The Manhattan Transfer

Over the past three years, I’ve become a big fan of European football, aka soccer, following the major leagues in England, Spain, and elsewhere, especially my beloved FC Barcelona. As a newcomer to this kind of fandom, I’m continually bemused by the sheer volume and breathless tenor of commentary around “the transfer window”, i.e., the two times of the year when teams can buy and trade players. Things can get very complicated because you’re trading across international lines, and often until the very last minute of “Deadline Day,” which was this past Monday. The big news of Deadline Day was Mesut Ozil, a German of Turkish extraction, moving from Real Madrid in Spain to Arsenal in London. My passport hurts just thinking about that! Not to mention my wallet: pounds, euros, dollars – the figures are reported multiple and confusing ways.

What’s interesting is how the hype machine processes trades, and how the “right” or “wrong” decisions can shape how teams are perceived in the local and international media, and how much leeway managers, particularly new ones, have to find their way. This has been a season of unusually high managerial turnover at the major clubs, the biggest of which was David Moyes succeeding Sir Alex Ferguson after 26 years at Manchester United. That’s right, one manager led that club for twenty-six years. Imagine the expectations for the new guy! The succession was scrutinized all summer, more so because there weren’t games to talk about. Since the league only starts up in late August, the media and fans judge managers early on in the season through their team’s activity in the transfer window. Never mind that there’s usually a general manager-type figure who makes personnel decisions, it’s the coach/manager who takes the blame for transfer activity perceived to be subpar.

For the last several years, Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger, an impossibly urbane and dignified Frenchman who favors tailored grey suits and an Arsenal-red tie, has been pilloried for his lack of boldness in the transfer window. Arsenal, one of the richest clubs in the Premier League, based in North London, as recently as ten years ago had an undefeated season. But the “Invincibles” of 2004-05 were the last Arsenal side to bring home a trophy, and the pressure on Wenger has grown with each passing year. Missing out on a big signing during successive transfer windows has eaten away at his reputation. Unlike other major clubs that rack up the debt in pursuit of trophies, Arsenal’s management – including Wenger – have been fiscally prudent, content with being a consistently playoff-caliber club with a clean balance sheet. But its fans expect more, they remember the Invincibles.

Finally, this year, Wenger and Arsenal made that longed-after big signing. On Deadline Day, they swooped in for Ozil, one of the stars of the 2010 World Cup and still only 24, his best years ahead of him. The reaction on social media and in the football press was sudden and raucous. Momentum was Arsenal’s at last. And this was the day after they beat their North London rivals Tottenham Hotspur on the road. From also-rans to top of the class in the course of a long weekend.

What I’m getting at is the power of talent to shape expectations, and the importance of managing the narrative – particularly when the story you have to tell goes beyond what gets reported in the press or discussed on social media. We’re really not good at this in philanthropy. A while back, I wondered what the “political arts” might be, and how foundations can learn from them. Shaping the narrative has to be one of those arts. The infrastructure of comment in philanthropy is nowhere near as developed as the football press, but word still travels fast. I’ll be watching Wenger this season as Ozil integrates into the side, and thinking about talent, narrative, and momentum.

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