Dele Alli has moved to Besiktas on loan, where he remains in a critical condition. The Everton midfielder was airlifted to Istanbul on Wednesday night, where he is expected to play in the Turkish Super Lig, a disease widely believed to be incurable. Naturally, everyone at the Guardian sends their best wishes to Dele at this difficult time.
OK, but seriously for a minute. How should we think about this? Perhaps the most natural reaction has been to conceive of Alli’s career in terms of loss. On one hand there is a wistful sadness for the player we all assume he could have been: the wonder goals not scored, the trophies not won, the cheeky nutmegs not executed. “Now he’s gone to Turkish football,” the Sky pundit Paul Merson lamented, “we’re never going to see him ever again.”
Then you have the other end of the spectrum; the “no sympathy” brigade, the gleeful and performative scorn exhibited by a certain kind of football observer. “He’s got nobody to blame but himself,” you will hear some radio rent-a-bore shouting into the void, a sentiment engineered to inspire contempt but which really demands the opposite.
Can you imagine a more desolate fate than being the sole architect of your own failure? It’s telling how readily this discourse strays into the register of morality and deceit. As if not exploiting one’s talent is a sign of some basic character failing. As if not being able to get into the Everton team somehow makes you a bad person. As if on some level he begins his career in our debt, owing us the fullest expression of his gift, and fully liable for payments not honoured. Dele Alli, your shipment was light by 100 Premier League goals and three World Cups. The bailiffs will be round in the morning.
Alli is not, by most accounts, a bad person. He has been popular pretty much everywhere he has played. Frank Lampard spoke last week of a lack of “focus”, and if there is any sort of smoking gun then it is that vague air of ambivalence, the sense of a player who never quite bled enough for our liking. He could have trained harder. He could, perhaps, have wanted it a little more. Perhaps, as José Mourinho so memorably put it in the All or Nothing documentary, he will regret these lost years for the rest of his life.
I have a theory about Alli. Maybe it’s nonsense, but hear me out. He grew up amid the soulless grey cornflake-box estates of Milton Keynes, with an absent father and a chaotic upbringing that he is still reluctant to discuss. A place where you could disappear through the cracks and nobody would notice. A life without shape, colour, angles, trust or genuine companionship. Football gave him all these things. It gave him security and a family.
There was a good deal of scepticism in 2017 when, at the height of his powers, he appointed his best friend Harry Hickford as his agent. But also: is there not something indelibly touching about appointing your best friend as your agent? This is a lurid and venal world, but we’re going to face it together, the two of us.
By way of tangent, it’s intriguing how many players from that beautiful, furious, fragile Tottenham squad under Mauricio Pochettino never quite had the same spark or hunger afterwards: Danny Rose, Mousa Dembélé, Harry Winks, Victor Wanyama. Perhaps for certain players there is more alchemy to coaching and performance than we would like to admit: a specific energy that only the right manager in the right place at the right time can truly provide, and against which everything else must look a little monochrome.
Reaching the top was the culmination of Alli’s life ambition. Staying there never really seemed to be. And there seems to be an assumption that all footballers must be utterly, inhumanly voracious in their desire. What if Alli has decided that the life-changing, ligament-bending sacrifices required to train and play for 15 years at the very highest level aren’t what he wants out of life? What if he just wants to play, earn, live? Why should we judge that choice any more harshly or sadly than that of the ruthless conqueror who craves only triumph and acquisition? For this is not a failed career, a wasted or squandered career. This is a player who rose from the council estates of Milton Keynes to be one of the best in the world, who scored for England at a World Cup, who played in a Champions League final, who provided unimaginable thrills to millions.
Sometimes we forget just how good you have to be simply to breathe this air, even for just a second. Does it matter whether it happened at 22 or 32, whether he earned 30 caps or 100? And besides, who really knows what he wants? Alli is 26, an age where most of us are still working things out, screwing up, finding the shape of ourselves. Perhaps there is to be no cinematic climax to this story. He is after all, in Turkey now: the horror, the horror. Playing for one of the biggest clubs in the region, in one of the world’s great cities, in front of crowds of 40,000.
When Alli arrived at Ataturk airport, delirious fans flocked to greet him and throw flowers at his feet. If you’d shown this scene to the young Alli and told him it was a tableau of humiliating failure, he wouldn’t have had a clue what you were on about.