Kepa and Sarri are actors in the soap opera of football social media | Marina Hyde


Even by the standards of non-apology apologies, Kepa Arrizabalaga’s first effort to address The Unpleasantness during Sunday’s League Cup final refined an art form. Politicians everywhere should draw inspiration from the Chelsea keeper, whose decision to decline to be substituted by Maurizio Sarri is regarded by some as the harbinger of Britain’s complete social breakdown (more on that possibility later).

First, though, to events at Wembley Stadium. As Kepa put it in a statement issued in the immediate wake of the action: “I regret how the end of the match has been portrayed.” As always with these passive formulations, one is left to surmise who or what is the subject of the verb. In this case, given the verb in question is “portrayed” and the events in question were taking place on the medium of live television, delivered in real time via multiple camera angles, the subject of the verb is basically “your own eyes”. Kepa is accusing your own eyes of stitching him up.

In some ways, this apology template is simply a new and improved version of apologising to “anyone who may have been offended”. The latter classic formulation also suggests the entire thing is somehow the fault of the offendee, who has taken an active decision to lose their shit – a decision that the bigger person is now wearily having to deal with.

However – and inevitably, perhaps – the above turned out not to be Kepa’s last apology on the subject. Late on Monday night, a formal Chelsea statement was forthcoming, in which the £71m keeper took another run at the situation. “I have thought a lot more about yesterday’s events,” this asserted. “Although there was a misunderstanding, on reflection, I made a big mistake with how I handled the situation.” Now you tell us. The news comes as something of a guilt trip for those of us who had already sent our own eyes to bed with no supper for their inaccurate portrayal.

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The wider issue, of course – and there must always be a wider issue! – is what Sunday’s drama of insubordination means for football. Does the game’s Doomsday Clock stand at two minutes from anarchy? Should dissenting players be keelhauled, as pirate mutineers once were, but which would now involve being dragged beneath and round the chassis of a Bugatti Chiron (quite a squeeze)? There seems to be a developing consensus in some quarters that footballers are these days multimillion-pound corporations, whose power and private staff will eventually relegate all managers to junior personnel.

I have some sympathy with the notion that managers are not quite what they used to be. But blaming it all on player power seems to look the wrong way, when the players too are grist to much bigger mills.

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The brilliant film writer David Thomson (a lifelong Chelsea supporter, as it happens) has written interestingly of what happened to footballers once the game became primarily a televised spectacle, and particularly since the technical innovations and multiple camera angles that the likes of Sky have brought. Long ago the stadium fans were a player’s only audience, but elite footballers now “know they are part of a system of close-ups and slow-motion”. Hugely performative goal celebrations would have been regarded as bad taste in the past; today they are what the medium demands. Players have become far more theatrical to adapt to the small screens via which they are mostly seen – and so have managers, as Sarri’s operatic gesticulations on Sunday also demonstrated.


Chelsea’s Maurizio Sarri: Kepa substitution row a ‘misunderstanding’ – video

Even were it not so bound up with the big money, that specific consciousness of oneself as a TV star arguably made footballers more individualistic and less bound by the sense of subservience to a team. Furthermore, the marketers’ attempts to reach and ensnare vast global audiences has deliberately exacerbated the notion of football as a dramatic TV show rather than “merely” a sport. Plotlines are spoken of and personal rivalries played up in a fashion once the preserve of soap opera.

But football is no longer just a TV event; it is now a social media one, too. Executives at leading clubs speak unabashedly of “content”, which might be actual football, but might equally be some made‑for‑Instagram stunt. The biggest club brands consider themselves to be in the entertainment industry.

To an extent we have yet to fully understand, we have all been corrupted by the mediums via which we mostly experience football – first television, but now social media. And increasingly, we all collude in our own corruption. The Sarri-Kepa bust-up was widely reviewed as the most watchable two and a half minutes of Sunday’s final – and you could tell this, because people were lighting up social media with the observation. You don’t get that with 30 minutes of serviceable but uneventful play – much to the disappointment of the various platforms, whose business model relies on drama. In as turbo-capitalist an environment as top‑flight football, then, you have to assume the market will instinctively adapt and provide this type of content more and more. There are plenty of modern football executives who will privately admit that a killer clip is more important than any match for driving global fan engagement and value for their sponsors.

Perhaps this is why Chelsea as a club feels able to “move past” the histrionics of Sunday. It might have been a headache for the manager, but he’s only at best a supporting actor. For the big studio moneymen, that two-and-a-half-minute clip was an excellent day at the office. Drama – and it doesn’t really matter what sort – is always a great result.



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