Expect at least one commentator to mention the sky-high values of the stars on display. For those who follow these things, France is the most valuable team at $1.2 billion-plus, based on the latest transfer prices. This number would be skewed by Kylian Mbappe, the French teenager of Cameroonian-Algerian origin whose explosive pace humbled mighty Argentina in the round of 16. Last year, he signed on with Paris St Germain for Euro 180 million.
That astonishing figure made him the most expensive teenager and the second-most expensive player in Europe. His histrionic club team-mate, Brazil’s Neymar, who Mbappe may or may not meet in the semi-finals, leads the table at Euro 222 million. Till Real Madrid denied the rumours Thursday, the 19-year-old striker was said to be in the running to replace Cristiano Ronaldo, the Portuguese superstar in wantaway mode following arguments over his pay package.
It may sound astounding that a 33-year-old of no significant educational qualifications can earn over Euro 400,000 a week (that’s excluding his endorsement and sponsorship deals plus franchising his own CR7 brand). But when you know that this is only the sixth highest wage in the footballing world – Messi reigns with over Euro 500,000 a week – Ronaldo’s hissy fit isn't so unreasonable.
Here's why. The exorbitant wages that clubs pay to support the extravaganza that has come to characterise the footballing lifestyle – super lavish homes, sports cars, designer labels, supermodel consorts and so on -- have earned footballers a reputation for overpaid indolence. Don’t be fooled by this defiant profligacy. They earn every penny of their millions by leading lives of iron discipline in diet, physical training and rigid daily regimens.
Ronaldo is a good example of the New Age footballer. At 33, he is at an age when most footballers used to think of hanging up their boots. But he’s at the peak of his game and vows to play till he’s 40. His regular shirtless appearances on the field testify to his splendid physical conditioning. Apart from hours on the practice pitch, he touches no alcohol, goes to bed early and eats the prescribed calorific and carb-fat-protein intake at all times, and gyms relentlessly. Since he’s short on pace at his age, he ensures that he keeps himself 2 kg below his natural weight. For this life of strict self-denial and the star performances it yields, he feels entitled to higher pay.
This, too, is one of the effects of the money that’s being poured into the Beautiful Game over the past two decades. What’s noticed most is the exponential growth in footballers' spending power and the temptations to spend – there are websites galore advising these youthful millionaires on the latest in high-end accessories (the more bling the better), mansions, cars and so on. Night clubs remain a standing problem.
Writing about the lures of night clubs and the “young ladies” who frequent them, an admiring Alex Ferguson writes in his book Leading: “It’s no accident that the best players, and the ones who play at their peak for the longest, tend to be those who can shield themselves from the demands of others. Cristiano Ronaldo was among the very best. He didn’t drink. He didn’t smoke. When he came to Manchester his mother and sister lived with him. Every now and again, he might appear in a TV advertisement or on a magazine or, during the summer break, in a Los Angeles nightclub. But don’t be deceived, Cristiano knew how to manage himself and his time.”
Don’t get me wrong, football’s stars today are no saints; but when you compare them with the yesterday’s stars they are positively angelic. Messi’s most sensational confession to date is that he occasionally eats chocolate (sweets are strictly forbidden in any athlete’s diet). Contrast this with the wild ways of some insanely talented stars of the eighties and nineties. There was Diego Maradona, whose erratic behaviour was on full display in the stands in Russia last week; long ago, he confessed to a long-standing drug problem that dogged him for most of his career and later. Paul Gascoigne, who flamed out in the 1990 World Cup, battled a serious drinking problem at the height of his powers. Socrates, the wizard Brazilian midfielder, was a heavy smoker. Manchester United’s George Best, the greatest midfielder never to play in the World Cup (he represented Norther Ireland which never qualified), regularly made the headlines for his bawdy lifestyle. As he once endearingly confessed: “I spent a lot of money on booze, birds and fast cars. The rest I just squandered.”
Today, any top-level footballer who followed their examples wouldn’t last more than a few years. With so much money riding on it, football makes demands on players that would have been alien to their immediate predecessors. The game is faster, turnouts much more frequent (including off-season travel to the emerging markets of Asia for exhibition matches) – and the expansion of the market for talent from Africa and Asia means that no serious footballer can afford the louche, undisciplined lifestyle we associate with the sport. Hell, even Suarez sought psychological therapy after his famous Chiellini Chomp of the 2014 World Cup (refresh your memory here).
So for every skilful stepover, inch-perfect pass or brilliant goal you see tonight, forget the net worth of the stars for a bit and remember that those sumptuous skills are built on the edifice of immense hard work and self-control too.
(*caveat: these are pre-tournament rankings)