I have a thing, it would seem, for diacritics. I wrote my A-Level History dissertation, with possibly annoying precociousness, on nationalism in Tito’s Yugoslavia, and have produced a fair amount of prose on the work of Slovenian psychoanalyst-philosopher-provocateur Slavoj Žižek. Now, for the first WC2014 post on an individual player, I’m going to look at Bosnia and Herzegovina centre forward Edin Džeko. (As with Žižek, the caron turns the ‘z’ into a ‘j’, although to describe it in that way is not fully respectful to the fact that the Czech, Slovak, Slovenian, Croatian and Bosnian alphabets – not to mention the Latinised versions of the Serbian, Montenegrin and Macedonian ones! – treat ‘Ž’ as a unique character. Let this put paid to any suspicion that we don’t do our research.)
Philological points of concern aside, Džeko has just, in a rather unlikely fashion, won the English Premier League title for Manchester City. City spent a miniscule amount of the season in pole position, lingering in a minatory, yet obscure, way over the shoulders of Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal, before loping into the lead over the final few weeks. While the press during the earlier part of their campaign had focused on the success of the Hispanophone strike partnership of Sergio Aguero and Alvaro Negredo, it was the big Bosnian – as the tabloids invariably call him – who scored the goals that pulled the oil-fuelled Mancunians over the line. In a manner which one could almost describe as ‘quiet’, he claimed 26 in all competitions, including an impressive 16 in the league, placing him just behind Aguero and Wayne Rooney in the top scorers’ chart.
On paper, Džeko comes across as a little atavistic in the age of strikerless systems and general tactocratic pretension. He’s one of the biggest centre forwards at the top end of the Premier League at 6’ 4”, and it would be fair to say that a considerable amount of his game relies on his imposing presence. However, he started playing as a midfielder, and demonstrates decent footwork under pressure and the imagination to create for teammates: he’s clearly not a Sarajevan Ian Ormondroyd, as this video of his goals from the 2012-2013 season proves.
The story of Džeko’s career looks, from some angles, like a romance. Beginning at hometown club Željezničar, he struggled to make an impression in Bosnia, but was signed out of the blue by Czech side FK Teplice, where he was reinvented as a striker. After a loan spell at Ústí nad Labem, he gradually hit form, making such an impression on the Czech league that he was signed by Wolfsburg in 2007. He contributed 26 goals to the Saxon side’s first ever Bundesliga title in 2009, and became one of those players who finds themselves the subject of constant speculation about a move to the Premier League. This came in 2011 – arguably, the Džeko rumours had been brewing so long that most in England had forgotten he existed by the time he arrived – when Roberto Mancini paid the best part of thirty million pounds for him. It has the contours of a classic rags-to-riches tale.
To treat it as such, though, would be to subject some of the realities of twenty-first century European football to a mystification. Džeko’s tale might be, in a rose-tinted version, heart-warming, but it shouldn’t be universalised and turned into a Central European sporting rewrite of The Ugly Duckling – lumbering midfielder is recognised as incipiently brilliant striker, goes on to succeed. No, the truth is that Džeko is the member of football’s postmodern precariat who actually has made it.
Now, there always has been a certain amount of precarity in football, regardless of what the common bêtise – in which all players make millions and drive fast cars – tells you. In the fifties, top flight players in England used to learn trades to see them through the summers; in the eighties, English players who weren’t making it at home would knock on doors in Ireland, Norway, Iceland and Australia looking for a game. But since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent opening up of the EU, there’s been far more fluidity of movement within Europe. This isn’t to say that the precariat is solely composed of European players: I was trying on boots in Peckham recently and the West African guy buying a more professional pair beside me was heading off for a trial in Poland the next day. It’s more that Europe’s relatively relaxed borders, concentration of geographically proximate league systems, and the comparative depth – in terms of levels at which you can make money by playing – of those systems creates a set-up conducive to the development of a large pool of precarious or reserve labour.
I wrote a review of The Nowhere Men, Michael Calvin’s excellent book on scouting, last summer, and one of the things Calvin captures really well is the extent to which this precariat has grown over the last decade or so. This would seem to match, with somewhat uncanny similarity, the casualisation that has afflicted many aspects of work in Europe since the beginning of the financial crisis. For every Edin Džeko, there are forty Bosnian or Albanian hopefuls wandering around the lower-league clubs of Cyprus or the Balearics, hoping to get a chance simply to make a living with their boots. These are the players who remind you that, for the most part, football is little more than a trade with an internal economy which works much like that of any other.
On these terms, Džeko is either a hero of the precariat or the success story who blinds the public to the plight of players who make similar attempts to spark their careers by looking internationally and get stuck on the breadline. If he scores for his nation in the coming tournament, it might be worth pausing for a moment to think about the pros for whom circumstance has made them desperate just to get a trial and, beyond that, the way that current ideology tends to disguise precarity behind one or two implausible triumphs.
Posted by Joe Kennedy