkok, Ljubljana, Klagenfurt, Columbus and Milwaukee. Just imagine the excitement of West Ham finally making its debut in Gelsenkirchen! There’s some solace to be taken from the fact that the best of them – Manchesters United and City, Arsenal, Liverpool – prefer taking their seven-figure training laps in North America. Or maybe that’s just that we’re more easily parted from money that might be better spent on competitive sports. Instead, this is the footballing equivalent of a travelling circus in which all the really talented elephants decide to take the night off, rather than risk a confidence-shattering amount of on-field tedium.
Every time one of these teams does a fly-by in the hinterlands, they say the right things, but the truth is always there to read in their vacant press-conference gazes. They’re slumming. They know they’re slumming. And, most importantly, they’re not being paid anything extra to slum.
At least European-based pros have stopped rubbishing Major League Soccer outright. They stopped laughing when fading talents such as Tim Cahill and Robbie Keane swanned over to pocket more money than they’d ever made overseas. European respect for MLS has nothing to do with the level of play. It’s pure (and quite reasonable) avarice.
In the end, that may be an even bigger slight.
All of this continues to remind us that Major League Soccer thinks of the Premiership in Oedipal terms.
MLS is still a speculative enterprise drawing investment not on the basis of what it is, but what it could be. When the money men behind Manchester City and MLB’s New York Yankees pay $100-million (U.S.) for a second New York City franchise, they aren’t thinking, ‘What Manhattan needs now is a soccer version of the Mets!’ They’re thinking that whatever England can do, America can find a way to copy.
One supposes anything is possible. But you’re hard-pressed to imagine a future in which the people of Thailand or New Zealand exchange money for the chance to attend something involving the Seattle Sounders or the New England Revolution. Or know what those names mean.
That’s the greatest indicator of the Premiership’s predominance among global sporting leagues. The whole world is not just happy to watch its product, it will pay good money to pick through its garbage.