Dimitri Payet and His Greater Significance

Supposedly, Dimitri Payet will return to the West Ham squad tomorrow, some six weeks ahead of schedule. Payet has been out of action since being chopped down by James McCarthy’s ugly scissor challenge in early November and Slaven Bilic’s side have been listing ever since.

So Payet’s return is good news: he is Bilic’s best player, he makes West Ham more dangerous and, as evidenced by his performances at The Emirates, The Etihad and Anfield, he is essential to the way this team tries to play against stronger sides. But beyond his technical specifics and literal worth, Payet’s recovery has a league-wide benefit. Jurgen Klopp might curse his luck that Liverpool are driving into town just as the French midfielder is leaving the treatment room, but this is a footballer who is undeniably good for the Premier League as a whole.

One of the benefits of the current - and next - broadcasting deal is obviously that it allows clubs like West Ham to attract players of Payet’s quality. It’s good for their fans and he’s exactly the sort of attraction which will help the club to fill the Olympic Stadium, but it’s important that the competition’s talent is evenly distributed - or at least more evenly distributed that it has been over the past decade.

From a competitive balance standpoint, the historic migration of the best players to same couple of clubs has been deeply tedious. It has created a haves and have nots scenario which has increasingly threatened the division’s appeal. Think of the next generation of supporters: for a child growing up in London, where - other than locality and inherited allegiance - has the attraction to West Ham been? Do youngsters in the playgrounds want to pretend to be Eden Hazard, Mesut Ozil, or Alexis Sanchez, or are they more likely to be drawn to the middle-of-the-road players who were managed by Sam Allardyce and Avram Grant?

Fans need heroes, especially younger ones. Before they’re old enough to respect the game’s traditions or its less superficial values, supporters are drawn to the players who light up Match of the Day and Goals on Sunday. Payet is one of those. He might not be in the superstar weight category, but he’s the sort of footballer who people who want to watch and has the kind of talent which is emulated on school pitches. He represents skill, dynamism, and - most importantly - excitement.

In the early 1990s, how many children saw their fondness for Eric Cantona grow into a love for Manchester United. What percentage of Arsenal’s current support owe their allegiance to Thierry Henry’s dancing feet? Chelsea and Gianfranco Zola? There are other factors involved, of course, and this may be a slight simplification, but that type of player commonly has a replenishing effect on a fanbase and they are essential to a team’s growth.

Older fans will sneer, because anyone older than twenty-five remembers a time before the game’s icon era. But this has still been a very real problem and the concentration of talent at the top of the pyramid has threatened to divide the country equally between those few clubs - and while it may take more than the odd player here and there to change that, a Dimitri Payet-type interferes with the negative momentum.

“Dad, I want to go to Upton Park - I want to watch Payet. Get me his shirt for my birthday.”

That’s very important.

Article for uMAXit: Dimitri Payet: When beautiful things get broken.