The End of the Transfer Fee?

Soccer 360 Magazine breaks it down!

With certain trends notably shifting, Soccer 360 magazine Gaby McKay ponders the future of the transfer market.

When Real Madrid paid £48m to sign Zinedine Zidane from Juventus in 2001, they set a world transfer record that would stand for eight years.

The same club smashed it twice in a matter of days when they signed Kaka and Cristiano Ronaldo in the big summer splurge of 2009, and again four years later when they snapped up Gareth Bale for a reported £86million. Los Merengues have not lost their lust for Galactico signings, but it appears their next superstar recruit won’t cost them a penny – not in terms of a transfer fee at least.

We’ve come a long way since the transfer record was first set in 1893 by Willie Groves’ move from West Brom to Aston Villa, the Scotsman commanding a bumper £100 fee. Today the record stands at a massive £198m, set when Paris Saint-Germain exploited the buyout clause in Neymar’s contract to prise him from Barcelona.

That move triggered a huge inflation in the market – all of the top 10 most expensive transfers in history came after that move. After several quiet windows though, it’s beginning to look as though that Neymar record may never be beaten.

Outside of the Premier League, spending has plummeted as clubs look to tighten their belts after the Covid-19 crisis, but it’s perhaps not just the pandemic that is putting the squeeze on transfer fees.

In July 2017, just four days before Neymar completed his move to Paris, Arsene Wenger predicted a future in which huge fees would put clubs off, leading to more players moving on Bosman deals when their contracts expired.

The Frenchman said prophetically: “You will see more and more players going into the final year of the contract because no club will want to pay the amount demanded…in the next 10 years, it will become usual.”

As soccer 360 magazine anticipated Just last summer, arguably the greatest player of all time, Lionel Messi, followed Neymar’s path to France after the end of his contract. In that case the Argentine had wanted to stay, only to be told Barca couldn’t afford it – in part due to how they’d squandered that Neymar fee.

However, Messi’s situation does point to a possible future in which the game’s greatest talents move freely. When the winter window closed on January 31, a quite staggering array of big names were free to negotiate a pre-contract agreement elsewhere.

Paul Pogba, Paulo Dybala, Ousmane Dembele and, of course, Kylian Mbappe were all in a position where they could move on in 2022 and earn their current clubs nothing, a state of affairs that would have seemed unthinkable even five years ago.

For players – and agents – the benefit of such a situation is obvious. Once you hit the final six months of your deal, you are free to negotiate with anyone else, giving huge leverage. If Manchester United want to tie down Pogba, they’ll have to contend with agent Mino Raiola touting lucrative offers – real or otherwise – from Europe’s leading lights.

That in itself won’t end the transfer fee as we know it, but at least some clubs are keen to move to a new model. The derided European Super League included a plan for a trading model as seen in most American sports, with the owners of elite clubs sick of paying through the nose for transfer fees then stumping up for huge contracts. The 12 were forced to back away from their breakaway plan but you can bet it’ll return in some form, probably bringing back the transfer model too.

While it may be tempting to look at this curb on excess as a good thing, it could have a potentially disastrous impact on clubs outside the top five leagues. The likes of Ajax, Celtic and Slavia Prague have shown the value in buying cheaply – or developing your own young talent – before selling high.

No one will weep for PSG if and when the second most expensive footballer of all time leaves on a free transfer. But in a game where those outside the elite are reliant on player trading to even occasionally compete, the move to Bosman deals may not be the boon it first appears.

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