When Gareth Bale takes his tentative first steps as a Real Madrid player and walks out in front of 50,000 baying fans at the Santiago Bernabeu next week, he will join a specific demographic group which has been much discussed in recent years.
Bale will become a 16 to 24-year-old in Spain – a country traumatised by the financial crisis where over 50 per cent of young people are unemployed. Arguably more than any other factor, it is the desperate situation facing Spain’s youth that has come to symbolise the economic plight of one of Europe’s grandest countries.
Civil unrest has marked Spain’s cities - as well as more considered, peaceful protests - as the country’s youth have sought to make their voice heard in a nation that offers them too few opportunities for personal and financial advancement.
But Bale, who turned 24 in July, will be spared any such worries when he finally completes a world record transfer that will reportedly be worth as much as £183 million when his salary is taken into account.
The figure is a stark one. According to the Sunday Mirror, Bale’s transfer fee will total £86m, while his six-year contract will be worth £97m – or the small matter of £310,00 per week. Furthermore, his release clause is expected to be in the same region as Ronaldo’s, which currently sits at the prohibitive level of £855m.
These are clearly astronomical sums. But are they offensive too? Or perhaps even immoral?
Barcelona coach Gerardo Martino spoke of the prospective deal with a heavily critical tone on Saturday, telling a press conference in Catalunya that the transfer was "out of place in the current economic climate ... the numbers are a lack of respect to the world in general.”
A club which pays Lionel Messi £245,000 per week, spent £49 million on Neymar this summer and generates £25m per season through a Qatar Airways shirt deal that ended 113 clean years of a sponsorless Barca kit is hardly approaching this matter from a position of strength – yet Martino’s unguarded comments struck a chord with many. Was this the moment when football finally, decisively became detached from reality?
No. As early as the 19th century and the onset of professionalism there were suggestions football was becoming divorced from the experience of the common man, and Bale’s transfer is just the latest marker in a prolonged journey that has seen the sport become ever more infused with money, its protagonists cut off from society by gated, palatial homes and the privilege their salary affords them.
Football is not anchored in reality – or the reality that most of us experience. It is not rooted in financial norms either. In Spain, professional football has a combined debt of 4.1 billion euros (£3.5bn), clubs owe the tax man as much as 663m euros (£570m) and no less than 24 clubs have gone into administration in recent years.
Football exists in its own gilded bubble; it has its own rules. Madrid alone have 600m euros (£515m) of debt on their books.
Meanwhile, in 2001 the club benefitted from a huge windfall when the city council handily purchased their training ground for £206m, helping to fund the galacticos era, which since the return of Florentino Perez has been resurrected as a guiding philosophy – deals of £60m and £80m for Kaka and Cristiano Ronaldo surpassing fees of £46.5m and £37.5m for Zinedine Zidane and Luis Figo as the world transfer record. Bale will set a new mark, giving Madrid the past five record fees.
Spanish football's debt: €4.1bn. Real Madrid's debt: €600m. G Bale fee: €100m. RM's NET transfer spend since 2000: c.€780m. #FootballFinance
— sportingintelligence (@sportingintel) August 25, 2013
Prestige is Madrid’s real currency, and the record acquisition of Bale – the reigning Footballer of the Year, PFA Player of the Year and PFA Young Player of the Year in England - gives them ever more of that rare commodity.
Despite Martino’s rather sensationalist take on things – and remember, as coach of Barcelona he has his own agenda to pursue – this transfer is not an affront to the world and humanity.
As a rather perplexed Real Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti said on Sunday: "He (Martino) has not been here for long and he still doesn't understand how European football works. He also doesn't understand his own club because Barcelona has spent money on some very important players. I don't want to talk about this but I think his words were a little strange."
Unlike the experienced Ancelotti, who has the distinction of having worked under both Roman Abramovich and Silvio Berlusconi, Martino failed to grasp that elite, moneyed European football does not feel the common man's pain; nor does it wish to.
Bale's £86m move to Madrid cannot be seen in the context of Europe's financial predicament or society's problems as it exists in an entirely different sphere of reality to both.
As Spanish league president Javier Tebas said recently it: "It is immoral to pay for something when you cannot afford it. 100 million euros is a huge amount of money to spend on a player but if Madrid can afford that then it's not a question of morality, but of whether it's a risky move or not."
Another reminder that in football, all that really matters is what happens on the pitch and inside the stadium - not in the streets around it.
Tom Adams - @tomEurosport