A time to make big gambles

A time to make big gambles

Football : European clubs are splurging their cash in the transfer market, hoping to make it big

A time to make big gambles

At the start of this week, Ángel di María was somewhere in transit between Argentina, Qatar and France. His flights somehow crystallised the way that international soccer moves players around like commodities on the stock markets.

Di María is a talented player, a wispy, speedy winger who three years ago ran on the flank of Real Madrid. Last season he excelled for a time with Manchester United, and now he is about to move to Paris Saint-Germain. A player without a permanent address, and no apparent loyalty, he goes where the money takes him. And it is not entirely his fault, because Madrid chose to sell him after his starring performance in the 2014 Champions League. English soccer apparently did not suit him, and Paris has all the money that Qatar’s ruling family wishes to throw at it, attempting to make a French team a global power.

In his place, Manchester United is pursuing Barcelona’s winger Pedro, whose buyout clause is about half the $69 million that Manchester expects to recoup on the sale of di María. But these are just two of the 5,225 or so players being bought and sold, or just given away, in the summer trading window that runs from June to September.
Deloitte, the accounting firm, reckons that this summer has already passed the $780 million mark. And it should go much higher, because there are teams holding out for the September deadline, when desperation will spin prices beyond market value.

David de Gea, the Manchester United goalie, is wanted by Real Madrid. John Stones, the young Everton defender, appeals to Manchester United, Chelsea and others. And the German club Wolfsburg appears to be telling Manchester City not to bother bidding for Kevin De Bruyne, its Belgian midfielder, unless it triggers the asking price of $78 million.

The reason City has this money to spend is twofold. Its owner is Abu Dhabi royalty, and England’s Premier League has negotiated new broadcasting rights in 2016 that will increase the teams’ shares by around 70% for domestic TV, with billions more under negotiation on the world rights.

Spanish clubs, which have suffered from the selective bargaining that allowed Real Madrid and Barcelona to dwarf the rest in television income, have been ordered by the government to follow the English system of equal broadcast rights from next season onward. This fusion of high finance, added to whatever the clubs can make on ticket sales and sponsorships, spurs the buying and selling at the top, and some of that filters down to the lower leagues particularly in England.

But every transfer is a gamble. Soccer might be among the last industries where the trading of human beings for profit and loss is legitimate, and it is as loosely governed as almost anything that comes under the authority of FIFA.

There are laws, but ask any club official on the Continent and they will tell you that months of hard bargaining for specific individuals is wrecked the instant that a Premier League team comes in waiving extra pounds or euros at that player’s agent.
Whatever moves di María, he has one unforeseen reason for wanting to quit Manchester. His wife became unsettled there following an attempted burglary at their home a few months after the couple arrived in England.  All the rest — the language, the food, the climate and the physical aggression when defenders jar the ankles of fast and slender movers like di María — takes time to adjust to.

Why bother? Paris is hardly less likely to be burglar-proof than outer Manchester, but the Qatar sovereign fund made up for that by agreeing to pay the taxes of a player like di María, on top of a salary that any young man might move on for.

Soccer is soccer, the rules are more or less the same in every country, so which of us would eschew the lore of tax-free living to join the multinational cast of PSG, which includes plenty of Spanish-speaking teammates?

He is an instinctive fellow, so maybe, just as he initially did at Manchester, he will show off his world-class talents right away.

Don’t bet on all the 5,000-odd transferred players doing the same. The trades concern a change of routine, change of home, family disruption, schooling for the children, acclimatisation, the training regimen, and changes for a circle of wives and girlfriends.

On top of that, there are changes in the locker room. If one player moves on, let alone the five or six per team that often happens in the summertime, there are new relationships to establish. Just as likely, there might be a new head coach (and with that, a new team of experts backing that coach) either at the start of the season or at some midway point when the owners panic if results are not rewarding after the spending. And there is a second window, each January, to make adjustments. So far, di María has not availed himself of that opportunity, preferring just one annual lifestyle upheaval per annum.

It is a serious business. Careers in sports are short, even excluding the possibility of injury curtailing them even further. The coaching and managerial turnover is even shorter and if, say, Manchester United becomes disenchanted with Louis van Gaal’s coaching methods, there is no assurance that he will not be fired. Nobody, it seems, tells the owners that changing the personnel on the team is just a little bit more complicated than changing light bulbs.

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