The January transfer window showed us that for all the accusations that players only seek money, more are now deciding with their heart rather than their wallet, writes Susy Campanale.
The cliche of the modern football player is someone obsessed with status, cash and the kind of salary package that makes them more in one day that most of their fans do in a whole year. Wages have spiralled completely out of control and need to be reined in, but while there are still some who follow the dollars, we are increasingly seeing athletes consider their sporting ambitions first and foremost.
Robin Gosens put it perfectly when he revealed the offer that was on the table from Newcastle United could’ve paid for several generations of his family to be perfectly well-off for life. That is not an easy thing to turn down, knowing you could provide for everyone you love for decades.
It would’ve been in the Premier League, that is true, but ultimately the German international opted for a less lucrative gig at Inter. The same scenario played out in Serie A when Dusan Vlahovic turned down a much higher salary at Arsenal, infuriating his Fiorentina fans by joining arch-rivals Juventus.
Money might be a more important factor when you get into your 30s and can see the end of your career looming, but before that, ambition has to be the primary factor in the decision-making process.
Arsenal and Newcastle in particular, and to a lesser degree Tottenham Hotspur, saw several of their top transfer targets snub them in favour of less lucrative contracts. The draw of playing in the Premier League only goes so far now, as people have realised it’s an increasingly closed shop in the title race.
If you are not at Manchester City or Liverpool, you can pretty much forget about going for the trophy. Even a Chelsea side that won the Champions League isn’t going to mount a genuine challenge domestically.
When it comes to the Magpies, their nouveau riche approach to the transfer window was fooling nobody. This remained a team battling against relegation and that was not going to change overnight after the arrival of their wealthy new owners.
Arsenal and Spurs fans assumed Vlahovic was going to rush towards them, while Tottenham were left high and dry by Adama Traore as soon as Barcelona came calling. They overestimate the appeal of clubs who every season find themselves scrapping just to enter the top four, and usually failing at that.
These clubs simply do not represent a draw for anything other than money. Even they can’t compete with Major League Soccer on that score, so Lorenzo Insigne will leave his beloved Napoli for Toronto FC as a free agent for reportedly the biggest salary package ever seen in MLS.
The Insigne deal is seen as something of a game changer in North America, attracting a player at the peak of his career and so soon after he started to gain some international recognition, thanks to his performances for Italy at Euro 2020. Canadians will have to learn how to say tiraggiro – a one-word smooshing together of the words tiro a giro, meaning a curling shot – the effort they will no doubt see a lot of next season.
While Sebastian Giovinco was younger, he also joined Toronto FC because he had no prospects at Juventus, his time spent largely on the bench or out on loan. Gonzalo Higuain saw MLS as a retirement league, as many top stars have done before him, but Insigne has genuine quality and star power with plenty more to give.
It used to be assumed that any Italy player going to America was effectively giving up on international duty, but times have changed. Insigne is enough of a fixture in Roberto Mancini’s side to keep getting selected, just one of many Italians now scattered around the globe and gaining valuable experience outside of Serie A.
The globalisation of football will only continue to grow, as those who traditionally did not travel well – above all English and Italian talents – are finally realising they can flourish outside their narrow domestic parameters. Even Mario Balotelli, that man who never seems to be out of chances in his career, earned an Azzurri recall after rediscovering his form in Turkey playing for Adana Demirspor.
Of course, another reason for players focusing more on ambition than money is the example set by those who made the wrong choice. Gianluigi Donnarumma could’ve been in the Champions League with Milan, yet he is languishing on the bench at Paris Saint-Germain as second choice behind Keylor Navas. Franck Kessie could soon follow in his footsteps, as his agents seek an outlandish salary that few clubs are prepared to provide.
Hopefully we’ll see the end of the bidding wars, replaced by the presentation of a genuine long-term strategy to convince players to join a club that suits them. Who knows, it might even convince a few clubs to develop a strategy where it has clearly been lacking.