The Los Angeles Times’ Kevin Baxter tweeted last week that Ashley Cole’s salary with the LA Galaxy will be “well below [the Major League Soccer] max of $457,500.” Let’s hope the defender’s agent told him this before he drives down the 405 to Carson.
When I helped pick extracts for a serialization of Cole’s autobiography in the London Times a decade ago, it wasn’t hard to predict which bit would make headlines. Sure, the section on the tampering allegations over his controversial move from Arsenal to Chelsea was interesting, but that wasn’t the juiciest stuff. That was the part about his, uh, fraught, contract extension talks with former Gunners vice-chairman David Dein.
“The deal he offered was a £10,000-a-week increase to £35,000. A hell of a lot of money. But, when taken in the context of football wages and his own estimated value of me of £20 million, and when placed next to those other Arsenal wages of between £80,000 and £100,000 a week, his offer was a piss-take. It was a slap in the face, not a pat on the back,” Cole wrote.
His agent, Jonathan Barnett, asked for £60,000: at today’s exchange rate, $87,000. Arsenal wouldn’t go above £55,000. Barnett called Cole, who was driving through London. “When I heard Jonathan repeat the figure of £55k, I nearly swerved off the road. ‘He is taking the piss, Jonathan!’ I yelled down the phone. I was so incensed. I was trembling with anger.”
You read that right: the Galaxy’s impending signing almost crashed his car because Arsenal would only pay him $80,000 a week. This piece of PR suicide wrecked his reputation in his native England, where he was held up as the symbol of all that’s wrong with modern soccer: greedy, entitled, disconnected from ordinary fans.
Ashley — a rare example of a homegrown English player flourishing at Arsenal, and a great talent who would amass 107 England caps — was now “Cashley,” forever tainted, even though he was right. According to soccer’s inflated wage economy, he was indeed worth more than Arsenal offered. He was a disgruntled employee feeling undervalued, just like you or I might feel sometimes, only with a few more zeroes on his paycheck. And for the rich and famous, the value of money is not in how it pays off bills and buys food, but as an indicator of respect.
His unwise honesty saw him cast by fans and media as a villain, a status cemented even among people with no interest in soccer when his marriage to a pop star, X Factor judge and “nation’s sweetheart,” the then-Cheryl Cole imploded, amid salacious tabloid reports that he had been unfaithful. The Sun even claimed that the “love rat” had “twice smuggled a girl” into Chelsea’s team hotel.
On one occasion, after a Chelsea Champions League game about five years ago, Cole sauntered through the mixed zone and one reporter called out, essentially as a joke, “Ashley, do you have a minute?” As he walked on, Cole’s lips creased into a faint smile that exuded contempt mixed with amusement. The notion that he might voluntarily talk with a journalist was, as he and we knew, so absurd as to be comical. Even today it would probably be easier for a British tabloid reporter to secure an interview with Edward Snowden or Kim Jong-un than Ashley Cole.
No wonder that in 2014, when his Chelsea career ebbed he took the unusual step for an established British player of moving abroad, to Roma, where he was soon frozen out. He last played for the first team on March 8, 2015. To get some sense of how low Cole’s stock has fallen, you only need to know that he was recently linked with Aston Villa.
Yet he deserves mention alongside Philipp Lahm, Eric Abidal and Patrice Evra in discussions of the best European left backs of the mid-to-late 2000s. Quick, confident, solid, he kept Cristiano Ronaldo under control when England met Portugal in Euro 2004 and the 2006 World Cup. There’s a case to be made that, for a time, he was the best left back on the planet. But that was an era when Nokia phones and Avril Lavigne were the height of cool.
If Cole’s Galaxy salary is indeed below $500k, what does that mean? That he’s so rich he’s no longer cares what he earns? That he’s taking a pay cut because he fancies the SoCal lifestyle? That he’s had to drop his price because of a lack of options? Maybe elements of all three.
Just because something looks cheap, doesn’t mean it’s a bargain. He’s unlikely to play better than someone earning in the region of $100,000-150,000 a year, like the New England Revolution’s Chris Tierney. Or shift a ton of jerseys: his misdeeds and antagonistic relationship with the press means he’s never enjoyed the kind of positive coverage that would help smother the transfer with a warm layer of nostalgic excitement for the player he used to be, as was the case when Andrea Pirlo and (eventually) Frank Lampard joined New York City FC.
Obviously, if you’re based in LA and have a team called the Galaxy, there’s a certain pressure to sign stars. But MLS is at the point where it no longer needs to sign famous players just because it can, and when those players don’t seem likely to improve the quality of the league or enhance its popularity, why bother? It likely limits opportunities for younger, domestic products, while damaging the competition’s image by giving outsiders an excuse to continue describing it using two words so offensively cliched they deserve to be censored: r*****ment h**e.
With the Galaxy looking to bounce back from their postseason failure, this hardly looks a progressive move. In the month that Los Angeles FC gave us Will Ferrell, Mia Hamm and a cool logo, with a $250m stadium near downtown to come, your riposte is a 35-year-old Ashley Cole to complement your 35-year-old Robbie Keane and your 35-year-old Steven Gerrard?
Despite Robbie Rogers growing impressively into the left back role, it looks as though he will be shifted to the other side of the field to accommodate a man more likely to frustrate British paparazzi than MLS wingers.
Though Keane, Didier Drogba, David Villa, Thierry Henry and Marco Di Vaio have shown us that gnarled strikers can still thrive in MLS, it’s far less clear that fading stars can be highly effective in other positions. You know, positions where players need to be fast and run about a lot.
Former South Korea and Tottenham fullback Lee Young-pyo did well for Vancouver in his mid-thirties in two seasons at the club. But in 2012, the same season that he was named the Whitecaps player of the year, the Independent wrote this about Cole after he missed an England training session: “Cole has a long-standing chronic ankle problem which sometimes prevents him from training for 48 hours after a game.” Unless he ages like Dorian Gray, it’s fair to assume that four years on, Cole’s ankle won’t enjoy artificial fields and cross-continental flights, though no doubt there’s a certain therapeutic value in being able to walk barefoot through the sand in Malibu.
Gerrard’s mediocre debut season underlines that MLS isn’t some kind of magic rejuvenation world like the swimming pool used by the seniors in the 1985 Ron Howard film, Cocoon. You don’t dive in and feel 10 years younger. The midfielder wasn’t able to recapture his barnstorming box-to-box days when he arrived in LA last year. Maybe this season he’ll realize, like David Beckham before him, that he’ll only be effective if he limits his wanderings to a smaller radius and focuses on being a supplier, not a superhero.
Fullbacks, though, do need to run a lot, because if you’ve got one who isn’t getting into the final third and creating, your team isn’t maximizing your attacking potential. But Cole hasn’t been much help in that regard since about 2012. In his thirties, he’s been far more selective about when he goes beyond the halfway line.
Underrated in his prime, overrated now, he’s not what the Galaxy or the league need. Given his age, decline and lack of recent match action, he better fits the profile of someone who’d go to the Middle East, China, or Australia. No matter what he may earn, MLS should swerve.
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