In the summer of 2017, Jean Michael Seri seemed set to join Barcelona. The Ivorian had been a standout player for Nice, and the two clubs had agreed on a deal worth around €40m. Depending on who you believe, Les Aiglons either raised the price or Barca pulled out, but either way the deal collapsed.
Seri was disappointed, but his future seemed to lie at the very highest level. Indeed, none other than Xavi Hernandez had described him as a player with “Barca DNA”. This summer, Seri left Nice — not for Barca, but for Fulham.
The Cottagers are a historic English side, founded in 1879, and won promotion from the Championship last season with an entertaining, slick style of football. Despite that, you’d be hard-pressed to call them one of the Premier League’s leading lights. Fulham have never won a major honour and their stadium, Craven Cottage, holds just 25,700 people. Barcelona they are not.
Despite their stature, the Lilywhites can attract a player like Seri thanks to the Premier League’s £5.1bn television deal for 2016-2019. Wolverhampton Wanderers, thanks to their links with super-agent Jorge Mendes, were able to sign Portugal internationals Joao Moutinho and Rui Patricio despite also being promoted from the Championship last year. West Ham United, a relegation battler last year, signed Felipe Anderson from Lazio and Andriy Yarmolenko from Borussia Dortmund.
It’s been said for years that the riches of the Premier League were distorting the transfer market, but this summer really hammered home the point. Teams like Frosinone, Heusca and Reims, newly-promoted in their respective Leagues in Italy, Spain and France, could never hope to attract the players brought in by England’s promoted clubs, and it appears there is a growing concentration of talent in the Premier League.
The very top players will always want to join Real Madrid, Juventus or Bayern Munich, of course, but history has proven that the correlation between wages and trophies is nearly exact. If English football continues to outstrip the rest of the continent financially, what becomes of European competition? Premier League clubs have struggled in Europe in recent seasons, but the sheer volume of cash will surely have its say in the end.
The Premier League deserves immense credit for being able to market itself so successfully, and English fans may very well not care if their Italian, Spanish or French counterparts’ clubs cannot compete financially.
While there is a certain irony in sneering at players moving to Major League Soccer or the Chinese Super League for a big payday when one of Ligue 1’s best midfielders is joining Fulham, fans want to see as many good players as possible in the League.
The arrivals of these continental superstars is not necessarily a good thing for English football though, and to see why we need only look at the national team.
The Three Lions defied expectations under Gareth Southgate this summer, advancing to the World Cup semi-finals to the stains of Baddiel & Skinner’s ‘Three Lions’ and its proclamation that “football’s coming home”.
Of that squad, goalkeeper Jordan Pickford earned a big move to Everton a year earlierafter a breakthrough season at Sunderland, but that followed loan spells at Darlington, Bradford and Preston North End. Harry Maguire worked his way to Leicester City via Sheffield United, Hull City and a loan at Wigan. Jamie Vardy, John Stones, Fabian Delph and Phil Jones all similarly worked their way up from the lower leagues.
Add Tottenham Hotspur youth products like Harry Kane, Dele Alli and Eric Dier, not to mention Marcus Ashford and Jesse Lingard from Manchester United, and a good portion of Southgate’s squad was either plucked form youth academies or smaller clubs further down the football pyramid.
Will that continue to be the case when every club in the Division can outspend basically anyone in Europe? The current television deal only kicked in for the 2016-17 season, and its real long-term effects are perhaps yet to be felt.
Is there a midfielder in the Championship of League One as good as Seri? Of course not. Perhaps though, there’s someone who could be one day. In the past Fulham would have been an ideal Premier League proving ground for such a player, and it’s not certain the same chance will be afforded now.