On Peaking: The Life Course of a Footballer

Paul Giamatti in Sideways (2004)

There’s a scene in Alexander Payne’s oenophilic film Sideways in which Miles (Paul Giamatti) and Maya (Virginia Madsen), the forlorn lovers who set the romantic action of the plot, discuss the life of a bottle of wine. Miles, a balding, forty-something English teacher-cum-writer still reeling over a long-since-past divorce, is staring, entranced, as Maya explains her fascination. “I like how it continues to evolve, like if I opened a bottle of wine today it would taste different than if I’d opened it on any other day, because a bottle of wine is actually alive. And it’s constantly evolving and gaining complexity. That is, until it peaks, like your ’61. And then it begins its steady, inevitable decline.” The 1961 Cheval Blanc is Payne’s allegory for the existential predicament of aging – the viewer is left musing over questions of mortality and the degeneration of identity. Miles, in particular, is afraid that he’s already peaked, and that his best years are behind him. “I’m a smudge of excrement on a tissue surging out to sea with a million tons of raw sewage.”

Excusing the hackneyed analogy, soccer players, like wines, perform on a trajectory. They begin as impetuous youngsters, brimming with potential, uncontrolled and rough-edged. Undrinkable, at least for the time being. Their qualities steadily improve through the months and years, gaining complexity and refinement, until they are appraised to have reached the heights of excellence. Some time later, the descent into mediocrity begins, each year becoming blander than the last.

Here’s the rub: How do we know when a player has peaked?

For wine connoisseurs, the task is simple. Instead of buying one bottle of wine, buy an entire case. Sample the product at regular intervals (say, two bottles a year), noting changes in flavor and aroma. The wine has peaked when one bottle isn’t any better than the previous one. Managers would do well to apply this logic to soccer. Unfortunately, footballers don’t come in packs of twelve (although one can’t help to imagine a collectible carton of Wayne Rooneys, each with a unique transplanted hairstyle). Buyers only have one chance to gather returns on their products. Uncork too early and the wine is flavorless. Open too late and it’s flat. Finding the ideal window is an alchemical endeavor, requiring a mixture of intense scouting, guesswork, and blind luck. It’s a gamble that sometimes pays off beautifully, but more often wreaks havoc on a club’s transfer market aspirations.

Take Guardiola’s Barcelona. Renowned for their visage of La Masia-cultivated talent, the blaugrana nonetheless consistently rank among the world’s most lucrative spenders. And as brilliant as they are at creating players, they’re decidedly average at buying them. For every shrewd, bargain-bin Pique purchase, there’s a 25 million Euro Dmytro Chygrynskiy catastrophe.

Hleb kissing the Barcelona crest, 2008

In 2008, Barcelona purchased Alexander Hleb from Arsenal for a fee of 15 million Euros plus incentives, not a small wad of cash given the circumstances. Aged 27, Hleb seemed ripe fruit to Barcelona, ready for picking, but their evaluation was wrong. After 36 appearances (primarily as a substitute) in all competitions, the Belarusian could claim no goals to his name. Wine gone to vinegar. He’s currently playing for relegated Birmingham City, no doubt desperate for Stuttgart (or Arsenal) to rescue him from the second division.

Keirrison arrived in 2009. Barca rated him highly because of his prolific strike rate in the Brazilian top flight, and despite his youth, they met Palmeiras’ steep valuation. If nothing else, he was supposed to be a long-term replacement for the departed Samuel Eto’o. Instead, he spent two years on loan at three different clubs, never playing more than a speculative role (until his return to Brazil for Santos). A young bottle opened early – unpalatable.

Granted, two mistakes like these seem trivial when one remembers they were made by a club who earned two European trophies and three league crowns in that time span. In reality, we soccer fans love to debate the capriciousness of the transfer market and the fickleness of owners. We also savor moments when we can conclusively evaluate a player’s met or unmet potential. It’s a hobby unto itself, enriched through time, above and beyond watching the game on television. But it’s a dangerous avocation for cash-happy clubs willing to pay top shelf prices for bottles with a dubious vintage.

The premium, these days, is not on performance, but on potential. Pastore. Sanchez. Neymar. Young, talented, but unrefined. Yes, they may one day become all-stars, but for now they’re simply good players on average teams. And in this summer’s transfer rumor mill, each is valued higher than treble-winner Wesley Sneijder. A wine enthusiast would scoff at paying more for an unaged bottle of wine than one known to be at its peak, so why should untested players be revered as much as they are? What happens if Neymar’s arrival in Europe is too early, for instance, and the whole affair is spoiled?

The footballer’s career is as temperamental as it is ephemeral, which makes the spectacle of any player reaching world-class repute that much more astonishing. Unfortunately, as time passes, more and more big name clubs (and, increasingly, many smaller ones) are spending large on prospective quality. Rating on potential may be instructive, but investing too much in the hope of what may follow can distract from the promise of what has already come. It’s the same cynical awareness that had Miles drinking his ’61 Cheval Blanc out of a Styrofoam cup with a fast-food hamburger. Today’s clubs would do well to avoid such an oversight.

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