JThe Nations League drags on, a good idea belittled by circumstances as weary fans and weary journalists try to muster the will to care about tired players playing what many managers have admitted they see as preparation at the World Cup, wearily. Who can muster the energy to worry about who England’s third-choice right-back might be? Who can mind watching another VAR replay of two feet coming together? If a player wonders if another push forward to block a passing lane is worth it, who can blame them?
The situation is so bad that even the addition of the combined age of Belgian centre-backs is starting to lose its luster. It’s not just that the compression of the calendar because of the Covid, the November World Cup and greed has tired everyone, it’s that the Nations League is eating away at the most beautiful moment of the year : the transfer window.
The modern obsession with transfers is disconcerting, but what has become clear is that a sizable subsection of football culture – journalists and fans, and probably directors too – almost seem to prefer the market at the start of September and February each year, there are feverish debates over who “won the window”, as if the exchange of players was an end in itself and not a means of winning football matches.
There is a form of utopian world-building, surely reinforced by the impact of computer management simulations. Just as a draw can often feel like the best part of a tournament, as we imagine competitions between each team’s purest form, unblemished by injury or form, a player is at his best when he signs.
We think about how this new centre-forward at his best will relate to his teammates, before it becomes clear that in reality he never really recovered from this calf problem, he only doesn’t get along with the left-back, the right winger the serve turns out not to be quite good for him, he doesn’t quite respect the coach’s philosophy and it’s actually just his partnership with the previous club’s No.10 making him look good.
There is also a sense of status: if you buy big players for big money, it means you have to be a big club. Signings become a goal in themselves, transfers for transfers. And it’s probably linked to the pleasure that many seem to take in shopping. Everyone wants to see ambition expressed through spending; everyone just wants more money, more purchases, and very few stop to ask where the money is coming from. In modern society, acquisition itself becomes a significant pursuit – and if you’re a billionaire probably even more so: you may have the biggest yacht, but I’ve got the most expensive midfielder.
For clubs with vast sources of external revenue, which are not reliant on TV deals and fans through the door, big signings have the added benefit of inflating the market, pushing top players out of the more traditionally club lineup. financed.
But there is a quirk here. While the wealthiest clubs are the most successful clubs (as countless columns lamenting the financial imbalances of modern football have made clear), the biggest signings rarely work. Look at a list of the most expensive transfers in history (and yes, there are quibbles over exchange rates and exactly what bonus fees to include).
Of the top 20, how many could be considered a great success from a footballing point of view? Some – João Félix, Jack Grealish, Jadon Sancho – are still young enough to become hits. Others have a complex history: Gareth Bale, for example, won five Champions Leagues with Real Madrid and included extraordinary performances, but his time there ended in three years of acrimony. Only three – Cristiano Ronaldo at Madrid, Virgil van Dijk at Liverpool and Luis Suárez at Barcelona – have been outright successes.
Neymar or Kylian Mbappé, the two most expensive transfers in history, may have helped to promote the Paris Saint-Germain brand – which is certainly an important part of the Qatari project – and they certainly accelerated the inflationary spiral, but they didn’t bring the Champions League which, given the current Ligue 1 title, is the only way for the club to truly judge sporting achievement.
PSG’s capture of Neymar led directly to Barcelona buying third-biggest signing Philippe Coutinho, the main beneficiaries of which were Liverpool, who used the fee to buy Van Dijk and Alisson. Coutinho’s most memorable match under contract at Barca saw him score twice against them while on loan at Bayern in an 8-2 humiliation. Barca, whose recent transfer record is as bad as anyone, are also responsible for signings to number five and eighth on the list, Antoine Griezmann and Ousmane Dembélé, who they are both looking to offload with a loss important.
Romelu Lukaku accounts for three of the 21 most expensive transfers. The least expensive of them, his move from Manchester United to Internazionale, is the only success. His move from Everton to United was, at best, starkly neutral. He was sold for just a small loss after two years without interest, but his £97.5m move to Chelsea from Inter last summer was a baffling flop, with his Christmas interview criticizing the tactics of Thomas Tuchel apparently causing an irreparable break in their relationship. Then there’s Paul Pogba, whose role appears to be essentially shuttling between Manchester and Turin, at great expense to United.
Of the top 20, eight can probably be classed as clear misses – in footballing terms. Which means what, exactly? Certainly not that money is irrelevant in football or that big transfers are doomed. On the contrary, this money is spent more effectively, from a footballing point of view, on rising stars who fit an overall philosophy than on standard celebrities, players who, whether because they are already trained or because of their ego, find it difficult to adapt to a new environment.
But also that a lot of money is now spent for commercial as well as footballing reasons. The biggest deals rarely bring success in the field.