The Fluid Morality of Soccer’s Transfer Market

At the height of it, during those long weeks in March and April when the future was nothing but fog, Europe’s soccer players were left in no doubt at all. The message was passed down from the top — from team executives and owners, from the sport’s major leagues themselves and even from lawmakers — through interminable video calls with club captains, and it was clear.

The pandemic represented an existential threat to soccer as they — as we — knew it. Competitions might have to be canceled. Stadiums would stand empty. Revenue would dry up. Multimillion-dollar contracts might not be fulfilled. Jobs would be cut. Clubs could go bankrupt. Nothing would be the same. And only they, the players, could do anything to stanch the damage.

Player salaries, they were told, would have to be cut — or at the very least deferred — across the board simply to get the clubs through the crisis. Some teams grasped the initiative: Borussia Mönchengladbach was among the first to announce that its players would forgo paychecks to protect the club’s other employees. Union Berlin, Juventus, Barcelona and others followed suit.

Elsewhere, the conversations were more fraught. In Italy, Serie A recommended a leaguewide reduction in player pay of around one-third — with an exception for Juventus — and in England the Premier League came to the same conclusion. The Premier League proposal was swiftly rejected by the players’ union: Such a move, it said, would deprive the country of tax revenue it desperately needed. Politicians scented a cheap win, and decried the greed of these young, largely working class, often Black, millionaires.

What the players saw, though, was something else. Privately, they had already been discussing what they could do as individuals to provide more support to Britain’s health care system, not less; they realized the effect that the coronavirus pandemic, and the subsequent shutdown, might have on soccer.

But as teams started to furlough nonplaying staff members and as the moral — as well as economic — pressure was piled on their shoulders, the players wondered whether they were being asked to take pay cuts to protect jobs, or to take pay cuts to protect balance sheets. As millionaires, they accepted they could take a hit. What they did not understand is why the billionaires who owned their clubs did not have to.

Credit…Glyn Kirk/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Soon, a fissure was exposed. The players did not trust that the owners had their best interests at heart; they suspected that, when the summer transfer market opened, all this talk of penury would be forgotten; that they would, effectively, be saving their clubs money so the owners could go out and replace them. Danny Rose, the frank Newcastle defender, said it seemed their “backs were against the wall.” Some, like Mesut Özil and two Arsenal teammates, refused to bow to the pressure.

Five months later, of course, it feels as if the apocalypse that was advertised never quite appeared. Most of Europe’s leagues managed to complete their seasons; those that did not largely cut short their campaigns in order to protect future television income. In Bayern Munich, Europe has a champion. There is no need for asterisks in the history books.

Just as encouraging, the 2020-21 season is already underway. Over the next two weeks, the continent’s most glamorous competitions will all take to the field again, starting with the Premier League and La Liga this weekend. Elite soccer has not quite made it through the fog, but things are clearing, just a little.

Even as the black holes in club finances left by the shutdown do not feel quite as yawning as anticipated, the scale of the financial damage is remarkable. Across Europe, soccer has lost somewhere in the region of $4.5 billion, according to the European Clubs’ Association.

UEFA has had to offer a rebate of $680 million to its broadcasters for games not played in the Champions League and Europa League. And at the end of this season, the Premier League will have to pay back $212 million to its principal domestic television partner, Sky Sports.

Last week, it confirmed it had canceled its $734 million broadcast contract in China; Suning, its partner there, had withheld a payment of $208 million due in March. This week, Richard Masters, the Premier League’s chief executive, told the B.B.C. its clubs would lose $900 million in matchday revenue if fans did not return to stadiums this season.

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“There is a perception that the Premier League economy can withstand just about anything,” Masters said. “But if you do lose £700 million from planned revenues, it’s going to affect things.” Manchester United, for example, estimates that it is missing out on around $6.5 million for every home game held behind closed doors.

Already, the money that has turned European soccer into a worldwide cultural phenomenon is starting to dry up. The fear, really, is that this is just the start. We cannot yet know quite how severe the fallout of the pandemic will be, not least because we do not yet know quite how long the pandemic will last. Much of the pain is yet to come.

Soccer does not exist in isolation, though; it is just as vulnerable to the economic tides as any industry. In simple terms, as unemployment rises, television subscriptions are likely to fall, meaning broadcasters may want to pay less for a product. Advertising revenue may decrease. Perhaps, even after fans are allowed in, the corporate seats that act as cash cows for clubs will not be quite so full. Jersey sales might suffer. Sponsors may be harder to come by. Soccer, like the rest of us, is not through this pandemic yet.

And then you take a glimpse at the transfer market, and it is as if nothing has changed. The clubs of Europe’s five major leagues have spent the best part of $2.5 billion in transfer fees alone already this summer; player salaries and agents’ fees are on top of that. If business does not feel as brisk as normal, it is worth noting that there is still a month of trading left.

The Premier League, as ever, is at the forefront. Tottenham felt the need to take a $226 million loan from the British government in June to offset the effects of the pandemic shutdown; though the club has been explicit that money was not for use in the transfer market, and it has hardly spent lavishly, Tottennham has still found $40 million or so for Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg and Matt Doherty.

Credit…Daniel Leal-Olivas/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Arsenal felt the need to dismiss 55 employees earlier this summer, many of them from its scouting operations, but it has still been able to pay Lille $35 million for the Brazilian defender Gabriel Magalhaes, as well as find the money to improve Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s contract and add Willian from Chelsea on a free transfer.

Newcastle furloughed staff during the shutdown, too, and then spent $25 million on Callum Wilson. Manchester United’s executive vice chairman, Ed Woodward, warned in April that this summer would not be “business as usual,” but his club remains hopeful of making Jadon Sancho the most expensive player in British history.

Wolves spent $40 million on Fabio Silva, an effectively untested Portuguese teenager, with about a quarter of the fee handed to the agents who negotiated the deal. That, perhaps more than any other move, felt like a transfer from the beforetimes; a transfer that spoke of soccer’s conviction that nothing has really changed.

It is tempting to wonder how sensible any of this is, given the context, given how little we know about the long-term impact of the coronavirus pandemic on soccer’s economics. Might this all seem a little reckless in years to come? Might this not have been a summer for sitting tight and limiting expense?

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That the answer to those questions has been, in large part, a resounding no is revealing of the mentality that permeates soccer — perhaps all elite sports — from executives and coaches right down to fans, that the idea of curbing ambition even just for a summer, for a season, is entirely alien.

Maybe Arsenal’s financial stability would have been better served by sticking with Rob Holding in central defense for a year, even if it meant finishing sixth rather than fifth, but that was outweighed by the possibility of immediate improvement on the field. Maybe it could have done without another defender. But that is not how soccer works: It is an economy of want, rather than need.

It is possible that the next few weeks will be filled with teams desperately trying to balance their books, or at least trim a little fat from the wage bills, in order to reflect the game’s new reality a little better. It is also possible that they will not, and that soccer will continue blindly on its way, assuming that it can ride out any storm, that different rules apply, that the money will keep flowing.

Either way, it is significant that what the players suspected in the spring has come to pass. The penury of elite soccer only applied as long as the clubs wanted it to. Those same teams preaching the darkness of the days ahead in April are the same ones scrapping over shiny new trinkets and incremental improvements now that the market has opened and the new season looms large. All of which will, deep down, make the players wonder once more: Who, exactly, were they taking a pay cut for?

Credit…Nacho Doce/Reuters

So, in the end, Lionel Messi came back. Not willingly, as he made abundantly clear; the world’s finest player made it perfectly plain that he felt he had been tricked and misled and deceived by the “club of his life.” We will only know in time what that means for the relationship that has, more than any other, defined soccer over the last decade.

Back when we — and Messi — thought Messi would go, though, the reader Phil Adams sent a question. “In prior columns, you’ve indicated that Barcelona’s manager(s), or whoever is in charge of player acquisition, have made any number of bone-headed acquisitions,” he wrote, entirely correctly. “So, in charge of revisionist history, who would you have declined to purchase over the last few years?”

Ordinarily, I would dodge this sort of thing. Partly because I’m not a scout, so my verdict on who any team should or shouldn’t sign is, essentially, worthless. But mainly because such an approach oversimplifies the complexity of recruitment.

For all its faults, Barcelona has not signed bad players in the last few years. Philippe Coutinho and Ousmane Dembélé are brilliant footballers. That they have not been able to perform at Camp Nou is not down to a lack of ability; it is down to a lack of cohesion in the squad, joined-up thinking in the boardroom, and long-term planning at the club. The same fate might have befallen any player I could suggest as an alternative.

But all those caveats aside, let’s give it a go.

In the summer of 2017, Barcelona had $260 million burning a hole in its pocket from the sale of Neymar. It blew basically all of it on Dembélé, Nelson Semedo, Paulinho and, a few months later, Coutinho. How would I have spent that money?

Well, for the sake of realism, let’s restrict ourselves to players who were actually transferred during the 2017-18 season, so as not to indulge in far-fetched speculation. For the sake of fun, let’s not just say “Kylian Mbappé.” And for the sake of decency, let’s acknowledge that hindsight is a terrible thing, and so forgive Barcelona for not thinking of signing, say, Mohamed Salah that summer.

First off: $57 million to Monaco for Bernardo Silva, outbidding Manchester City. That ensures a successor to Andrés Iniesta. Then $72 million to Borussia Dortmund for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang: a short-term signing, sure, but a proven performer and likely (at that time) to choose Barcelona over Arsenal, the club he joined in January 2018.

Finally, to Manchester City’s cost again, $74 million for the Athletic Bilbao defender Aymeric Laporte. Sergi Roberto can play right back, so no need for Semedo. That leaves $60 million to pay Messi for a year or so, unless Bayern Munich’s $23 million move for Kingsley Coman breaks down late on, making Barcelona healthier off the field, as well, I think, as better on it.

Credit…Gabriel Bouys/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Another fun hypothetical, this time from David: “How would Lyon Féminin fare against the United States women?”

My instinct, on that one, would be to suggest that Lyon would be the more complete unit: club teams, after all, train and play together far more frequently than international ones, and that sort of understanding delivers a built-in advantage. Given the number of United States women’s players descending on Europe in the last few weeks, we may be closer to an answer than previously anticipated.

Thanks to Genaro Lopez, too, for giving the last edition of this newsletter an unwarranted intellectual sheen. “The difficult transition facing Barcelona at the moment reminded me of Clayton Christensen’s disruption theory — described in book length as “The Innovator’s Dilemma” — which in a nutshell describes the insight that managers can fail by doing their jobs well, by serving their best customers, and thus missing the disruptive innovations (the gaps they aren’t serving) that will ultimately put them out of business.

You can expect Clayton Christensen to be quoted regularly from now on, Genaro, as though I have been reading his work for years.

That’s all for this week. The email address for tips, hints, questions and ideas is askrory@nytimes.com. I have all but been away from Twitter for two weeks and cannot recommend it highly enough, but I’ll doubtless be dragged back by my own ego soon enough. And I resisted putting vacation photos on Instagram. Send your friends here if you like what we do, and maybe get them to listen to Set Piece Menu if they’re bored, too.

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