To make yourself clear is to get down with hackery like the sports metaphor. If it’s blowhardish and dopey to order someone to step up to the plate or describe a certainty as a slam dunk, people do at least know what you mean. It’s a way for dummies and charlatans to get literary, and it allows poindexters to project strength. This is why politicians—who need to have some command of an imagined common man’s plainspokenness, even if they were conceived on a catamaran and raised at a boarding school—occasionally channel Jon Gruden when they’re addressing state fairs and high school gyms, and why a certain phylum of manchild lives his life according to Nike slogans. There’s a two-way door between sports metaphor and war metaphor because we want to think of war as violent yet neatly ordered, like a football game, and we want to lend our games phony existential heft. The sports metaphor is lamented and ordinary, lingua franca and almost perfectly democratic, set on a cultural mantle alongside processed cheese, khakis, and CBS sitcoms.
If you were a cultural alien trying to understand us through nothing other than our language, you could discern that sports are pretty important to us, considering we’ve been using them to explain other stuff for so long that those explanations have become stale idioms. (And this is without getting into the knotty semiotic bramble of the fact that we use sports to explain other sports: the Super Bowl is a heavyweight fight, and a heavyweight fight is a chess match, etc.)
I had a Derry-born Irish literature professor who once flunked me on a quiz because I didn’t so much as skim the play I was supposed to have read. When I aced the next one, having done the actual reading this time, he wrote back on form, Colin! at the bottom of the paper next to the grade. It struck me as funny, because I chatted with him occasionally before and after class, about Joyce and Catholicism and his playwriting. I didn’t know he liked soccer. But then of course he did.
When I was a kid, I felt most myself—which is maybe a way of saying happiest—when I was throwing a ball or chasing someone else across a field. I wasn’t a good athlete, but I liked playing sports more than just about anything. It was what I was supposed to be doing. Now I sit and write. It’s a more mediated and frustrating way of making sense of yourself. Thought is instinctual, and perhaps so is expression, but the process by which you turn the former into the latter is brain-grindingly conscious. I’m a writer, if I’m anything, and yet I don’t really like writing. It’s more like a compulsion than a pastime, too difficult to be purely enjoyable. The best it delivers is a kind of energizing terror.
Some part of growing into adulthood is realizing—if not accepting—that visceral pleasures are a lot less accessible than they used to be. Sex, drugs, and food are more or less readily available, but I can’t lean on those things too hard. I can read books or play videogames, but it takes a real masterpiece for those things to move me in the way a workaday game of kickball used to. Recess and CYO basketball, it turns out in retrospect, were profound experiences, though I didn’t think in those terms when I was eleven. I couldn’t be bothered to put words to it.
Beyond perhaps booze, watching sports on TV is my most reliable vehicle into transcendence and contentedness. While much of the game action is unremarkable—a whistle for offside here, a nothing-special midrange jumper there—it’s rare to sit through a half-hour of highly skilled athletes competing against each other and not see something that wakes up the inside of you. A nifty drive to the basket or an inch-perfect backhand or a great tackle delivers a brief, bracing jolt of feeling. It’s like being in love for two-and-a-half seconds at a time. Sometimes we get lucky and a game is filled with moments like that. Toward the end of close, well-played contests, the jolts can stretch out for minutes.
I’ve run to my keyboard quite a few times after watching a game that shot shivers through me, sometimes managing to transform my delight into readable prose and other times babbling for a few paragraphs before realizing I don’t have the goods this go-round. But even if I produce a publishable piece, there’s always a degree of failure in communicating my joy. I find, inevitably, that I have intellectualized something that’s hardly intellectual at all. I’ve embellished what’s essential and killed the essence in the process.
The specifics of this are a purposefully confusing mess garbled further by a European sports press who often don’t get details correct, but in broad strokes: some arm or another of the Qatari state is giving Neymar $260 million so he can buy himself out of his contract with Barcelona. Then, Paris Saint-Germain, who are owned by Qatar’s sports investment agency, will pay Neymar $35.5 million per season plus tax. You can pick your number on that total cost of the move—there’s a strong possibility Neymar’s agent father is catching some hidden compensation—but medium estimates put it at about $550 million.
It’s the most expensive transfer ever by a wide margin, and the reason it’s both pricey and complicated—we may never know the precise mechanics of how this thing is happening—is because under UEFA’s Financial Fair Play regulations, which aim to keep clubs close to balancing their books, PSG can’t spend all that cash on Neymar without putting themselves too far deep in the red. So the nation of Qatar—which, again, basically owns PSG under a different name already—is going to foot whatever bills they need to in order to keep the Paris club on the right side of FFP. The convoluted acquisition process isn’t too much trouble for the Qataris, which doesn’t mean it’s not still a considerable amount of trouble. La Liga president Javier Tebas initially rejected the buyout clause-triggering payment and threatened to report PSG to UEFA, so that’s one headache already.
The Qatari royal family have—well, it’s an oil- and natural gas-rich nation’s worth of wealth. Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, the family patriarch and recent ex-Emir of the country, had his personal net worth clocked at $2.4 billion in 2011. The Qatar Investment Authority, the state’s holding company, has assets totalling $335 billion, including sizable stakes in Volkswagen, Barclays, Shell Oil, Agricultural Bank of China, and many million- and billion-dollar pieces of real estate in major cities across the globe.
You know how you truly know James Dolan has an absurd amount of money not because he owns the Knicks and Madison Square Garden, but because he pays what must be a small nation’s defense budget to surround himself with world-class blues musicians and feel like an artist? PSG chairman Nasser Al-Khelaifi spent his pre-business life throwing good millions after bad trying his hand at professional tennis. He became the 995th ranked player on tour, which is like having a globally televised late night show that only airs at four in the morning in every time zone. (Or, y’know, releasing immaculately engineered blues records nobody likes.) Now Al-Khelaifi wants one of the best forwards in the world playing at Parc des Princes. He’s going to pry him away from one of the most storied and successful clubs in the sport. Cost is barely a concern.
The Qataris can buy basically anything that’s purchasable, and it says something that one of the things they’ve pursued most doggedly is sporting relevance. This Neymar swoop is only the latest and most monumental move PSG have made in a many-pronged bid for Ligue 1 and Champions League titles. Before the Brazilian, there was Zlatan Ibrahimović and Ángel Di María and Thiago Silva and Edinson Cavani and David Luiz and Lucas Moura and on and on. And PSG is the Europe-based silo of a broader effort. The 2022 World Cup is going to be held in Qatar, which took no small amount of spending, both above-board and not. (This is without mentioning the human cost of the de facto slave labor building the soccer stadiums.) The Qataris have also tried and failed to secure bids for the 2016 and 2020 Summer Olympics. You can bet they’re going to keep chasing that privilege.
When a state and the people who run that state have more discretionary funds than sense, we get a chance to measure unfettered desire in commas. How much do we want this? Watch. And we count until the numbers become meaningless.
This rainmaking is gross and poisonous and doesn’t speak well of our appetites as a species. Here’s a proposal: build a hospital. Build hospitals until we’re at hospital carrying capacity—until there are, we can all agree, too many hospitals across the globe—and then do the same thing with public housing and roads and internet cables and schools and water treatment plants. If there’s money left over, spend it on professional sports. (And don’t ever spend a cent on luxury real estate.)
Of course, that’s not how governments or rich folks or plutocracies work, so Neymar’s going to cost some $550 million, because one unfathomably wealthy family have decided he’s worth that much. Because sports matter to us that much, in more ways than we can know.