European football, particularly England’s Premier League, is shockingly out of kilter with our economic times. Families are struggling to afford food and heating. Hospitals across the continent are in financial intensive care. Yet the summer soccer trading window moves players around like chattels between clubs, leagues, even continents at the whims of transient club managers and boards of directors who may be operating out of the Gulf, the Americas, or Asia.
The beautiful game? It is hard to sustain, harder to explain. Barely a year ago, some English clubs shamelessly applied for government furlough payments intended to sustain employment during lockdown. Now, with turnstiles open and tills overfilling from new television contracts and age-old supporters willing to buy season tickets to get their football fix, the
clubs are spending like floodwater.
The Premier League, alone, passed the £2bn transfer fee barrier this summer. The fees are hidden by smoke and mirror accountancy, intended to dodge the so-called fair play limits that Uefa, the European football authority, attempts and fails to impose on club spending. Who knows how many of the players transferred in this window will actually fit into the pattern of play at their new clubs?
One year ago Chelsea paid almost £100m to buy back Romelu Lukaku, a player they had let go as a youth. Lukaku did not suit the style of head
coach Thomas Tuchel and was returned on loan to Inter Milan. Not only must Chelsea stomach the transfer fee loss, they might be paying a part of Lukaku’s salary, plus the agent’s fees, no doubt even the house moving costs.
What goes around comes around. In the dead of night on transfer deadline day, September 1, Chelsea paid Barcelona €12m (£10.3m) for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (giving the supposedly destitute Barça a surplus defender, Marcos Alonso, as part of the deal.) Aubameyang, 33, was accused of being a disruptive presence at Arsenal last season and the club paid to get him out of
London. Now he is back, despite nursing a reported broken jaw after confronting robbers at his home.
But Tuchel got a tune out of Aubamayeng back in their Dortmund days between 2015-17. Since then Tuchel has been fired by Dortmund and PSG and is on his second proprietor in two years at Chelsea since Roman Abramovich was forced to sell up to an American syndicate, whose leader Todd Boehly is hell bent on giving Tuchel every player he wants, at whatever the cost.
The Boehly syndicate spent £4.25bn to buy Chelsea, and a further £251m to acquire Wesley Fofana (£72.3m), Marc Cucurella (£58.8m), Raheem Sterling (£50.6m), Kalidou Koulibaly (£34.2m), Aubameyang and three others in this one window. Now Tuchel has to blend the moving parts.
Like an alchemist, he has the formula in his head. What he needs is results. Instantly.
Manchester United, under new team management (again), are this summer’s next biggest spender at £214m. Spending is spreading like contagion. Clubs such as newly promoted Nottingham Forest have bought 21 players for a total of £146m and West Ham have acquired what they hope is a transformational new lineup for £163.8m.
The top five spending clubs in Europe this summer are English. Barely believably, Barcelona has risen from its debt mountain to spent almost £140m, Paris St Germain had a summer clearout and refit at a net cost of £85m, and Bayern Munich, as ever, more or less balanced the books with an affordable deficit of £30m.
And if there are buyers, there must be sellers. Yet again the French and Portuguese clubs prove virtual incubators of talent, which is then sold on for a profit. But Ajax Amsterdam, while losing their coach to Man United, turned in a net profit of £100m including this summer’s record sale, the Brazilian winger Antony for £85.5m, six times the amount Ajax paid São Paulo for him two summers ago.
If you are yet not dizzy with the numbers, I recommend the German website Transfermarkt, which collates the movements of players across the continent. The fees, and wages, are best-guesses, in the opaque business designed to mislead and avoid Uefa spending regulations.
At one end of the scale, there have always been clubs such as Burnley, with an Ajax-type academy that grows apprentices for market. What everyone wants, and few will get, is the instantaneous Erling Haaland effect.
The Norwegian, just 22, has hit the ground running at Manchester City,
as he has done before at clubs in Norway, Austria and Germany. The son of former City midfielder Alf-Inge Haaland, he was bred to succeed. Erling is a huge talent in a huge body.
Was he a bargain? On paper, maybe. His fee was set by a release clause written into his previous contract by his now dead agent Mino Raiola, which fixed the transfer sum at £51m. However, there were hidden extras, including a €40m payment to the agent, another €30m to his father, and €200m in salary over five seasons – a grand total of €355m (£306m).
The Abu Dhabi owners of Man City can afford it. Others may feel the
playing field is uneven. And many more people, who are now struggling
to make a living while following their team from cradle to grave, must simply despair.