Why transfer fees no longer mean anything

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What do Anthony Martial, Raheem Sterling and Kevin De Bruyne all have in common?  Yes, they’re all young players will all great potential.  But the other common feature?  They have all been subject to moves that involved huge transfer fees.  While Sterling and De Bruyne cost Manchester City a combined reported total of £99 million, Manchester United made Martial the most expensive teenagers in the history of the game when he moved from Monaco to Old Trafford for an initial £36 million this summer. If certain clauses are met throughout the young Frenchman’s time at the club, his fee could rise to a frankly mind-boggling £58 million.

What’s even more astonishing when considering these astronomical fees is that they almost represent the going rate for a young player with potential in today’s market. Furthermore, such huge fees are dwarfed when compared to those paid for players who are considered established as wold-class. If reports are to be believed, Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale cost Spanish giants Real Madrid a combined total of £165 million – and that’s not even taking into account the lucrative basic contracts they’re tied to, which sees them each raking in well above £250,000 a week.

But, enough of the number crunching.  The figures are so huge they almost bare no relevance to us mere mortals. Let’s focus on some of the more important questions.  How did we get here and, more importantly, what does it mean for the future of the game?

In years gone by, there’s no doubt that price was a stamp of quality, a marker of the contribution a player had already made to the game. It was a sign to other teams that anyone willing to pay an increased fee was not only recognising that contribution, but was also acknowledging that the player being bought would improve the quality of their team for being in it.

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Take Alan Shearer – his £15 million move to Newcastle Utd in the summer of 1996, a then world-record fee, was seen as clear intent from the Magpies that they wanted to make the most prolific goalscorer in England at the time an integral part of a team that wanted to push for the title. This could still be said for a while, though the trend for increased fees could be seen a mere 5 years later with Zinedine Zidane’s £50 million move to Real Madrid.

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Madrid were, at the time, building the famous Galacticos side, paying top dollar for players they knew were the best in the world. As well as Zidane, they would go on to boast a side that had such established stars as Raul, David Beckham, Ronaldo (the original, as I like to call him), Roberto Carlos and Luis Figo. Nowhere in either example mentioned is the word ‘potential’ mentioned. Top dollar was paid for proven quality, not for what might become that.

And that, for me, is where there is a huge difference between today’s market and those of the past.  Now, potential is paid for where previously proven quality was. Not that this is neccesarily wrong – just an observed difference. But where did that begin?

To my mind, the first example of huge financial outlay for a player with much to prove was Denilson, who broke the world transfer record with a fee of £21.5 million to move to Real Betis in 1998 after only 50 senior appearances in his native Brazil for Sao Paolo. His career took a well-documented nose dive shortly after, as I’ve alluded to in other pieces for The Boot Room. While there have been many subsequent examples of large fees being paid for young players who have gone on to fulfil potential (step forward Wayne Rooney), this, for me, was the first sign of a shift in the market to that kind of buying.

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But what has caused such an increase in the fees paid for players, particularly in recent years?  The honest answer is probably that the amount of money clubs are able to spend is a direct reflection of the money being pumped into them. And this is only set to become more of an issue in years to come, particularly in the Premier League, with them having recently signed a gargantuan TV deal that will see each of the 20 clubs in the top division earn much more than any of their European counterparts. We’re already seeing the fruits of this, with even the smaller Premier League clubs having to pay top dollar for players, either because they’re buying them from fellow EPL clubs, or because they are being somewhat held to ransom by other clubs around the world who know they can hold out for as much as possible from England’s top teams because they know they’ll be able to pay it.

I foresee a problem developing in the future, however, particularly for the Premier League clubs.  There is a time, in the not too distant future, I imagine, when the fees and wages being paid by the top sides in England will price them out of the market for other players in Europe.  Yes, they’ll be able to buy whomever they want, but how will they off-load them? Even if they manage to sell a player on and recoup even some of the huge fee they are likely to have paid, what player, having won the jackpot in gaining a move to England, will want to move to a club somewhere else, where their wages are likely to be nowhere near those they would be earning on these shores? It may even become the case that Europe’s top clubs will abandon England all together.  Let’s face it, when a club like Bayern Munich can capture a player of the talent of Arturo Vidal, for the relatively small sum of £28 million now, what are the chances they are going to even bother looking for players at English clubs in years to come, when prices are only likely to rise?

I may have painted a dark picture about the future of the game but it’s one that I can’t help but see coming to fruition. English teams, already paying a premium for talent, are likely only to have to pay more in future, leaving them undoubtedly with some of the world’s greatest talent, but also with some of the world’s greatest flops, who they’ll struggle to move on.

Where transfer fees once signalled the established quality of a player, they now represent the intent of clubs to tie down promising youngsters so that, should they meet that potential, anyone daring to come and snatch them will have to pay a princely sum to do so. It remains to be seen how this will affect the game in years to come, but I can’t help thinking it will. Particularly in the case of Premier League clubs, bring a sort of financial stalemate that could negatively affect the competitiveness of the game we love for years to come.

Featured Image: All Rights Reserved by Faris Barca

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