It only took one sentence to make me realise I had made a big mistake.
Myself and another journalist had been flown to the World Football Summit in Madrid at the very kind behest of Avery Dennison to cover their talk on ‘The Intersection of Football Culture, Fashion On and Off the Field and the Future of Football Apparel’.
Two days in the 30°C sun of Madrid and only one event to cover. Glorious.
Well, not quite. Unfortunately, my editor requested I, y’know, do some actual work given there would be a host of the leading industry names in attendance: Juventus chairman Andrea Agnelli, La Liga president Javier Tebas, directors of LA Galaxy, Seattle Sounders and Marseille, and absolutely loads of important-looking men in suits.
I, on the other hand, looked and felt somewhat dishevelled, having awoken at 3am to fly to the Spanish capital from Luton on the morning of the Summit’s opening day.
Despite not being required at the talk until the evening, we were taken straight from the airport to what appeared to be the kind of complex you get on the outskirts of English cities. You know the ones, the kind of thing which combines a cinema with a ski slope, restaurants with a sports centre.
My friends and I used to go to one near Castleford called Xscape. It was shit, but it was one of the few places we could get served flat lager underage.
— World Football Summit (@WFootballsummit) September 28, 2018
With my editor’s words still imprinted on my sleepy brain, I decided to walk straight past the squash court and into an industry talk about how to engage a global football community on Facebook. That should please him.
It was chaos trying to get into the ‘main stage’. People were rushing out of the keynote speech by Agnelli, many carry TV cameras and expensive equipment. A small, moustachioed Spanish man berated anybody trying to get in at the same time.
I quickly had the chance to ask a woman handing out translation devices whether I would need one for the next talk. She looked me up and down, shrugged, and said I should be okay, at which point the angry old man grabbed me and urgently ushered me into a big cinema/conference room.
Before long, delegates from Atletico Madrid and Real Betis had taken to the stage. I’m not exactly sure what the first sentence was, but it certainly wasn’t in English. Admittedly, I struggled with Spanish at college, but I’m fairly certain it was, as the locals call it, Español.
After a face-saving 10 minutes or so of looking interested, it was time to swallow my pride and sheepishly head for the exit. My journalistic instinct kicked back in; it was time to leave the Summit and go for a beer.
There was, of course, a bar at the opposite end of the complex, back past the squash court and bowling alleys. Mindful of remaining professional, I only ordered a small cerveza.
In Madrid, ‘working’. #lufc
(In case my editor reads this, I would just like to stress that I am actually working, honest.) pic.twitter.com/MKykSyYgpX
— Rob Conlon (@RobConlon25) September 25, 2018
Hazily daydreaming in the Spanish sun, I began to pick up on the conversation on the adjacent table. A Dutch man, possibly in his mid-40s but looking trim, in good shape and not too dissimilar to Johan Cruyff, was chatting to two men who were eager to make an impression on their companion.
My interest was piqued when it became apparent the Dutchman was working on behalf of an Eredivisie club, hoping to arrange a transfer for a young Mexican player seemingly represented by the Hispanic gentleman opposite, apparently connected to a Liga MX outfit. The third man appeared to be acting as a mediator.
Transfers are meant to be negotiated in shady boardrooms only lit by moonlight, or using burner phones and dodgy fax machines. They’re not meant to be brokered over a cheese toastie and Coca-Cola outside a glorified leisure centre.
Among the many lines which stood out came the Dutch agent’s encouragement of why the Netherlands is the ideal destination for young players. “They will come, they will play often, they will look great because the league is poor and then they will be sold for a lot of money.”
He even went as far as to suggest that the Dutch league, aside from the clubs competing in the Champions League, is on a whole weaker than Liga MX.
English fans are already wary of the Eredivisie after a number of high-profile flops have arrived from the competition, but there is also the possibility that said agent was just trying to flatter his Mexican counterpart.
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Among the other titbits which caught my attention, our Cruyff lookalike also claimed that he encouraged a number of Dutch clubs to sign a young Paulo Dybala after spotting the forward representing Argentina in a youth tournament, only for Eredivisie sides to come to the conclusion that the player was too small.
Dybala eventually moved to Palermo before earning a big-money transfer to Juventus, where he has won three consecutive Scudettos.
The following day, I ended the Summit by attending a talk from Vosse de Boode, Ajax’s head of sports science, on the ‘big data’ the club uses to analyse their own players and discover potential transfer targets.
One comment in particular chimed with what I had outside the bar, as De Boode compared Ajax’s transfer policy to buying a nice pair of leather shoes.
“We like leather shoes because leather gets more beautiful over time. That’s basically what Ajax do. We get a beautiful player but then spend some more time with him and he gets better.”
Perhaps the Dutch agent was just being brutally honest after all.
Either way, the next time I get sent to such an event – if, indeed, there is a next time – at least I might be able to convince my editor that going for a beer is the secret to investigative journalism.
By Rob Conlon
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We can’t unhear this now.