The Disease of More

Emmanuel Anwanaodung
6 min readAug 3, 2020

Pat Riley coined the phrase “the disease of more”, describing how the focus after winning quickly shifts from celebration to wanting more. The team and fans want another championship, the players want more playing time, more salaries, more endorsements, more accolades. There is no peak: another level must be reached. Riley was talking about basketball. He might have as well been discussing modern society.

One of the most significant criticisms of capitalism is that it is a system of accumulation. It is not okay to be okay, and there is no such thing as contentment. Do you have a car? That’s nice, but can it do off-road? No? I thought so. Here’s this V8-powered, all-wheel-drive SUV with a turbocharger. That iPhone is nice and all, but that guy in the sweater is on stage launching another and honestly, I don’t know how you can live with yourself dragging last year’s iPhone about. Get a new one. Better yet, get another one.

This is the attitude of football’s super-clubs.

The oligopsonistic nature of football’s marketplace means a few teams have all the financial power. They can, if they wish, own all the best players in the world between themselves. They can meet whatever prices the selling clubs set, and they can pay unmatched salaries. Even more valuable, they have prestige. Players, especially the younger ones, want to be there. These clubs choose often to exercise this power. As soon as a young winger makes the breakthrough at a seller, the conversation about him becomes “What *insert super-club here* is Player X moving to?” The women’s side of the game is not spared this phenomenon. All the best players in the European women’s game end up at Olympique Lyonnais, VfL Wolfsburg, in London playing for Chelsea or Arsenal, in Barcelona and increasingly, Real Madrid.

Determining the cause of this phenomenon presents a chicken-and-egg conundrum. Are the clubs prestigious because they are wealthy and profitable to the players, or the players drawn to the wealthy and profitable clubs because they are prestigious? There is a trend towards the former in recent times, with Chelsea, Manchester City, and Paris St. Germain bankrolled into the upper echelons by fossil fuel money. However, one might say all the Gulf wealth in the world hasn’t stopped Real Madrid, Barcelona, and Bayern Munich from being able to purchase pretty much any player they want. The prestige comes into play here: the players want to go there. Those on the money side of the argument will immediately hit back with the valid argument that is was money, not prestige, that took Neymar from Barcelona to PSG. It’s an unending argument.

What remains true is that a few clubs can get any player they want if they have either of those qualities. The very top clubs have both. This means that these teams can have players on their benches better than the best players in other teams in their leagues. Gareth Bale and James Rodriguez barely participated in Real Madrid’s title-winning campaign, and yet will comfortably walk into fourth-placed Sevilla’s first team and become focal points. Philippe Coutinho has found himself on the outside looking in at Barcelona and then Bayern Munich. Eighty percent of teams in Europe’s top leagues will build around him.

Both those teams played large roles in other teams having bad seasons when they signed some of their most important players: Barcelona with Martin Braithwaite and Leganes; Bayern with Alexander Nübel and Schalke 04. Both were players those teams arguably didn’t need, and yet signed to bolster numbers. Barcelona’s signing of Braithwaite may have indirectly led to Leganes’ relegation, his departure, along with that of Youssef En-Nesyri leaving the team with no proven goalscorers.

These players often find themselves unable to move to clubs that need them and will readily play them for one major reason: wages. The super-clubs can afford to put players on wages that can buy smaller teams. Hence, when the player finds himself unwanted, he is beyond the reach of 90% of football clubs. The most prominent case of this is Gareth Bale. Still just 31, he is frozen out at Real Madrid, yet owed 60 million euros pre-tax for the last two years of his contract. One of football’s best players of the last decade, reduced to a glorified white elephant.

This conglomeration of talent is damaging for everyone but continues because the super-clubs are so insulated from actual consequences that they barely notice. It’s a flea bite to them, a minor inconvenience. The money shields them from any real harm their recklessness may cause. They accumulate enough top-end talent to truly fail and generate enough revenue to take 60 million euro-risks.

The smaller clubs, fans, and players suffer though. The smaller teams lose their young talent often before they have had any chance to make a real impact, or before the team has had the opportunity to build around them. This is made worse by the fact that the super-clubs are buying them at younger ages. While it can be argued that the sellers receive ample compensation (or in the case of Bayern Munich, none), one can reply that this compensation never elevates the seller to true contender status. Barcelona and Sevilla’s midseason payments to Leganes didn’t save them from relegation.

The fans of non-super-clubs are deprived of watching great players, as their playing time plummets in crowded squads. Even worse, the feeling of seeing a great young player break out at your mid-table team is bittersweet, the delight tempered by the knowledge that he will be gone soon. The worst victims are the players. Young and inexperienced, they are parachuted into strange environments, and occasionally, unusual tactical systems. A very small minority will rapidly acclimatize and flourish. Most will initially struggle and would immediately find that patience is not a luxury afforded them. Saddled with the expectations large price tags bring, they may falter and are soon cast aside. Few bounce back and find their way. The rest fall into the endless cycle of loan deals. The unluckiest find themselves on the bench or out of matchday squads entirely, footballers spending their primes not playing football.

It is hard to prescribe a solution, as there is no perfect panacea. The NFL and NBA’s draft and salary cap system ensure that superstar players are spread around the league. Yet, in the case of the NBA, dynasties form all the time. Breaching the salary cap triggers a luxury tax, which team owners, who are often billionaires, are happy to pay if it results in championships. Is there any doubt that Manchester City or PSG’s owners will pay a luxury tax? Besides, the salary cap is not without its problems, with Bayern Munich CEO, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge recently discussing the impossibility of a US-style salary cap due to European competition laws, and the vast differences in sizes of European clubs increasing the difficulty in choosing a cap figure. Accrington Stanley (stadium capacity: 5,450) and Sunderland (stadium capacity: 49,000) both play in England’s third tier. What cap figure will be fair to both teams?

The NFL is probably the world’s most socialist sports league. Revenues are spread evenly among the league’s 32 teams, and stadium sizes are similar. The team’s have upper and lower salary limits, and the worst teams every season get to pick the best players coming out of college. A single pick can transform a team from “terrible” to “contender”, and a review of the league’s hundred best players of 2020 by the NFL saw twenty-six of the thirty teams have players in the top fifty. Half the league starts every season with hopes of winning it all. European football has no draft, and wealth is massively uneven. The closest a European league has come to the NFL is the Serie A’s Seven Sisters era of the 90s when Juventus, Milan, Inter, Parma, Lazio, Fiorentina, and Roma were all true contenders. This was largely aided by the foreign player quota system, which prevented the accumulation of overseas talent. Even then, these seven, as with England’s Top Six of the late 2010s, were financially separated from the rest of the league by the wealth and willing spending of billionaire industrialists.

Football’s economic model reflects the rampant inequality modern capitalism produces: the top gets richer and the bottom gets poorer. Financial missteps may doom the lesser teams, as evidenced by the teams falling into bankruptcy and administration in lower leagues from England to Italy. The super-clubs trudge on, eternally stricken by Riley’s disease of more, yet cocooned off from its effects. As F. Scott Fitzgerald’s character, Nick Carraway, says in The Great Gatsby: “… careless people… they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness…, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”

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