Football is a wealthy man’s game. Not to play: anyone with a ball and a couple of mates will find a way of starting a match using some makeshift goals – but to actually be involved in the sport.
Of course, there are so many possibilities that I could now venture down, and inevitably I will end up delving into many of them, but the real question I want to focus here is on transfer fees. Are excessive transfer fees justified, or are they just ludicrous investments using money that would be much better spent elsewhere?
Of course, transfer fees have been rising for a long time now – inflation is inevitable – but it is the amounts today, both in price and in quantity, which is actually quite baffling. Already this summer (and bear in mind that we’re only half way through the transfer window) we have already seen around £325m spent on Radamel Falcao, Edinson Cavani, Neymar, Fernandinho, Mario Götze, James Rodriguez, Asier Illarramendi and Gonzalo Higuaín: an average of about £40m per player. All are fantastic players, yes, but it certainly suggests a trend which many have suspected: a great player today will cost in excess of £30m; a star player will cost £50m upwards.
Call me old fashioned, but that seems far too expensive, especially when you consider that wages haven’t even been factored in here.
A glance at the history books shows how transfer fees have risen at such an exponential rate. Gianluigi Lentini’s record transfer of £13m in 1992 happened 102 years after the first player to command a three figure transfer (Willie Groves for £100). Yet just 14 years later, the record fee had risen by a remarkable £67m courtesy of Cristiano Ronaldo.
While inflation has certainly occurred in general, surely it has not risen by such an amount as to result in this astronomical sum? What is most interesting is the way that it has risen so sharply in what is meant to be a global economic crisis.
Lentini’s transfer wasn’t simply plucked out of thin air or by working out various differences in price and year in order to create the most bias sounding statistic I could; it was in fact the current world transfer record at the time a certain Jean-Marc Bosman had a ruling passed, changing the landscape of transfers forever.
While I shan’t go into detail, having previously written an article on the subject, the Bosman ruling effectively handed more control of transfers to the players and their agents, giving them more scope to negotiate better salaries through the threat of walking out on the club.
This inevitably led to a sharp rise in the values and wages as clubs competed to provide the most lucrative and enticing financial package. As a result, since the Euro was adopted in 1999, a total of 54 players have been transferred for €35m or more; a statistic that will undoubtedly rise even before the end of this summer, with the likes of the Gareth Bale, Wayne Rooney and Luis Suarez all being linked with megabucks moves.
Bosman of course, although undoubtedly contributing greatly, isn’t the only factor behind overly inflated transfer fees.
Technological improvements have led to a far greater opportunity for constant exposure of the sport within the media, meaning that broadcasting rights generate a huge influx of money into the sport (£5.5 billion has been secured for the next three seasons of the English Premier League between Sky and BT). This exposure also provides businesses with more reason to become involved with sponsorship; shirt deals, training grounds, equipment – all can produce millions for clubs to have the logo spread out across them.
These greater incomes will provide more transfer funds.
We must also thank the oligarchs who have effectively become a fixture within the modern game. Of course, many clubs are owned by millionaire owners – how else could they survive? – but the billions brought in through the fortunes of Roman Abramovich, Sheikh Mansour and the Qatar Investment Authority have created a vast influx of wealth within the game.
Be it the impatience of these owners to buy whatever the cost, or simply the stubbornness of smaller clubs attempting to get the best deal possible, it has led to many players transferring for over the odds prices. Even fan will undoubtedly be able to reel off several expensive ‘flops’ at their club down the years…
Of course, the ultimate goal is to win competitions as winning indulges in far greater prizes, yet while the fans and the players may love the silverware, the men in suits can gain a substantial amount of money. Prize money (2013 Champions League winners Bayern Munich received €36m for winning the tournament) is not the only enticement, as more fans and corporations will spend larger sums to become a part of a winning, recognisable club.
Mario Götze is one of the brightest talents in world football today and this summer joined Bayern. Adding such a talent to their squad will improve their chances of victory this season; generating more funds once again in a strengthen-win cycle.
Spending £10m on a player when a club generates £100m per year is no different to spending £2m on an annual income of £20m, which may have been the case of decades past.
Looking at these different reasons as to why money has become such a massive factor within the modern game, can it be justified that these seemingly extortionate transfer fees are simply a means to an end and, despite big prices grabbing the headlines, clubs are not to blame?
Of course, many of you reading this article will probably state that everything I have written is irrelevant. Simply put, you will probably be about to angrily state in the comments section that there is simply too much money in football full stop, so why analyse it? Surely no one is worth spending £40m on, and giving them £250k per week, when you look at the world away from the sport.
Poverty, disasters – even simply the doctors and soldiers; 99% of you would undoubtedly say this is where money should be spent. But the harsh reality is that there is too much money involved in football, and until something is done about it, it will continue to rise.
UEFA’s Financial Fair Play will surely go some way toward eradicating such ludicrous sums of money, yet it is unlikely that football will even be in reach of anyone without a few million in their banks.
While there is little use in complaining about the sums of money involved in the sport it is still questionable as to whether such fees are necessary. Do football clubs really need to spend so much in order to be successful? My earlier points will surely point to ‘yes’; something further justified by looking at the top leagues of most countries where the same few teams regularly dominate unless challenged by an emerging force courtesy of a billionaire bankrolling them.
Yet some clubs may argue otherwise. Borussia Dortmund, despite being one of the most exciting teams currently in the world, are cheaply assembled. Their starting XI in last season’s Champions League Final accumulated to less than £38m. This amount becomes even more impressive when you consider that £15m of that was spent on just one player (Marco Reus).
Furthermore, this doesn’t include there talisman Götze (prior to becoming a Bayern player, who came through the Dortmund youth academy). The starting XI versus their Champions League nemesis in the German Super Cup last weekend, which they won 4-2, is of a similar price.
Other examples of success despite an insignificant cost point to Arsenal and Barcelona.
Despite failing to win any silverware across an amount of years I’m sure several Tottenham fans would like to clarify, Arsenal have consistently reached the top four of the Premier League and knockout stages of the Champions League, despite Arsène Wenger’s reluctance to release the purse strings.
That's an achievement that, however frustrating for the Gunners, is certainly impressive. And although Barcelona have spent big sums in the past, their core of Victor Valdes, Carles Puyol, Gerard Piqué, Xavi Hernández, Andrés Iniesta, Sergio Busquets, Pedro Rodríguez and of course, Lionel Messi, all came through their youth academy.
So too did Cesc Fàbregas and Jordi Alba (although they returned to the club for a larger fee). Surely there is no bigger advertisement than the basis for both arguably the best club and national sides in history?
These examples point to youth investment and it is a valid point. Why buy a star when you can make one? German football as a whole has proved how this can be achieved with a complete overhaul of their youth system which is now reaping generous rewards, while Spain continuously seem to turn out top youngsters every season. Unfortunately, it is obviously not as simple as that.
The main issue of course is that of stability. With football being so largely dominated by money, rarely do managers have the time to work on building a team of young, inexpensive players, with both fans and owners demanding instant success. The sack comes more often than not, and a new manager with different footballing philosophies will create a further setback in ever becoming self sustainable.
So perhaps, even with the given examples of how success can be achieved on a smaller transfer budget, the whole concept becomes a moot point.
People will complain that there is too much money spent on transfer fees and wages, yet will complain if the money isn’t spent (case in point Arsenal fans). Honestly, how many fans would accept relegation from the Premiership in return for little money being spent on players, let alone any considered ‘marquee signings’? It doesn’t sound a particularly attractive proposition.
With the money that comes with being successful, it would appear that teams crave instant success, and the best way of getting that is by spending big. While these unbelievable transfer fees may seem too high, it is surely just a way of re investing your portion available; transfers haven’t risen as drastically as they may seem when put into context of how much money is now available, and to spend more is to make more.
Therefore, perhaps it is simply the demand to become a part of the sport we love and the people at FIFA who inject immeasurably high amounts of money into the game, and high transfer fees are just an inevitable by product of this influx; they simply remain in context with the amount of money available. £60m is the new £20m. That being said, given the choice between Luis Suarez and £50m, I know what I’d choose…
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