Let there be no mistake ‘tapping up’ in professional football existed long before the Football Association set down its absurd rules banning the practice; governance that is unworkable, impractical and utterly pointless in a globalised football market. Yet, Arsène Wenger once again called for the FA to amend its framework, with Arsenal’s Samir Nasri and Cesc Fabregas under the gaze of predatory rivals this summer.
Indeed, asked if he believes the pair has been tapped up this summer Wenger called on the rules to be reviewed. It is not the first time the 61-year-old manager has cried foul over more successful, financially dominant rivals chasing Arsenal’s players.
That the north London club has successfully pillaged Barcelona’s academy for Fabregas, Fran Mérida, Jon Toral, and Hector Bellerin in recent seasons is not without its irony of course. Wenger’s inconsistency has always been defined only by its consistency.
“I would like to return the question to you,” quipped the Frenchman.
“What do you think? We live in a realistic world. I do not want to assess what I cannot prove. I know how things happen. It doesn’t necessarily go through the player or the agent but I think it is a rule that has to be reviewed. It’s not really respected.”
Yet the Frenchman’s apparent hypocrisy is moot; Wenger is right that the rules on tapping up need reformation but utterly wrong that the FA needs to strengthen an outmoded philosophy. After all the rules not only patronise players but are a restriction of trade made worthless by contract law. Indeed, as Wenger has made clear this summer Arsenal need not sell Fabregas nor Nasri as each remains under contract with the Londoners until the club is prepared to release their registrations.
But legal protection proffered under contract law is made irrelevant, so say critics, because of player power, a mythical universal force that means clubs must put economics before everything else. In that Wenger’s intransigence this summer is to be admired, even if the Frenchman’s faux horror at Barcelona’s pursuit of Fabregas returns us to that word hypocrisy once again.
The need for reformation of the tapping up regulations – or, preferably, removing them entirely – is more relevant still given the globalised nature of the football market. After all, players are little more than an asset traded, not solely between clubs, but third parties and non-affiliated training academies too. These organisations, such as Desportivo Brasil with whom Manchester United has an agreement, are little more than farms for the manufacturer and export of youthful football talent.
In that context the ban on tapping up makes sense as a protectionist measure only for those institutions that are unwilling to sell but cannot retain players by any normal means, such as money, silverware, or a feel-good-factor. Arsenal, then.
This argument is moot in any case. The one successful prosecution by the FA in recent memory – that of Ashley Cole and Chelsea – was made a mockery by Arsenal’s willingness to sell the player shortly thereafter. As if Wenger delights more not in success but in the moral superiority that the former Monaco coach so often basks in.
Then there is the very real truth in Wenger’s comments – clubs need not confer directly with players that they wish to sign when football is an industry over-populated with agents, middle-men and brokers. Perhaps Wenger would prefer the phones of every licensed – or otherwise – agent tapped to ensure that his want-away players never again hear of an interested outside party.
Have Nasri and Fabregas been “tapped up” in any normal definition? Absolutely yes. Does it matter a jot? Not at all.
Of course Manchester United cried foul in 2007, reporting Real Madrid to FIFA over the Spanish giant’s incessant pursuit of Cristiano Ronaldo. Even then United relented a year later when Madrid returned with a world-record transfer bid for the Portuguese forward. Once again economics trumped the moral high-ground that Sir Alex Ferguson had claimed.
Ferguson though is ever the pragmatist. The Scot’s apparent angry promise that he would not “sell that mob a virus” hid the gentleman’s agreement that Ronaldo would eventually be allowed to leave. All that mattered at that moment was the price.
“You don’t want to [keep unhappy players] really,” said Ferguson yesterday when asked about Nasri and Fabregas.
“Cristiano Ronaldo was never unhappy at United, but he always had a thing about playing for Real Madrid and I believed him. We did well to have him for six years and getting that final year was a bonus because he was disheartened the previous summer. It could have affected him at the time, but we did well to keep him for an extra year and we got top money for him. But it’s usually the foreign players who want to get back to their nest.”
In that there is some truth where Fabregas is concerned, with the 24-year-old Catalan desperate to return ‘home’. Nasri has no intention of returning to Marseille of course as the midfielder plots a lucrative move north to Manchester City.
And there’s the rub: no FA regulation can compete with a £200,000-a-week offer. It is the same principal, if not the absolute salary, that has attracted so many youthful player’s to Arsenal from Catalonia in recent years.