Routine cheque up

  • Numero uno
    Numero uno: Kevin De Bruyne cost the top fee—over £52 million—in this summer’s transfer window | Reuters
  • Unfortunate slip
    Unfortunate slip: Manchester United and Real Madrid missed the deadline to seal the transfer of goalkeeper David De Gea to the Spanish club | AFP

The summer transfer window has closed and the English clubs, expectedly, spent the most—more than a billion pounds

Some people are born equal, but rarely on the playing fields.

The world’s football clubs traded 6,848 players in the summer window that shut for most countries at midnight on September 1.

That is 6,848 human beings moved around on the whims of club owners, team managers and coaches. Every club tries, more or less legitimately, to improve their standing, and the players and their agents sometimes exploit the market to their own advantage.

I wouldn’t say the Indian Premier League is comparable, except on the presumption that those with the biggest purses usually get the better class of players. That may be where cricket and soccer part their ways. Football on a global scale is vastly more popular, though the money pot is overwhelmingly tilted towards Europe.

The migration of talented individuals out of South America, Africa and more latterly Asia is most often a one-way ticket. But, though it is coming up to half a century since England won the World Cup, and a while since an English club has won the Champions League, its pulling power in the market is immense.

Put it this way: England’s Premier League spent 870 million pounds (more than a billion dollars) on players this summer. The next two leagues, the Italian and Spanish, spent half that much apiece. And Germany’s Bundesliga, the league of the world champions, got by on just 287 million pounds worth of buying and selling.

Go any further down the list of big spenders, and the transfer sums quickly descend into mere hundreds of thousands, and eventually to free movement between players and teams. All of the above involves fees between the clubs, like the old custom of selling men into the labour market, except that these are the most willing, and arguably the best rewarded of 'slaves' you ever could meet.

That said, it is a market place of rank inequality. Every transfer is a gamble, every player from Lionel Messi over Cristiano Ronaldo down needs team harmony around him, or he falls. And right at the end of the window we had the almighty mishap between Manchester United and Real Madrid, two of the wealthiest and best known clubs in the world, failing to meet the midnight deadline.

Madrid and United had played brinkmanship right through the summer, since the start of the year in fact, over the sale that would have taken David De Gea, Manchester’s goalkeeper, back to his home city in Spain. The lawyers, bean counters and administrators in both clubs knew that the deadline was coming, and on the last day Real Madrid threw its own very fine Costa Rican goalkeeper Keylor Navas into the mix as part exchange.

De Gea, whose family and pop star girlfriend live in Madrid, was desperate to go. Navas was a pawn in Madrid’s bartering game, but agreed to be the make weight once United promised to double his salary.

And then the double deal fell flat. The clubs failed to get the paperwork to the Spanish league in time and under FIFA rules, even minutes past midnight meant no trade.

The clubs, bywords in the global game, bickered like kindergarten schoolchildren and laid the blame on one another. Frankly, it was pathetic maladministration on both sides, and a major embarrassment for Jorge Mendes, the agent of De Gea who calls himself the special one among football agents.

The following morning’s newspapers portrayed De Gea as a devastated young man, a player who is among the most gifted on earth in his role, left high and dry by the incompetence of the money men.

One had to weigh up any sympathy for the goalkeepers against the graver image on every front page, every TV set in the world that same day. A sports star left to pick up his career, at least temporarily, and go back to the club that offers to pay him 200,000 pounds per week, against the tragic picture of a three-year-old child drowned at sea as a consequence of the desperate migration to Europe out of the Syrian war.

I feel, a little, for David De Gea. I am as helpless as the rest of you in trying to express my feelings towards the father of Aylan Kurdi, the three-year-old whose lifeless body was held by a Turkish policeman - and towards that child’s mother and brother who also died, as hundreds of others have, in the attempt to reach Europe.

Beyond that perspective, it seems almost futile to make sense of the price that men will pay for what, after all, are the very blessed among us, the sports players who earn sometimes beyond their wildest imagination to play a game.

Yet it is the addiction of ordinary folk - maybe you, certainly me and a billion or more people - whose TV subscriptions are the major reason for the ever spiralling transfer fees paid for sports players, footballers in particular.

England tops the league of fees in part because rich owners, mostly foreigners, buy its clubs, either as prestige elements to their portfolios, or with the intention to profit from their investments. How would they do that? Television is the short answer.

The new Premier League TV contract, which kicks in from 2016, will pay each of the 20 EPL clubs a share of 5.14 billion pounds over three seasons for domestic rights alone. Overseas rights are still being negotiated in 180 territories, and are expected to add at least 2.2billion pounds to the kitty.

That, in anybody’s language, buys a lot of players.

The trick for the clubs is how to spend it, how to get the right blend of human beings that might challenge the elite of Europe - Barcelona, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Juventus and, with burgeoning Middle east wealth, Paris St Germain.

The Parisians, like most of the European clubs, are not very Parisian in make up. The players, paid for by the Sovereign fund of Qatar, are Brazilian, Argentinian, Swedish, actually you name it.

By the same token, Manchester City, bankrolled by another ruling family from Abu Dhabi, is just as determined to pay whatever it takes to build a team to take on the world.

Who are the winners and losers in this summer window? The football city of Manchester gives a clue.

ManCity (which we might call Abu Dhabi City) was prevented last season from paying what it wanted to in recruiting players. So was Paris SG. They were prepared to engage lawyers to claim that what UEFA, the European football authority, called Financial Fair Play was a restrictive practice against European Community law.

UEFA backed down, City and PSG have piled in, buying more and more players for prices that even the ruling class of clubs like Manchester United, Chelsea, Real Madrid baulk at.

City has been far and away the 'winner' in this race to the bank. Having finished only second to Chelsea last season, it has splashed out 154 million pounds in transfer fees. New City blues this season bolster every department of the team - from the 32 million pound central defender Nicolas Otamendi to the 49 million pounds winger Raheem Sterling, and to Kevin De Bruyne who cost the top fee in this summer’s market, over 52 million pounds.

De Bruyne was sold for a third of that sum by Chelsea to Wolfsburg 18 months ago. The Chelsea coach Jose Mourinho did not rate the Belgian De Bruyne enough to give him more than three games, but with Wolfsburg he blossomed into a midfielder who could make or score goals, voted the outstanding individual in the entire Bundesliga last season.

Chelsea’s cast off has been invited by City to knock Mourinho’s team off the top of the league. From what I have seen of him, he looks the complete player, strong, swift, consistent, and dynamic with either foot.

All De Bruyne has to do is to win a place in the line up that already boasts Yaya Toure, David Silva and Sergio Aguero in midfield and attacking positions. Even before he arrived, City had started the league at a gallop, outclassing Chelsea 3-0 when they met last month.

Very late in the window, Chelsea paid 22 million to purchase Pedro from Barcelona. But Pedro is a winger, another winger at Chelsea. What, so far, has let Mr Mourinho’s team down is the defence, the sudden decline, possibly through age, of John Terry and Branislav Ivanovic, the strong men of the title winning defence last season.

It is too early to be pedantic about this, but the signs are that City’s restructuring, at extraordinary cost, already appears to have swayed the contest. That said, once again the fans of Arsenal complain that their manager Arsene Wenger is too mean, too cautious with the club’s money to buy the players who might turn his team into one that can win the Premier League, and win in Europe.

It is harsh criticism because Monsieur Wenger developed his parsimonious habits while helping the club’s monumental move from the old Highbury Stadium into the new, double-sized (and doubly lucrative) new Emirates Stadium while at the same time qualifying for the Champions League for 17 consecutive seasons.

The fans don’t want just to qualify, they want to win something bigger than the FA Cup. Wenger heeded their call for a top-class goalkeeper by buying Petr Cech from Chelsea this summer - but what worries the supporters is that Arsenal is the only team among the top five leagues (England, Spain, Germany, Italy, France) not to buy a single outfield player in the window this year.

Wenger’s lament is that money is no longer his problem, getting players who measure up to his judgment on value for money is what holds him back. It is common knowledge that he tried, and failed, to get Karim Benzema from Real Madrid, and the issue for Wenger is that if he cannot feel sure an expensive purchase would improve the squad he already has, he will not spend.

His conservatism might perhaps be praised rather than damned. Up in Manchester, the United coach Louis van Gaal trades like there is no tomorrow.

He has bought six players at a cost of 115 million pounds, and shed seven to the value of 53 million. Getting rid of Angel do Maria to Paris SG and Robin van Persie to Fenerbahce in Turkey was balanced out by recruiting an old stager, Bastian Schweinsteiger from Munich, and two young attacking players, Anthony Martial and Memphis Depay.

Martial is the gamble that surprised the whole of Europe. The French winger cost 36 million pounds, rising to 58 million if he hits certain targets such as goals scored and national team appearances. Martial is from the same Paris suburb as Thierry Henry. He is fast, he has powerful upper body strength, and he believes in himself almost as much as Coach van Gaal now does.

Time, and performance, will decide on the judgement that Martial can grow into a 58 million pound player. He is 19, and his potential is all in front of him. However, ManUtd’s most pressing challenge is to get De Gea back on the field to anything like the wonderful keeper he was over the past two seasons.

Van Gaal had dropped him while negotiations endured with Real Madrid. Now, after that disappointment, it was left to Sergio Ramos, a Madrid player who United endeavoured to buy in part exchange for DeGea, to sum up:

“Nobody has died because of this situation,” observed Ramos. “David must maintain his level. He is one of the best keepers.”

Indeed, and still alive.

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