Worth and value, marketing and money … and players

What are you worth?

What is your value?

How susceptible to marketing trickery are you?

Now how do you feel about players as they negotiate with the club that you support?

Four seemingly unrelated questions are all intertwined in the wild, tribal, megamillions world of money that isn’t ours. In a famous line from the unspeakably silly movie “Wall Street,” Charlie Sheen says to Michael Douglas, “Never get emotional over money.” Yet we do every day, huffing and sighing, following every move of a negotiation or transfer rumor, but it all comes down to those four questions.

Some of the same people who cheer for oppressed workers as they battle an evil company go to Football Twitter and rail against some young talent seeking the best deal for himself. What’s the difference, except for scale? It’s two groups, each working to establish their value in the context of what they’re worth, and both are ephemeral notions when you get right down to it.

Let’s first establish that no player is worth what they are being paid. “Only 10m, right?” For kicking around a football. Come on, now. Yes, you’re really good at it, but come on. Accomplishments, marketing and agents make us think they match their value. It’s magic.

Worth is defined by the market, value by … well … who the hell knows? It’s a psychological construct based on want and need. I sold an old — okay, “vintage” Subaru World Rally Team winter jacket for more than I paid for it. It was at least 20 years old, and it was going on the donation pile until my wife said, “Hey, that might be worth something to someone.” How ’bout that?

As workers, just like players, we occasionally change jobs so that we can reestablish our worth, aka what the market will pay for us. Value has an effect on worth in that it’s what we can do. “I’m the only one who can do this job” is worthless in trying to establish your value if there are in fact 4,324 people who can also perform that job. A colleague reestablished their value by getting an offer from a competitor that was more than 20k over their current salary. At matching that number, that person’s worth was reestablished, and so was their value. Without the idea of their value, they wouldn’t have been worth that number.

Now let’s look at a top-flight footballer at a big club. You are one of a fractionally tiny number of people who can do what you do. The more dynamic your physical skills, the more that number shrinks. And you use that situation for leverage, both against a current employer, but also a prospective one.

When Lionel Messi left Barcelona, he could have gone anywhere in the world. Paris St. Germain wanted him the most because his value to them was even higher than his actual worth. As a thirtysomething footballer with clearly diminishing skills who is likely to treat his day job as a side hustle, his worth isn’t all that high. But as a symbol for a club, an aspirant to the topmost level of world club football, there isn’t really a number that would correspond to his value. PSG couldn’t possibly pay him enough, in that context.

Now look at Ousmane Dembele. He’s a two-footed, dynamic playmaker who runs like a gazelle, can create, passes brilliantly and can score goals. And any argument with that description isn’t based in reality. He is still one of the most talented wing attackers in world football, a unique kind of player in the modern game.

What’s he worth? And what’s his value?

As he negotiates with FC Barcelona, a process that appears to be at its conclusion, he through his agent has a theoretical value, based on skill set, accomplishments and potential. They then look around the game, similar players and other salaries, assign a number and say, “Start here.” At that point the club can say, “Whooo, Lord, hell no,” and move on, or “Let’s talk more.”

What’s the value that the club has placed on Dembele? Well, we know it’s higher than the one supporters have placed on him by their tactics, which seem to consist of a series of leaks, all designed to in effect make the player seem greedy and ungrateful. And it’s all worked. People are horrified by the rumored numbers, even as they are unconfirmed. They are looking to keep him because they understand his value. It’s worth that’s under debate right now.

But why? If you look around world football, who offers, even in the form of vaporware, what Dembele does? In that context, what’s his value, and how might he define his worth in a simple transactional debate that is two entities looking to get the best deal they can? Leave all of the other crap out of it and just manage that question.

Ah. Here’s where the marketing comes in, and the boondoggle. We identify with the club. We might be for the working man in all instances except this one. Barça has successfully sold the idea that it’s a wee club, run on a shoestring out of a squat stone masia somewhere in Catalunya. FC Barcelona is in fact a multinational corporation based in Catalunya. Its worth, defined by Forbes, is almost EUR5bn. FC Barcelona is, by any standard, The Man. And The Man can afford to pay, right?

Not when it comes to a willowy young Frenchman looking to get the best deal that he can.

But what about a young Norwegian fond of knocking footballs into nets? As the club contemplates a pursuit of this hunk of meat, what’s that value? All we know is “Boy, howdy, that lad can knock some balls into a net, and my team needs that.” But still. What’s his value? The club just paid almost 60m for a 9/winger who is nowhere near as laudable or theoretically capable as young Mr. Haaland, whose value will be described in eye-popping sums by his agent, Mino Raiola. His worth will be what some club pays, but can his value ever be worth what that club pays? Now here’s the fun part:

Haaland and Dembele, each in their own context, have a worth that is about as high, in the context of the field in which they work. Both are players with a rare ability, even in the topmost fraction of that percent that are elite-level footballers. That’s just reality. Dembele is playing hardball because he knows his value and worth already, or he would have renewed with FC Barcelona. Haaland is about to discover his value and worth.

Back when Barça was bending over in the chase for the De Twins, De Jong and De Ligt, I wrote something for The Athletic saying that it wasn’t worth it, and explained why.

Boy, did I get mail.

And in the here and now, where are we? And my calculus hadn’t even included Pedri, Nico and Gavi. The club determined that De Jong’s value and worth were much higher than some nerd banging on a keyboard in Chicago. Forwards and wingers are different than mids. There are plenty of mids. There aren’t many forwards who can run like the wind, or strikers who can make goals from nothing. Their value and worth are both astronomical.

Let’s say Haaland moves for EUR100m. What’s his salary? Don’t think it’s going to be what some newly promoted Masia kid makes. Nah. It’s going to be what one of the biggest talents in the game should make. I would also wager it’s about what Dembele is in fact asking for. Purely as a fiscal calculation, is the price worth paying? For either one of them. Leave aside the “injured all the time, unprofessional” stuff that we’ve been sold as part of the marketing and negotiating agenda behind the scenes.

Haaland and Dembele are worth it, because both are difference-making players. Yes, one has an eye-popping injury history. That isn’t going to matter a whit to the club that picks him up, because players like that don’t come along all that often. Same with Haaland. All the rest is semantics and susceptibility to bullshit. Accomplishments don’t even matter completely because every club, every manager sees possibility, and what’s that worth?

What someone will pay.

What’s really fun is that you, me, we are all Haaland and Dembele. Looking for a new job? You’re Haaland, trying to convince someone that you’re worth what you’re asking, and your value will prove your worth. Asking for a raise? You’re Dembele, raising your value equation to define your worth. And the boss is FC Barcelona, now and forever.

The reason it doesn’t matter to me what Haaland, or Dembele, or Araujo, or Gavi, or anybody else seeks is not only because it’s not my money, but because I’m just not tribal in that way. I can’t be. There aren’t many jobs where going to work can end your career. I’m not a paper cut away from being out of journalism. One wrong step and a player is done. So get that paper if you can, because it ain’t mine. And you’re worth what you can get someone to pay. Your value? We’ll see about that on match day.