July 30, 2008
What do Robbie Keane and the knowledge economy have in common? While much is made of how Ireland has benefited from globalisation and how we should build a knowledge economy, we could do worse than look at the unique talent of Robbie and see how his career sheds light on the trends likely to dominate professional life in the future.
Robbie is ahead of his time and is the exemplar of the type of professional who has capitalised enormously from the free movement of goods, cash and people as well as the media revolution of the past 10 years.
Robbie is now at the club he loved as a boy, and best of luck to him. He is a winner, in the ‘winner-takes-all’ market that defines professional football. To get to the top it takes more than just talent, it takes courage and smarts.
Anyone who has ever heard the stories of Irish teenagers going across the water to play football will know just how difficult the ascent is from local hero to global mega-star. Recently, one former professional told of his harrowing time as a youngster at one of the more celebrated English clubs. Among the hopefuls, everyone knew that it was dog eat dog.
You made it because the lad beside you didn’t. As a result, you’d do anything that might undermine your neighbour’s performance at training — you’d entertain anything that might give you just a little bit extra to impress the selectors.
The ex-pro told me that every night for his first two weeks at his ‘digs’, the English lads used to urinate in his bed so that the ‘f … king Paddy’ wouldn’t get any kip and would be knackered for training in the morning. Imagine being on your own in a foreign country, at 15, experiencing this type of intimidation. Now imagine coming through it and getting to the top the way Keane did.
It is possible Robbie experienced similar bullying when he was rejected by Liverpool at the age of 17. Stories from his childhood reveal a boy that simply could not stop scoring. You can picture him, Liverpool kitbag over his shoulder, on the bus in Tallaght going to games where he played against lads three or four years older than him, dreaming of playing at Anfield.
At last, he is there. When Keane is at his best, he’s like a precocious kid — all nods, winks, little runs, smiles and an ebullient self-confidence which is infectious.
He has also learned to be diplomatic and mature. His leaving letter to the Spurs management and fans, where he emerged as an unlikely club captain, was a master-class in restraint, generosity and self-awareness. Let’s hope he wears the number 7 — the shirt of Keegan and Dalglish — both with pride and with success.
What makes Robbie Keane interesting from an economic and commercial perspective is that the trends in football are being seen in other fields. The most significant change in football in the past five years has been the astronomical difference in pay between the best and the second best. It is common to hear many football snobs (yes there is such a thing) complain that because the players are paid â‚¬80,000 a week, there is little point watching them. But it’s not the footballers’ fault that they are well paid. They are simply the main beneficiaries of the globalisation of football.
Go to any league around the world, including the League of Ireland, and you will see players from all over doing their stuff. Go to Karpaty in the Ukraine and there are Cameroonians leading the line. In Dynamo Zagreb, a Brazilian was the home fans’ favourite.
Indeed, this year Brazilian kids have been signed for clubs in the Faroes, Israel and Korea. Years ago, sitting in a sheebeen in a South African township, the only common factor between three of us and the local lads was Roy Keane.
As we sat on beer crates, watching Ricky Lake on a grainy TV screen, the chat revolved around the antipathy between Roy and Patrick Vieira — himself a poor African whose footballing journey from the Ivory Coast to the World Cup final is a fascinating tale of how globalisation has changed the lives of millions.
The globalisation of football is not always a savoury tale. For example, there is a Brazilian company, appropriately called Traffic, which is buying up the rights to young talented Brazilian footballers. According to a piece last week in the ‘New York Times’, this company has around $20m to spend on young players and because one big sale can net a million, it is estimated that it will earn on average a 30pc return for shareholders. Quite how the players buy their way out of such a system is anyone’s guess, but thousands are so desperate to play on the big stage that they are prepared to sell their talents early.
But if, like Robbie Keane, they get to the top of the tree, the rewards are enormous. Of course, this winner-takes-all system is not limited to football. We are seeing the same trends in most professions, where the economics of the entertainment business are changing the way people get paid in a variety of industries.
We’ve always had actors who get paid millions more than others because of their box- office pulling power. Similarly musicians and comedians. But now we can see this model everywhere.
For example, the world now has a new breed of ‘Staritechts’ — architects who are in such demand that they can name their price. They give projects certain kudos and to a degree their brilliance rubs off on the people who employ them. In Dublin recently, two of these Staritechts — Norman Foster and Daniel Leibeskind– are plying their trade. These lads are the Robbie Keanes of the building trade, as are the star hairdressers and stylists.
In the legal profession, the same divergences are emerging, where the best barristers get paid multiples of the next best one. This is how the creative economy is likely to work in the future. Those with unique talents will be rewarded enormously. In fact, more to the point, those who realise how to sell, market and promote those talents will be rewarded.
This new dispensation should be an economic fact that we teach in our education system. If we are going to be a knowledge economy, where creativity and uniqueness rather than conformity and repetition are rewarded, shouldn’t we be telling our kids about it?
Robbie Keane’s transfer to Liverpool may well be laced with the romanticism of a schoolboy’s love for a football team, but its implication for how the creative economy of the future will work shouldn’t be lost to anyone.