As the transfer window enters its final stages, there has been a familiar sub-plot in recent days, another chapter in the ballad of Ousmane Dembélé.
It’s the strangest sporting life. Dembélé is only 24 years old. He joined Barcelona for £96m as early as August 2017, one of several deals fueled on steroids by the state of Qatar’s inflationary lust for Neymar.
In the years that followed, Dembélé essentially became a prisoner of money. Barcelona can’t afford to keep him. No one else wants him in these ruinous conditions. His career has dissolved into a sort of golden stasis, something that only really comes to life when the semi-annual sub-industry of not selling Ousmane Dembélé kicks into gear.
Ultimately, he’s no longer primarily a footballer, but rather a kind of subprime bond, a vehicle for human debt, too hot to hold, too hot to pass on.
Dembélé has become non-fungible: an asset whose value is limited and non-transferable; and also a symbol, a token of Barcelona’s wild financial hubris. This journey inside the machine is over. Here is a footballer who has literally become a non-fungible token.
And yes, it’s a roundabout way of approaching John Terry and the bizarre affair of the Ape Kids Club, an entity that pulls off the incredible feat of being even weirder than it looks on paper. Things kicked off on January 19 when Terry tweeted “Hi guys, sorry to keep you waiting but very excited to announce my signing with the AKFC!”. So okay! Except Terry isn’t really a signing. He is listed as the “co-founder” of this company, which is basically a website that exploits football to sell generic computer drawings of cartoon primates to children.
Ape Kids Club currently has 112,000 Twitter followers, as well as a weird-toned, slightly off-the-walls-of-the-odd-man website. He seems to be styled on the slightly more established Bored Ape Yacht Club, which sells pictures of adult apes (carry on), and which Reece James separately endorsed.
The idea here is to create a buzz, a feeling of something exciting and unmissable, sought after by celebrities. Willian is on board. Ashley Cole is “happy to be a part of it”. The tall and prominent Dragons Den man could barely contain himself at the thought of digital cartoon monkey images being marketed to children: “Love the project! I’m on it.” Perhaps best of all, most poignant, most telling, were the words of Jack Wilshere: “Thank you JT, delighted to see this amazing journey bringing football to blockchain.” Oh yeah Blockchain And if you’ve gotten this far, boring questions will no doubt plague you.
How do you actually “sell” pictures of monkeys online when the Internet is an open digital field? Why would anyone actually want one? And how much of a child-centric celebrity pyramid scheme is it? This is where non-fungible tokens come in. NFTs are an interesting concept, a way to turn online data into something real: unique, robust and stored in an online vault called the blockchain. These tokens – for example, a picture of a monkey which John Terry says is good – can be treated as tradable goods, because everyone agrees that despite being essentially lights on a screen, they have a unique existence.
This raises a metaphysical enigma. Can an object unrelated to the physical plane have intrinsic economic value? After all, money itself is just numbers on a screen. But money is fungible, it turns into things. The numbers are lattice and finite. Whereas NFTs ask you to take a bigger mental leap into the conspiracy of abstract value, based on the phantom world of electronic objects, screen life, digital verse.
At the end of which John Terry sells your kids a picture of a monkey in a football kit. In fact, not even a picture, a link to a picture, and something, somewhere is just starting to feel a little, well. Is it correct? Jeans? Can you talk to Jack about blockchain again?
A key point about NFTs is that they are often a skilled work of a well-known digital artist. People want to buy them as originals. It looks like a compelling version of the future. In contrast, the drawings of child monkeys are generic. Their value lies in Terry and other footballers faking excitement and lending their names. Fair enough. The shops are full of trinkets and follies. Why should we care about this one? First, because it is a volatile, unregulated product, a supposed value pyramid that could simply collapse at any moment. Do you even own the copyright to your image? And while we’re at it, football authorities are at the door asking questions about their imagery and intellectual property.
In addition, there is of course the question of personal interests. NFTs are sold partly as a chance to speculate. Here is an investment that excites rich and influential footballers. But why are they doing this? Terry is not a co-buyer-investor. He’s the owner.
He’s the salesman, harnessing the powers of persuasion, the deep loyalties of football to sell a speculative semi-finished product that only really seems like a good idea if he can afford to throw some cash at the wall. Otherwise, the risk, well, the risk is all yours, kids. And beyond that, there’s something a little sad about it all.
What is John Terry doing here? What part of him saw the words “In a magical world where monkeys ruled the metaverse, a thousand year old magical tree sprouted cute baby monkeys” and thought, yes, that’s me. This is what I want to associate my status as a club legend. Terry took his UEFA pro license, talked about building a body of work as a manager. Currently, his social media profile avatar identifies him as the head coach of Ape Kids Club FC.
Perhaps it was inevitable that football would be dragged into this. Players are always being sold stuff. They exist in a world of transactions, haggling, and niche investments, a place where time must be pressed, where value is shifting, and terribly uncertain.
Look up from your bespoke token on screen and, who knows, you might even spot Ousmane Dembélé, floating in his tin can, prestigiously static, gaining value, losing value, still sealed in his own country. distant magic.