From the outside, life for Yaya Toure, the gifted, astonishingly powerful Manchester City midfielder, looked sweet as he celebrated his 31st birthday on May 13. His club had just won the Premier League title, and his contribution had been immense: goals, tackles, surging, unstoppable runs. He was off to Brazil to represent his country, the Ivory Coast, in the World Cup. And he was only one year into a four-year contract that pays him £200,000 per week.
Any smiles that he did manage, however, masked profound hurt. The first hint of Toure's unhappiness came from his Russian adviser, Dimitri Seluk. "Yaya is very upset, he is thinking of leaving City," Seluk said. "The club's owners ate a 100kg cake after winning the Premier League, but when they and the players were all together, none of them shook his hand on his birthday. It shows they don't care about him."
Even then, incredibly - even after we had all been told about both the size of the humiliation and the size of the title-winning cake (and it is unclear whether the player was even offered a slice of that) - Yaya tried to soldier on. "Please do not take words that do not come out of MY mouth seriously," he said on Twitter. "Judge my commitment to @MCFC by my performances."
But within an hour of this tweet, his morale had collapsed, inevitably and understandably. There is, after all, only so much disappointment that one man can take. "Everything Dimitri said is true," Toure admitted. "He speaks for me." A few days later, Toure said in an interview that it would be an "honour" to play for Paris Saint-Germain - one of the only other clubs in the world, coincidentally, with pockets as deep as those of the Manchester City owners - while reminding people that he'd like to finish his career at Barcelona.
The smell of money around this World Cup is more unpleasant and more distracting than it has ever been. The Sunday Times is currently running a series of extraordinary articles about tiny, oil-rich Qatar's successful pursuit of the 2022 tournament; a YouTube clip of a [disallowed] own goal by Nigerian goalkeeper Austin Ejide in a pre-World Cup friendly has provided cynical fans with a great deal of amusement. At the time of writing, there was some doubt about whether the Cameroon team would even get on the plane to Brazil because of an argument about bonuses. [The pay dispute was resolved.]
Is it possible to care about a sport whose administrators, players and owners sometimes appear to have been driven insane by the rewards it offers? Perhaps we are foolish, naive and self-deluding, those of us for whom the World Cup is an event that results in the glorious suspension of ordinary life for the best part of a month; certainly all the sulks and the suspicions make it hard to protect the tournament from the contempt of those who loathe professional sport. But in an odd sort of way, everything that is so despicable about the contemporary game is a tribute to its power and continuing appeal.
You cannot digitize Toure and put him in Dropbox, and you won't be able to for a while yet. His talent, drive, strength, speed and hunger - I refer here to desire for victory, rather than for cake - are unique, and they are what make him worth so much money.
Football's commercial value has become only more necessary because of its global appeal - to TV companies, brands, governments. Results remain unpredictable; we watch the games live because that's still the quickest way of finding out the outcomes. Favourites still stumble; games still turn on a moment of brilliance or of incompetence. And the traditional tournaments still matter, which is why Qatar went to all the trouble and expense of securing the 2022 World Cup rather than, say, paying Brazil, Spain, Argentina and Germany hundreds of millions of pounds to come and play in the Qatar Petroleum World Cup Championship.
This month Toure will be playing for Ivory Coast, the country of his birth, rather than for Manchester City. He might cast envious glances at Argentina's sensational attack (Lionel Messi, Angel di Maria, Gonzalo Higuain and Sergio Aguero) or Spain's defence, but there's nothing he can do about it; no amount of petulance can force a change of nationality. And he'll be 35 by the time the next tournament comes around, and his talismanic captain, former Chelsea striker Didier Drogba, is already 36. Realistically, this is his last chance to shine at the World Cup.
ll is probably better than international football now - the world's talents have all gathered at a handful of the world's richest clubs, and Real Madrid or Barcelona at their best would probably rip holes in most national sides. One of the weird quirks of globalization is that even the strongest national teams are forced to include players who don't feature regularly for their clubs - David Luiz of Chelsea and Brazil played only half of his club side's league games last season. This was unimaginable 20 years ago. If a professional team were lucky enough to be able to call on the services of an international footballer, it would be calling on him every game he was fit.
But club football has become predictable - by and large, the teams with the most money win. None of the countries playing in the 2014 World Cup looks invincible. Plus, although the host nation must be favourites, they messed it up the last time the tournament was held in Brazil, in 1950, when a calamitous failure of nerve resulted in the trophy going to tiny Uruguay, the fingernail on the end of Brazil's giant hand. (And talking of fingernails: Who'd have thought, by the way, that tiny Belgium would be going to Rio with proper talent in every position? If you want a silly long-shot bet, that's where to put your money.) This time around, Brazil will be worried about facing Argentina - and Messi - in the final.
There will be some great games and some appalling games. There will be fantastic goals, terrible cheating, drama, scandal, hilariously bad refereeing decisions. And all of it, the good, the bad and the ugly, will be worth watching, because nobody knows anything. "When it was Roberto Carlos' birthday, the president of [Russian side] Anzhi gave him a Bugatti," the ever-hopeful Seluk said. The beauty of the World Cup is that, for the moment, anyway, Toure wants three points in his opening group game against Japan on Sunday even more.
An English novelist and screenwriter, Nick Hornby is best known for his seminal football memoir Fever Pitch, as well as his novels High Fidelity and About a Boy.
This article first appeared on ESPNFC