Today Emil Dantchev, the agent of the wondrous Dimitar Berbatov announced that his client wants to leave Tottenham Hotspur. The reason? He will be 27 next month and wants to fulfil his potential and win trophies now.
Time is running out for him to play for a club that can match his ambition.
I would like to stress this is not about money. This is about sporting ambition.
And who can blame him? What nobler sentiment can there be than to leave a football club because they are not good enough yet? Why not leave to go to a club where success is guaranteed?
Or perhaps this expectation of success is not the great virtue we all intrinsically believe it is. Perhaps leaving a club who are near to success for a club who can guarantee it is even less of a virtuous motive than to leave for money…
…at least if you left for more money you could say that you earned it.
Yet it now seems that one of the world’s best footballers who could well have bought success to Tottenham is going to leave them because after Tottenham’s bad start to the season, it is unlikely they will have the chance to do something big this season.
Spurs are a club with a world class manager, excellent chairman, excellent players and more money than all but four particular clubs in the league. They are superbly run, invest in youth and British players and of all the 16 ‘other’ clubs are the one best primed for medium to long-term success. If there is any club who could make a permanent assault on the Champions League places then it is them. Yet even they it seems have their ceiling. Perpetuated by the all-pervasive assumption that winning is the noblest thing that a player can do. That without a medal you are a failure. More importantly, that if you are to be known as a top player you must win something.
What this also means is that if you are not a top player but have a good enough run of form, fooling a top team into buying you means you can get a medal to show your children that you were a top player.
The assumption that if you are being hailed as a great player it gives you a free pass to the biggest, already achieving clubs is so fundamentally damaging to the game and yet it is embraced by practically everyone. Pundits and writers refuse to mention a top performing player without reiterating the belief that they need to leave; every time Berbatov is mentioned it is prefaced with ‘whether Spurs can keep him’ or ‘when he’s going to Man U’ or even that he plays well only when he is trying to impress Alex Ferguson.
Where does this leave the other 16 teams in the Premiership? Where is the hope? Play well, approach success and your best players will leave (Scott Parker, Wayne Rooney, Shawn Wright-Phillips, Michael Carrick etc. etc.) play poorly and get no success. Know your place and stay there. Where is the escape from this cycle of stifled ambition?
Are the fans of Liverpool, Arsenal, Manchester United and Chelsea the only ones who get to dream of (or rather, expect) success?
Surely the Champions League notoriety and money have stamped the loyalty and hope out of the sport enough that brainwashing players and fans into believing that winning medals is all that matters is no longer needed?
The irony is that were Berbatov to sack Dantchev and announce that he will be spending the rest of his career at White Hart Lane I would put money on Tottenham winning a trophy this season and finishing fourth or third next. I would even put a little money on them finishing fourth this season.
I was not ‘fortunate’ enough to be born a fan of Liverpool, Arsenal, Manchester United or Chelsea but I do wonder how they feel about success. Can you ever appreciate winning without ever really experiencing not winning? Would another Manchester United FA Cup win mean as much to their fans as one for Everton or West Ham? How about a Liverpool League Cup win to Liverpool’s fans as opposed to those of say, Newcastle? I wonder how the Boston Red Sox’s 2004 World Series baseball triumph after an 86 year wait compared to any of the 26 World Series that their arch-rival New York Yankees won in that same period?
I actually see myself as immensely fortunate to support a team who are starved of success yet primed to succeed. I know that should it ever come it will be greater than any of the routine triumphs of Liverpool, Arsenal, Manchester United or Chelsea.
Players like fans are not all fortunate like Carragher, Gerrard, Terry and Giggs to be born into Liverpool, Arsenal, Manchester United or Chelsea. But again, imagine the satisfaction of Ledley King holding the FA Cup for Tottenham compared to Gary Neville holding it again for Manchester United.
And think about Berbatov. Make no mistake; he could make Tottenham into a great team. Indeed he would be instrumental and imagine how lauded he would be for it. Imagine the satisfaction knowing that you were the fundamental piece that turned a promising team into world beaters. Imagine the legacy he would earn himself at the club.
Now imagine he leaves for Manchester United and picks up his obligatory League Championship medal. Can he really say that without him they would not have won it? Could his satisfaction be anything close to what it would have been were he to achieve even a lesser medal with Tottenham?
Would he be writing himself into Manchester United folklore? Crucially, in an argument that claims he wants to move to fulfil his potential, could he say that his potential was the difference between Manchester United winning and losing?
Meanwhile, every other club like Tottenham will never be able hope to either develop or through good scouting and risk, buy a player of true world class quality and hope to keep him. There is without doubt a ceiling to the quality of player any club outside the hallowed Liverpool, Arsenal, Manchester United and Chelsea cartel can own and by inference, a limit to their very achievement.
There are many things to love about this sport. Many things that swell the heart and pump the blood but this game is not infallible. Just because it gives us such things and we enjoy it does not mean that it will always be this way. Without the quintessential factor that characterises the sport for the vast majority of its fans it cannot be the same game. Without hope the game as the rest of us know and love it will die and be replaced by something less.
Slowly and gradually through the wills of agents to make money, pundits and writers to be sensational, winners to be seen as trophy holders, players to be seen as winners and the all-mighty lure of other people’s yardsticks, football will become the sole preserve of the elite few.
Perhaps by that time fans, like players will learn to swap their allegiance with fickle abandon. Long before that happens though, hope will leave the game.
As will I.