Patient Zero: Sol Campbell
“Step by step. I think about a lot of things,” came the response from Sol Campbell last week, when asked about potentially replacing Sir Malcolm Rifkind as the MP for Kensington. Surrealness aside, the surprising thing about Campbell’s career is there are so many things to think about: a 1999 League Cup win, a 2002 double, ‘The Invincibles’, a Champions League final in 2006, an FA Cup win in 2008, becoming the first black player to lift a trophy at Wembley and the only England international to play in six consecutive tournaments. Yet it feels like much of this has passed without comment. For a man with so many memorable moments, he perhaps misses a defining one.
Campbell for Rifkind may have seemed an unlikely switch, yet it pales in comparison with the former’s infamous transfer across north London some 15 years ago.
With the move from Spurs to Arsenal came a “we’re not in Kansas anymore” moment for the player-fan relationship which would cast a shadow over the defender’s subsequent career, on and off the pitch. He left, and he left for £100,000 a week – trading one-of-our-own affection for the twin labels of traitor and mercenary. An iconic transfer undeniably, but one devoid of the warmth and equity (that kind, at least) of, say, Britain’s first £1m footballer more than two decades previously.
That it still clouds Campbell’s career is both sad and a little surprising, yet its timing – coming as it did in 2001 – marked a turning point in football’s twenty-year fiscal journey from revolution to revolting. An early benefactor of the Bosman Ruling, he would point to both a lack of interest and ambition from Spurs as reason enough to walk after eight years at the club, just years after fellow England defender and one-club man Stuart Pearce had elected to stay with Nottingham Forest as they slipped out of the top-flight entirely. A new century had ushered in a new norm: weekly six-figure salaries were the staple and player power was in.
On the pitch, of course, the decision would be vindicated almost immediately, with Campbell and agent Sky Andrew shrewd enough to hit Arsenal at peak-Wenger. Trophy and accolade-laden, the perceived stain on Campbell’s character would prove harder to shrug off in the years that followed. An attempt to launch a media career faltered, his explanation that TV wanted ‘magnolia’ pundits failing to tally with a growing crop of outspoken ex-pros such as Roy Keane and Robbie Savage who were only too willing to straight-talk.
Further rejection was to follow from Arsenal (an attempt to take his coaching badges at the club was apparently snubbed) and the FA (the infamous, “I would have been England captain if I was white” claim). More recently, attempts to break into the latter’s management hierarchy have been thwarted, yet it was while playing for his country that Campbell came closest to carving out an entirely different narrative for himself.
England versus Argentina on 1st July, 1998 can comfortably take its place alongside two German semi-final defeats in a gloriously flailing end of century trilogy for the national side, its second round status belying the drama involved. The match would boil down to three heart-stopping moments: the Owen goal; Beckham’s sending off; and – in the final minute – a headed winner from Campbell that was disallowed amid wild but ultimately misguided celebrations. Unthinkably, it happened again six years later against Portugal, with a semi-final spot this time the prize. In a different life Campbell, rather than being the answer to a pub quiz question, may have been the man who banished a troubling penalty hoodoo through his last-minute heroics. It wasn’t to be, and England would both times succumb to the curse of the kicks.
If Campbell was meant to represent the new breed of club-focused, self-interested player, however, it doesn’t tally with an England career pumped full of heart and (with apologies) soul, alongside an impressive 73 caps. Elsewhere, he has managed to chip away at lingering negativity. His was a welcome voice against the lazily assembled all-white FA Commission set up last year. He’s made tentative steps into producing socially aware documentaries, most recently highlighting the plight of young unemployed black males for the BBC’s Panorama.
After a while you start to suspect he has simply been misunderstood, that the taunts and abuse are all part of Le Saux syndrome: an intelligent guy with diverse interests – technology, fashion, and now politics – that just don’t fly with most football fans. Yet if that north London transfer really did represent a fork in the road for players and fans, it’s hard to see how Campbell’s recent outrage at Labour’s proposed Mansion tax (effectively an attempt to redress this gulf) and subsequent re-alignment with the Conservative party (tarnished by their handling of the Hillsborough enquiry if nothing else) does anything to bridge the gap.
There’s no doubt Campbell’s brand of twenty-first century pragmatism jars with fans of a game built on decades of romantic romps and football fuck-ups. His was the crashing symbol on a heavy hangover marking the end of innocence. What made it reverberate so – and still – was perhaps, beyond the currency involved, down to the fact that football’s new reality was ushered in not by a diva-esque foreign import but by a commanding English centre-back. A defining moment from which there would be no going back.