As the transfer window enters its endgame there has been a familiar sub-plot over the last few days, another chapter in the ballad of Ousmane Dembélé.
This is the strangest of sporting lives. Dembélé is only 24. He joined Barcelona for £96m as long ago as August 2017, one of several deals that were steroid-fed by the state of Qatar’s inflationary lust for Neymar.
In the years since Dembélé has essentially become a prisoner of money. Barcelona can’t afford to keep him. Nobody else wants him on those ruinous terms. His career of him has dissolved into a kind of gilded stasis, a thing that only really comes alive as the biannual sub-industry of failing to sell Ousmane Dembélé cranks into gear.
At the end of which he is no longer primarily a footballer, more a kind of sub-prime bond, a human debt-vehicle, too hot to hold, too hot to pass on.
Dembélé has become non-fungible: an asset whose value is circumscribed and non-transferable; and also a symbol, a token of Barcelona’s wild financial hubris. That journey inside the machine is complete. Here is a footballer who has literally become a non-fungible token.
And yes this is a roundabout way of getting on to John Terry and the strange affair of the Ape Kids Club, an entity that manages the amazing feat of being even weirder than it sounds on paper. Things kicked off on 19 January when Terry tweeted “Hi Guys Sorry to keep you all waiting but very excited to announce my signing with the AKFC!”. OK then! Except, Terry isn’t actually signing. He’s listed as “co-founder” of this enterprise, which is basically a website that leverages football to sell generic computer drawings of cartoon primates to children.
Ape Kids Club currently has 112,000 Twitter followers plus a tonally strange, slightly stay-away-from-the-weird-man website. It seems to be styled on the slightly more established Bored Ape Yacht Club, which sells adult ape pictures (do keep up), and which Reece James has separately endorsed.
The idea here is to create a buzz, a sense of something exciting and must-have, craved by celebrities. William is on board. Ashley Cole is “glad to be a part of it”. The tall, self-important man off Dragons Den could barely contain himself at the thought of cartoon digital ape pictures marketed at children: “Love the project! I’m IN.” Best of all perhaps, most poignant, most telling, were the words of Jack Wilshere: “Thanks JT, buzzing to see this incredible journey bringing football to the blockchain”. Oh yes. The blockchain. And if you’ve got this far, by now some annoying questions will be nagging away at you, no doubt.
How do you actually “sell” online pictures of apes when the internet is an open digital field? Why would anyone actually want one? And how much of a child-centred celebrity pyramid scheme is it? This is where non-fungible tokens come in. NFTs are an interesting concept, a way of making a piece of online data into an actual thing: unique, robust and stored in an online safe called the blockchain. These tokens – for example, an ape picture that John Terry says is good – can be treated as tradeable possessions because everyone agrees that despite being basically lights on a screen they have a unique existence.
It raises a metaphysical conundrum. Can an object with no relationship to the physical plane have intrinsic economic worth? After all money itself is just numbers on a screen. But money is fungible, it converts into things. The numbers are networked and finite. Whereas NFTs ask you to make a larger mental leap into the conspiracy of abstract value, based on the ghost world of electronic objects, screen life, the digi-verse.
At the end of which John Terry is selling 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 bit, well. Is this OK? John? Can you get Jack on about the blockchain again?
One key point about NFTs is that these are often a skilled piece of work by a well-known digital artist. People want to buy them as originals. This feels like a convincing version of the future. By contrast the ape kid drawings are generic. Their value lies in Terry and other footballers feigning excitement and lending their names. Fair enough. The shops are full of trinkets and crazes. Why should we care about this one? First because it is a volatile, unregulated product, a pyramid of assumed value that could simply collapse at any moment. Do you even own the copyright to your image? And while we’re at it the football authorities are at the door asking about their imagery and intellectual property.
Plus of course there is the issue of personal interests. NFTs are sold in part as a chance to speculate. Here is an investment that rich and influential footballers are enthusing over. But why are they doing that? Terry is not a fellow purchaser-investor. He’s the owner.
He’s the salesman, weaponizing the persuasive powers, the deep loyalties of football to sell a speculative semi-product that only really seems like a good idea if it can afford to throw a little money against the wall. Otherwise the risk, well, the risk is all yours, kids. And beyond that there is something a little sad about all this.
What is John Terry doing here? What part of him saw the words “In a magical world where apes ruled the metaverse, a magical thousand-year-old tree sprouted cute baby apes” and thought: yes, that’s me. That’s what I want to hit my club legend status to. Terry has taken his Uefa pro license, has spoken of building a body of work as a manager. Right now his social media profile avatar of him identifies him as the Head Coach of Ape Kids Club FC.
Perhaps it was inevitable football would be drawn into this. Players are always being sold stuff. They exist in a world of deals and haggles and niche investments, a place where the moment must be wrung out, where value is mutable and tantalizingly uncertain.
Look up from your bespoke on-screen token and, who knows, you might even catch a glimpse of Ousmane Dembélé, floating in his tin can, prestigiously static, gaining value, losing value, still sealed within his own faraway magical land.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism