Jon Mackenzie looks into the context underlying the Naby Keita transfer saga and seeks to determine what it tells us about the current state of football.
The thing about Naby Keita is that he belies easy categorisation. There are, it has to be said, some people who liken him to Ngolo Kante: the same people, presumably, who confuse Romelu Lukaku and Stormzy. But it is, in fact, probably more helpful to categorise Keita by positioning him between the players whose skill-sets he shares. There is an element of Kante there—the metronomic capacity to come out of a tackle with the ball at his feet. If you look carefully, you can also see shades of Mousa Dembele, the proprietor of the greatest aptitude for breaking a press in the modern game. Add in the transitional qualities of Kevin de Bruyne and the emollient recycling of Luca Modric and you begin to see why Keita is such a high priority on the transfer lists of clubs around Europe.
Of course, Keita’s existence at the boundaries between some of world football’s most talented individuals without fully embodying any one of them indicates the way that the game evolves. We are, ineluctably it feels, moving towards a period of the ‘well-rounded’ central midfielder, where the augmentation of one attribute to the detriment of others is generally considered undesireable. We might refer to this the Pogbanundrum: the misfortunate series of events which led Paul Pogba, whose nascence at the tail-end of the era of specialisation, to watch helplessly as his £89 million move to Manchester United became eclipsed by 32-million-pounds-worth of international team-mate who, it soon became clear, was in possession of a greater range of proficiencies than the world’s most expensive footballer, despite failing to ascend to the heights to which Pogba could rise. ‘Find yourself a man who can do both’, then, has become the order of the day in the transfer market. Or, even better, find yourself a man who can do ‘both and’. And if you go down that route you arrive, with a certain inevitability, at Naby Keita.
Where Keita does have a downside is that he is not so much owned by a football club as a soft-drinks company. And not just any soft-drinks company: the meglomillion-pound-profiting Red Bull soft-drinks company, whose Leipzig club (to differentiate it from their New York club and their Salzburg club) broke their way into the Bundesliga in 2016 and promptly secured a Champions League spot. Now the untrammelled march of global capital is familiar enough within the world of football that the idea of a soft-drinks company owning a football club should scarcely cause anyone to bat an eyelid. Yet in this instance, the curious case of RB Leipzig offers itself as a strange protuberance in the context of the economic escalation of the beautiful game. In the rest of this piece, I want to show you how.
The Bundesliga exists as an outlier amongst the other elite leagues in Europe. To understand how, it is helpful to delve briefly into the history of its origins. Arriving in Germany at a point at which Friedrich Ludwig Jahn’s Gymnastik Kultur had already shaped the national conception of physical activity, football could never entirely shake off its peculiar vestiges. Throughout the nineteenth century, local clubs sprung up around Germany within which young men could practice the art of Gymnastik, a combination of ethical as well as physical improvement intended to develop a fit and healthy populous. Fundamental to these distinctively teutonic organisations was the notion that they should be public, for the common good, and non-profit making. When the Gymnasium gave way to the football club, these ideas about how sporting organisations were to be run became internalised. As a result, the issue of professionalisation within Germany was avoided for far longer than it was in other major leagues around Europe, the Bundesliga only emerging in 1963 in response to the economic threat posed by teams in the long-professionalised leagues of their European rivals.
Thus, began German football’s struggle against the long march of capital. In 1998, in an attempt to anticipate the inevitable shift that modern football was taking, the DFB introduced the 50+1 Regel—a rule devised so as to prevent the control of a football club falling out of the hands of the fans themselves. Yet at this point in history, the ownership of football clubs by corporate bodies was already a forgone conclusion: VfL Wolfsburg, formed of a group of workers from its factory, was already backed financially by Volkswagen many years earlier and Bayer Leverkusen took their prénom from Bayer Pharmaceuticals. There is a strange sort of means-end logic in operation in the Bundesliga, then, where financial backing is not bad per se as long as it comes in the form of a long-term vested interest. So when TSG Hoffenheim were bank-rolled by Dietmar Hopp’s company, SAP, at the end of the last decade there was outrage amongst football fans across the country.
RB Leipzig pushed this indignation to an entirely different level in the years that followed. Buying up the licence of an Oberliga side, SSV Markranstädt, Red Bull pumped money into the side until the club reached the highest echelon of the Deutsche Fußball Liga in 2016. By bending the 50+1 Regel so that the membership of the club was almost exclusively high-ups in the Red Bull franchise, Leipzig were making a mockery of the principles of fan ownership and flying in the face of the not-for-profit ideology of German football. A combination of words and physical objects were thrown at the Leipzig fans through the course of their first season in the Bundesliga but there was very little to be done: the club had complied with the stipulations laid down by the DFL and the branded juggernauts of global capitalism rolled into Germany.
A more cynical reading of the history of German football will speak of the way in which the lofty principles of fan ownership are equally as unfair as the logics of capitalism. During the 1970s, a rivalry emerged within the Bundesliga between Bayern Munich and Borussia Mönchengladbach. So dominant were these two sides that, from 1970 to 1977, the title was only contested between these two sides. In 1972, however, Bayern Munich moved into a new home: the Olympiastadion in Munich at which the Olympic Games had recently been held. By moving into a stadium with a capacity of 80,000, Bayern gained a huge financial advantage in a league which, as we saw, was already reacting to economic expansion. The intrinsic values of the Gymnastik Kultur with all its well-intentioned ideas about the common good, had bequeathed German football with a structure that was equally unjust as the other leagues in Europe. But as those leagues were soon to find out, the influx of capital could actually prove to be a leveller.
Fifty years down the line, the Bundesliga is one of the most unequal leagues in European football. Bayern have finished first in the last five seasons and it is unlikely that their crown will be challenged in the immediate future. At this juncture, the appearance of RB Leipzig might seem like a welcome occurrence (their flouting of the rules notwithstanding). If fan ownership, like feudalism before it, produces one overlord, then surely capitalism, which can allow for other overlords to rise up, is infinitely preferable? With an endless supply of cash seeming flowing out of the ring-pulled lips of their cans, Red Bull could be the means by which Bayern Munich might eventually be toppled.
Which brings us back to Naby Keita. Because Liverpool Football Club really want Naby Keita. But Naby Keita is fundamental to the RB Leipzig team and, by extension, their resistance to the Bayern cavalcade. We arrive, then, at an impasse. What has emerged from this incongruity of intentions on the part of the clubs, though, is a peculiar posturing by supporters of either side on social media. On the one hand, those who understand German football tell us that RB Leipzig are immune to the advances of this English club not because they are excepted from the evil temptations of capitalism by some noble adherence to a vestigial Gymnastik Kultur but precisely because they are so capitalist that the huge sums of money thrown at them by Liverpool are so immaterial as to be meaningless to them. On the other hand, the exponents of English football, who have experienced the ravages of the late-capitalist excesses upon the Premier League, declare that ‘No one is immune! Everyone can be brought with a price!’.
In fact, it turns out that both can be true: Ralf Rangnick, the Director of Football at RB Leipzig has declared that the club will not budge in selling the young Guinean international whilst, at the same time, there are reports that the owners of the club are unable to resist the huge amounts of money that Liverpool are throwing at them. Although RB Leipzig do not need to finance new arrivals with sales, there is, it transpires, a price for everything.
So here we are: caught in the struggle between the advocates of fan ownership, global capitalism and a young man who is good at football. So what is the moral of the story here? Well it isn’t just as banal as to say that the long march of capital will always arrive at its destination. Of course, it will. But it is important to recognise that, for capital to continue on its way, it has to destroy those small parts of itself that threaten its long march. Next season, Bayern Munich will win the Bundesliga again, financed—as they are—in the means-end manner that is acceptable to the purveyors of German football. And RB Leipzig, despite their limitless coffers, will not challenge them because an improved offer of €80m would be too ‘ridiculous’ to turn down. You live by the capital, you die by the capital. And there will always be bigger capital willing to swallow the young pretenders to the throne.
The Premier League will be all the better for Naby Keita. The Bundesliga will be all the worse without him. But what we really learn from this whole saga is, when it comes down to it, there is nothing sacred in modern football. In the end, everyone loses in some way.
Jon Mackenzie has a portfolio career which includes freelance journalism, cryptic crossword setting, bar tending and lecturing at universities, amongst other things. You can follow his tweets @Jon_Mackenzie and read his writes at jonmackenzie.com.