Home Opinion and Features Now football stars must prove they really are worth it

Now football stars must prove they really are worth it

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In the post-coronavirus world, money has to go further, money has to work harder and, more than ever, high maintenance must be earned

Mesut Ozil is noticeably high maintenance, says the writer. File picture

THE CORONAVIRUS, we are often reminded, may not greatly affect the young, fit and healthy. That doesn’t mean it won’t have its casualties in the world of sport.

Financial, mainly. Mesut Ozil’s contract with Adidas, for instance. That’s a coronavirus statistic, right there. When the decision makers in Herzogenaurach, the company headquarters in Bavaria, got around to making calls on short-term monetary commitments, the £2.5 million annually paid to Ozil was considered unnecessary.

It wasn’t just that his star was waning as a professional performer. Ozil is noticeably high maintenance. He has fallen out with his Chinese fan base – albeit on a point of principle – he has retired from international football, he is a very public ally of Turkey’s repressive president Recip Tayyip Erdogan and he was singled out as a player who would not work amicably with his club to cut costs in the midst of economic crisis.

Arsenal have hardly covered themselves in glory since. They have terminated the contracts of youth scouts earning roughly £200 a week. Even so, Ozil’s intransigence on a £300 000 weekly salary – plus some rather unhelpful, self-serving statements from his agent – was not a good look at the time the country was plunging into recession.

Ozil later gave £80 000 to Turkish Red Crescent but by then the damage was done – Adidas sniffed the air and terminated accordingly.

Gareth Bale has a similar endorsement contract and won admirers across Europe with a £1 million donation split between hospitals in Wales and Spain. Plus, he is by all accounts easy to work with. Bale might have his struggles at Real Madrid but his sponsors say he is a willing and trouble-free partner. In the post-coronavirus world, this matters. Money has to go further. Money has to work harder. More than ever, high maintenance must be earned.

It is no shock, then, that another early casualty of changed circumstances is Mario Balotelli, whose time at Brescia looks to be over after one season.

“I think we both made a mistake,” said owner Massimo Cellino, whose club are bottom of Serie A, nine points adrift of safety.

It could be argued that Cellino is the ownership equivalent of Balotelli: erratic, unpredictable and those who believe they can change him become swiftly disillusioned. Cellino bought Balotelli after Brescia won promotion last season, in the hope he could blossom by returning to the city that was his home from the age of two.

Brescia have a 20-year-old midfielder, Sandro Tonali, who is touted as the next Andrea Pirlo, and has been linked with Juventus, Barcelona and Tottenham. Balotelli was considered the perfect foil for him.

Just five goals later, it has not gone to plan. Racist abuse during matches against Verona and Lazio have contributed to a miserable campaign, and now Cellino has publicly accused Balotelli of missing training sessions.

“You tell him one thing and he does another,” he said. “He no longer has his mind with us. I’m taking his departure for granted.”

Cellino’s own practices will not have helped – coach Diego Lopez is now the third of the season – and Balotelli deserves sympathy for the treatment he has received from some fans, but once again, in a reshaped financial landscape, this is about gaps in cost efficiency.

Managing Balotelli’s inconsistencies are not worth the effort. The value Cellino thought the striker would bring to Brescia was absent and any appetite for a drain on time and resources quickly evaporated. The hit from coronavirus was the final straw.

The actions of individuals through this crisis will come to define them once we emerge on the other side. It was the reason Victoria Beckham hastily reversed her decision to furlough staff, the reason Liverpool did, too.

Both have images and carefully honed brands to protect. They do not want to be associated with the bad boys of Covid-19: Richard Branson, Mike Ashley, Dominic Cummings.

Just as the actions of Manchester United, and individuals such as Marcus Rashford and Harry Kane, will be remembered, so too will all those who were exposed as selfish or reckless or unfeeling. This was already a judgmental society, and coronavirus has made it worse.

Ozil’s ambassadorial worth, Balotelli’s homecoming, were high-end items in a world that is increasingly marking down. It was 1971 when L’Oreal first told its customers ‘Because you’re worth it’. From here, you really have to be.

– Daily Mail