Tottenham target Serge Aurier: a fine footballer with a troubling background
Rarely, if ever, can a prospective transfer be simultaneously described as both ideal and horribly ill-advised. Currently, however, Tottenham are flirting with that dichotomy in their pursuit of Paris Saint-Germain’s Serge Aurier.
It’s a situation which has been forced by the sale of Kyle Walker to Manchester City. Mauricio Pochettino had decided as early as March that Walker’s shifting priorities had made him expendable, but must also have known that the full-back’s acceleration and staggering athleticism would, in their absence, leave a void in his first team.
Kieran Trippier is a fine crosser of a ball and, in Kyle Walker-Peters, Spurs have a young player capable of enjoying a Premier League future.
Nevertheless, neither covers the pitch in quite the same way as Walker. His detractors commonly reference his haphazard delivery and occasional defensive blunder, but the essence of his value lies in his ability to provide shape. By virtue of being able to cover so much space, Walker was the bridge between the two halves of Pochettino’s team; able to cover the channels to the right of the centre-halves, but also a decisive attacking component who drew markers’ attention beyond the halfway line. He may have his flaws, but Walker is an impact player capable of changing the speed of a game.
The natural replacement
Superficially, Aurier is a natural replacement. He's the quintessential modern full-back: loaded with skill, full of dynamism, and with the lung capacity of a deep sea diver. At just 24 years old and priced at under £25m, Tottenham would - under normal circumstances - be crazy not carry an interest.
But this is not a normal situation. As the rumours of his arrival in north London have intensified, so the discussion about Serge Aurier the person has begun.
Supporters have generally accepted that young athletes, sometimes without the benefit of a regular upbringing, make mistakes
The last two years of Aurier’s career reads as a vivid caveat. He has been banned and fined by UEFA for making disparaging remarks about a Champions League referee, and arrested for (and convicted of) assaulting a police officer after refusing a breath test. Notoriously, he was also filmed on social media making disparaging remarks about several PSG team-mates.
Worse, they included a series of homophobic slurs against his then-manager Laurent Blanc.
If the bulk of those issues can be categorised as generic, the latter cannot. Supporters have generally accepted that young athletes, sometimes without the benefit of a regular upbringing, make mistakes. They also understand that great wealth can sometimes acts as a multiplier of personality defects, often created by the over-indulgence that the game affords its gifted youth.
If that was the extent of the complication, it’s likely that Tottenham’s signing of Aurier would pass without incident - maybe with an urging for caution and concerns about a wayward character, but nothing truly prohibitive.
The remarks made by Aurier don’t fall into that category, though. The loaded terminology used, whether measured or flippant, carried a great deal of offence. At a time when football believes itself to be entering into a period of heightened awareness, the perception of a seemingly unrepentant player being allowed to continue their career without major repercussions is particularly damaging.
Ultimately, what none of the initiatives which either target homophobic abuse or promote equality for LGBT people obscure, is that football retains a habit of whitewashing social issues at its convenience. As has been shown in other instances, albeit involving behaviour aimed at other minorities or directed towards particular ethnicities, sporting achievement is often allowed to masquerade as redemption.
Mauricio Pochettino is a diligent manager who prioritises squad harmony above everything else. This implies that, if Tottenham’s interest is firm and they do intend to complete this signing, he has received certain assurances from Aurier’s representatives or the player himself. Such due diligence is entirely appropriate, but it would amount to just a single layer of a process which needs to take place.
The club are not in a position to tell its supporters what they should be comfortable with and they must not be tempted to draw their own line under a matter of such complexity
Whatever the sporting value of the player may be, the greater concern is that his arrival alienates supporters from the club - that his signing, by implication, tramples the fears and concerns of those fans and entrenches them within a moral dilemma. It would be a grave mistake, for instance, if Tottenham - or any other club - believe that a nice cross, an important goal or just a series of good performances would be a sufficient form of redemption.
The hope must also be, beyond the worst case scenario of zero communication, that the boundaries of acceptability are not drawn by the club and bluntly presented to those with concerns. The club are not in a position to tell its supporters what they should be comfortable with, and they must not be tempted to draw their own line under a matter of such complexity. While fans sometimes have unrealistic expectation over the influence they can expect to exert, this is an instance in which co-operation with LGBT supporter groups should be considered mandatory.
It’s plausible that Serge Aurier becoming a Tottenham player would have a depth of impact which isn’t fully understood, but that only emphasises the importance of a conversation. Rather than just a presentation of facts, that must be a discourse in which people are actually heard and their perspective genuinely respected and acted upon.
Perhaps Tottenham have had Aurier’s remorse demonstrated to them. Maybe. But that’s still something which must be communicated properly, because - as yet - the toxicity of the Blanc episode hasn’t been contained. At least in public, there has been no real show of contrition, comprehension or regret.
Without that, there's no validity to the voices of appeasement who urge forgiveness. It’s credible to portray Aurier as a troubled young man, as someone detached from society by his wealth, and also a person who hasn’t necessarily enjoyed certain environmental or societal privileges, but those kind of arguments are always lit by contrition.
In 2017, the growing belief is that supporters only matter to football clubs for as long as they’re willing to pay for tickets and buy replica shirts. They can certainly be forgiven for believing that they only matter for as long as they can afford that relevance.
In this particularly instance, though, Tottenham have to tread very carefully, or otherwise they’ll create another reason for people to turn away. Not because they want to, but because they have to. Serge Aurier might well be a very fine footballer, but sporting ambition is never reason enough to compromise the values of a club or create conditions under which anybody feels uncomfortable inside their stadium.