Red flags, red flags, red flags.
Over the coming month, Saido Berahino’s future will likely be resolved. The January transfer-window opens tomorrow morning and West Brom, Jeremy Peace, and Tony Pulis will have to decide whether their principles are valuable enough to continue blocking the forward’s departure. In retrospect, Peace’s very public, very emotional response to Tottenham Hotspur’s Summer approach for the player was probably a reaction to the manner in which it was conducted rather than the prospect of Berahino actually leaving. Daniel Levy is an abrasive negotiator who isn’t known for tact or his diplomacy and there was at least a hint of capital arrogance to the low-ball figures published in the media and to Spurs’ public declaration of interest.
Four months later, the situation is less ambiguous. Berahino’s attitude has supposedly deteriorated, his contract is a year-and-a-half away from expiration, and Tottenham are still in need of a utility forward who can both complement and support Harry Kane.
The smart money has him at White Hart Lane before February.
This is not an under-discussed topic: Football365’s Nick Miller suggested this morning that, immature as the player has been, his manager could perhaps have done more to draw the heat from this situation. That’s probably right. Pulis has snarked in public and chiseled at Berahino’s reputation quite willingly and at times it has appeared as if the veteran manager has been quite vengeful. Maybe Berahino deserves it and maybe, in time, the semi-public derision he’s suffered will serve as a valuable reference point. For the talented, football can sometimes come across as a consequenceless world in which nothing is out of reach for those who are willing to sulk, but in this instance that hasn’t been the case. Berahino’s stock has been damaged and whether he gets his transfer or not, his career and his reputation will need rehabilitating.
Other articles have been written with a more troubling tone. References have been made to his clumsy grammar on social media and the standing army of good ol’ boy British managers have been free and willing to throw Berahino under the bus. He’s trouble. He’s just another ugly product of the game’s age of avarice and his self-entitlement is an irritating symptom of what the sport has been allowed to become.
But, flimsy as this will sound, doesn’t football have a responsibility to examine its own part in this affair? If we are to accept that his behaviour is the by-product of money and of the many precedents which probably emboldened his stand against his club, doesn’t it follow that he should be allowed the opportunity to redeem himself? As tired an excuse as it is, this is a young man and there’s no greater certainty in life than young men making rash, foolish mistakes and being animated to do so by those around them or by erroneously held convictions.
West Bromwich Albion’s fans will shake their head - and they’re probably entitled to. Their team gave Berahino his opportunity in the Premier League and they shouldn’t have had to tolerate what they have. That’s quite right. Clubs are too often the victims in this situation and there’s nothing more galling than watching a highly-rewarded footballer flounce and sulk his way through a season when, with a different attitude, he could be an asset on the pitch.
“We pay your wages, shut up and play.”
That’s fair - it’s true. The game exists in its current form because the supporters have never left its side and yet, time-after-time, they are the ones who have to take these gut punches. West Brom’s fans will likely have to play the role of the necessary victim in Saido Berahino’s career and that, quite obviously, isn’t right.
But remove the specifics from this situation and consider it from a broader perspective: Berahino has still instigated this situation, but his case is really indicative of how strong football’s swirling winds now are. He is a young refugee who has risen from desolation to opulent wealth in a very short space of time and that kind of transition, especially when it occurs in the public eye, will inevitably contort someone’s personality. Most of us are fools until our mid-twenties and yet most of us had the luxury of only being reckless on an unlit stage. Our bad behaviour and the manifestations of our immaturity have all been mercifully lost to time and we had the privilege of nobody caring about how spoilt or childish we were.
Saido Berahino doesn’t. Unlike a normal member of society, his growing pains have been broadcast live to the world. It’s odd: athletes typically rise to prominence at a very young age and yet, in spite of everything we know about growing up and becoming wiser, we expect them to be prematurely smart. We make definitive judgements about the people they are based on the way they behave at an age when they have a right to naivety and, unjustly, those perceptions tend to linger.
This is a difficult argument to make, because it ignores the elephant in the room: contemporary footballers enjoy a lifestyle that most of us can only dream of. The logic goes that such wealth should enable better choices and that it should somehow permit fiercer judgement, but if anything the opposite is true. Money and privilege are a guard from the forces which speed up the maturation process and they allows individuals to live life on their terms. That’s probably a difficulty that we would all like to experience - reasonably - but it doesn’t make the problems it creates any less real. Why shouldn’t Saido Berahino believe that he’s entitled to get his own way all the time? Why, given his past, should he be expected to think of anyone other than himself?
How has the game taught him, either through precedent or the lifestyle it offers, that aggressive ambition is not a virtue?
Football owes him something. Not the fans who have seen their loyalty thrown in their face or the average man on the street who would swap positions with him in a heartbeat, but football as an organisation. When a breakdown in a relationship occurs as has done in this instance, it can’t just be dismissed as the fault of one young millionaire. Berahino himself may have been the public face of the turmoil he’s now embroiled within, but everyone - his manager, his chairman, his representative and his family - should be evaluating their own role within it. How could he have been better guided? What could have been done to avoid this stalemate? His club form has flat-lined, his chances of going to the European Championship has disappeared, and he has lost six months of his career which he will never get back. That’s a multi-departmental failure and it should never have been allowed to happen.
That presumption is based on hearsay and the anecdotes which have been presented as fact by the newspapers. Still, a young, talented footballer is an incredibly delicate commodity and Berahino has been influenced to behave in this way by something, someone or by a mixture of both. If the player is to evolve as a professional he has some growing up to do, but this kind of acrimony is too regular for it always just to be attributed to the person in the camera lens.
As gratifying as it probably is to vilify Berahino, it’s important to question the environment which bred his behaviour. Not through any need to re-apportion blame or to create any artificial sympathy, but because this ugly facet of sport will continue to reappear until that perspective becomes the norm.