Reaction Weekend

Kepa, Brexit and the art of compromise: Why it doesn’t need to end in tears

BY Simon Targett   /  1 March 2019

And so, in the end, Kepa Arrizabalaga, Chelsea’s goalkeeper, had his comeuppance, of sorts. Fined £190,000—a week’s wages—for his mutinous refusal to be substituted during a match against Manchester City on Sunday, he was left out of the team selected to face Tottenham Hotspur on Wednesday.

As anyone who follows soccer (and many who don’t) will know by now, the 24-year-old Spanish international—the world’s most expensive goalie, having been bought last year for a record-breaking £71.6 million—defied the orders of Chelsea’s coach, 60-year-old Maurizio Sarri, to come off the field. For what seemed like an age, there was the most public of stand-offs. Kepa signalled that he was fine after looking as though he was struggling with cramp. He gave the thumbs up to his boss. It might as well have been the middle finger. Seemingly apoplectic, Sarri jumped up and down like a demented toddler. With the two teams heading for a penalty shoot-out, he wanted to replace Kepa with his second-string goalie – a penalty specialist.

As the tension mounted, Sarri angrily took off towards the tunnel, as if he was going to leave the stadium in a career-defining huff. At the very last moment, he turned back, recovered his composure, and consented to let Kepa stay on the field. The young goalie had won the battle of wills.

Seasoned professionals were incredulous at Kepa’s behaviour. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” Chris Sutton, a former Chelsea striker, told listeners to BBC Radio 5 Live. “He’s a disgrace.” With a commentator’s sense of the melodramatic, he said: “That should be his last performance in a Chelsea shirt.” Gary Lineker, the Match of the Day presenter, echoed these views. “Wow. This is bonkers,” he tweeted to his 7.2 million followers. “Not sure I’ve ever seen a player refuse to be subbed. Extraordinary.”

It was certainly extraordinary. The day before, Kyle Sinckler, the England rugby prop forward described by critics as “an emotional timebomb” waiting to explode, was substituted after getting into one too many scrapes in a brutally physical Test match against Wales. Can you imagine the reaction of Eddie Jones, the team’s coach, if he had refused to come off? There would have been merry hell to pay.

In the cold light of the day, Sarri showed remarkable magnanimity. In the immediate aftermath of the match, some Chelsea fans took to Twitter to call for Kepa to be sold, after seemingly bringing the club into disrepute. But Sarri, showing the wisdom of age, found a way to defuse the situation: “We cannot kill him,” he said. “When you are young, I think you can make mistakes. The most important thing is that you need to understand very well, after every mistake. So now, for me, the issue is closed.”

If it is closed for Sarri, however, the episode opens up a debate about what it all means.

It could, as some say, signify the moment when player power finally reached its zenith. It is nearly 60 years since Jimmy Hill, one of Gary Lineker’s predecessors as Match of the Day host, successfully campaigned to abolish the salary cap, then set at £20. Now, Kepa enjoys a salary of more than £10 million a year—nearly twice the size of Sarri’s pay packet. He knows that if Chelsea were forced to sell him, he would find a well-paid job somewhere else. In other words, he is not just a player, he is also a prized commercial asset that can be bought and sold and he knows it.

Also, it could signify the moment when the norms of the next generation finally supplanted those of the older generation. Kepa is a late Millennial, and his generation cannot remember a time when there wasn’t Amazon, Google, Facebook and some kind of global economic crisis. This, say generational experts, has left them with an entrenched scepticism and a suspicion of authority, an entrepreneurial resourcefulness to take matters into their own hands, a recognition that nothing in life is for certain (especially jobs), and an impatience born of their experience with fast digital technology. By contrast, Sarri is a Baby Boomer, and his world view was formed in a very different time.

But there is another possibility. It could signify the moment when the growing trend of insubordination reached a new peak.

These days, wherever you look, there are countless instances of recalcitrance and it’s not just millionaire footballers and stroppy Millennials. You only have to watch the actions of the nation’s leaders to see how a mutinous disregard for authority has dug itself deep into our society.

Earlier this week, three cabinet ministers, writing in the Mail on Sunday, set out their position on Brexit, warning Theresa May that they would help force a delay rather than see the UK crashing out of the European Union with no deal. In doing so, they broke with decades of tradition, which states that ministers must abide by the cabinet’s collective decision or resign. Theresa May would have been perfectly within her rights to sack them. But she didn’t. A sign of weakness? Very probably. But there is another factor to consider.

It seems that something in the air—the context of our actions—has changed. Everywhere, everyone is searching for the new locus of power. The question is: Who holds the reins?

In football, it used to be the manager. Not anymore. Now, it seems, the players are really in charge. It has even been suggested that Sarri’s decision to leave Kepa on the bench was only taken after agreement with the players.

Likewise, in politics, it used to be the prime minister that ruled the roost. Again, not any more. She was powerless to sack the three ministers, and so they remain around the Cabinet table, free to sow the seeds of disaffection. The old ideas of Cabinet collective responsibility seem to have been jettisoned, at least for now. As Michael Gove, one of the leading Brexiters in the Cabinet, told The Andrew Marr Show: “We’re in a unique set of circumstances now and one can apply the sort of virility tests that used to be applied in the past, or we can seek to make progress by being open to arguments from different parts of the party.”

So who holds the reins? Ultimately, it is we, the people.

‘Twas ever thus.

“We, the People…” is the famous powerful opening phrase of the constitution of the United States. It marked the moment when the people living on the eastern seaboard of north America pressed the reset button. They wanted to reclaim control of their destiny.

It was a rebalancing process that has taken place around the world and across the ages time and time again. And it is happening once more today.

The Brexit referendum is a classic case. In the years before the vote in June 2016, more powers had been appropriated by central government. Given the rare opportunity to voice their opinion in a one-off plebiscite, the people used the ballot box to launch a very British rebellion. It was a poke in the eye for the elites who had taken them for granted for too long.

Now, political leaders are busily trying to work out if they have a popular mandate. Not for a long time has there been such a buzz about democracy, sovereignty, and where real power really resides. Mrs May is constantly talking about “the will of the British people”. Individual MPs are wrestling with their role in parliament on a daily basis: are they representatives or delegates? Earlier this week, David Lammy, Labour’s MP for Tottenham, was clear in his view: “I will do my duty to represent the UK’s best interests,” he tweeted, “not act as an unthinking delegate.” And the calls for Brexit to be referred back to the people through a People’s Vote do not go away.

Meanwhile, for those who do think they have found the locus of power – and thus a mandate – the discovery can be liberating. It is striking how outspoken Tom Watson, Labour’s deputy leader, has become in the past few weeks. This is partly because he does not owe his position to the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn. He was voted into the office by 200,000 of the Labour Party faithful. That gives him the same kind of power as a millionaire footballer in the dressing room of a Premier League club.

Indeed, in its own way, the Kepa case is a classic case of the rebalancing process that is taking place, albeit on a smaller scale. It is an instance of the individual thumbing his nose at those ostensibly in power, knowing that, if he played his hand right, he could rely on the support of the crowd. As it turned out, Kepa probably overplayed his hand, and his fellow players responded, siding with the beleaguered coach hence his fine and exclusion from the team.

Of course, such insubordination cannot be a normal state of affairs in a healthy society or a smooth-running organisation. It is a dynamic for effecting reform and change, but eventually things must settle down. There has to be compromise. People have to agree on a way forward.

At Chelsea, this healing process seems to be underway. By excluding Kepa, Sarri said he was trying to send a “message” that “we are a group and not 25 players”. You may be the most expensive goalie on the planet, but you’re still one of the team, and you, like everyone else, need to work together towards a common goal. But after the message was delivered, he deemed it time to move on.

In the political world, the healing process has not yet begun. But sooner or later, compromise will happen. It is, thankfully, the way of the world.


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