All Currency Accepted in Soccer Transfers
By SAM BORDEN, NEW YORK TIMES
July 4, 2013
It is a system filled with cash and craziness, a meat market of sorts where contracts can be meaningless, prices vary wildly, middlemen work as many angles as possible and the superstar either has all the power or none of it, depending on one’s perspective.
This is the “absolute absurdity” of the European soccer transfer structure (as one team executive described it), and so while 12:01 a.m. on July 1 was treated with a certain breathlessness in the United States because it marked the opening of the N.B.A.’s free-agency period, the reality is that none of the major North American sports leagues truly approach the outlandish off-season of global soccer.
After all, with players constantly crossing international borders, any sort of overarching regulation is virtually impossible. Salary caps? Nonexistent. Loyalty? Hard to come by. Team payrolls? Often astronomical (despite recent attempts at financial stability) and, at the least, impossible to actually calculate because there are no requirements that contract figures be disclosed publicly.
In addition, money is not the only accepted currency: in the past, players have been dealt for a box of team warm-ups or, in a particularly memorable transaction, about 30 pounds of meat.
“You’re dealing with multiple countries, languages and time zones,” said Lyle Yorks, an agent who represents a number of top players globally. “Just trying to synchronize all that is nuts, but somehow you have to find a way to make it work.”
In Europe, most top leagues finish their seasons in May, and the transfer market is open in the summer — in Britain, for example, it runs from July 1 through Aug. 31 (and then again in January). During the open period, teams can shop for players, with agents often serving as matchmakers.
Theoretically, any player can be acquired; even if a player is under contract with one team, another team can purchase negotiating rights to that player for an agreed-upon price, at which point the second team has the ability to sign the player to a new deal.
Yorks recalled the intensity (and insanity) of last August, when one of his clients, the United States captain Clint Dempsey, moved from Fulham to Tottenham Hotspur of England’s Premier League on the final day that the market was open. Yorks, who is based in the United States but lives in Europe during the transfer-heavy month of August, said he was talking with Arsenal and Liverpool, in addition to Tottenham, as the 11 p.m. local time deadline approached. He and Dempsey had also rejected an inquiry from Aston Villa the night before.
“Tottenham and Fulham agreed at like 9:45 p.m.; we rushed over and did a deal with the club after that and faxed in the paperwork at 10:59 and 30 seconds,” said Yorks.
Yorks added that he had had numerous other close calls, including the time he had a player sign off on a contract while sitting in the back seat of a car on the way to the club’s offices and the day he closed a deal while riding on the Eurostar train from Paris to London (“We got it done just before the train went into the Chunnel.”)
Yorks laughed. “This is the kind of thing that happens all the time over here,” he said.
The circumstances surrounding Dempsey’s move were typical. Technically, he had another year remaining on his contract with Fulham, but both sides knew Dempsey had interest in moving to a bigger club.
Rather than keep Dempsey and lose him a year later with no compensation, Fulham opted to trade him — but could only do so to a club where Dempsey would agree to sign a new contract.
Such is the push-pull nature of influence in the transfer system. In professional sports in the United States, teams, much of the time, can simply trade a player and his contract to whomever they like. Not so in soccer.
For example, Aston Villa reportedly offered the largest transfer fee for Dempsey (said to be £7 million or about $10 million) and Fulham accepted, but Dempsey did not want to play for Aston Villa, so the deal was scuttled. Ultimately, Fulham agreed with Tottenham on a fee believed to be £6 million, and Dempsey happily signed a new contract with the north London club.
This summer, Yorks is working to find a new home for another American forward, Jozy Altidore, who scored 31 goals last season for the Dutch club AZ. Yorks said he was negotiating with two Premier League clubs (one of which is believed to be Sunderland), as well as teams in Italy and Germany. Earnie Stewart, the director of football at AZ, said making the right decision on player moves was a delicate balancing.
“We would like to keep Jozy, but we also know that everyone has a price, and there may come a time when, from a business standpoint, you have to do something,” he said. “It’s something you learn over the years, how to feel when the time is right. And if your scouting is good, any time you lose a player you have a No. 2 option already in place.”
One of Dempsey’s Tottenham teammates, the star midfielder Gareth Bale, has been the focus of transfer talk in recent weeks. Tottenham Manager Andres Villas-Boas had stated repeatedly that he wanted to keep Bale, the top player in the Premier League last season. But those assertions did not keep powerful Real Madrid from swooping in anyway and trying to determine if it could pry him away with a lavish offer.
That Bale still had three more years left on his Spurs contract did not seem to matter.
It would be virtually unthinkable in the United States for a team to feel that it had no choice but to give up a star player still signed for three more seasons, but in soccer, it is different. As it turned out, Tottenham made it clear that it would not be pressured or tempted or seduced by any amount of money to surrender Bale, at least for now, and he will stay at Tottenham for the 2013-14 season.
Of course, that will not keep Real Madrid from trying again next summer, perhaps with Bale lobbying to leave at that point and perhaps with Madrid being willing to fork over more than the record £80 million (more than the $120 million) that it paid Manchester United for Cristiano Ronaldo in 2009.
“It only takes one buyer,” said Jerome de Bontin, who spent seven years as an executive with Monaco in the French league and is now the general manager of Major League Soccer’s Red Bulls. “It is not as if there is an auction. There is just one sporting director and one head coach and one owner who may believe that a certain player is going to help them win.”
De Bontin added: “I came from the financial world, and it is the opposite of that. There is no transparency, no regulation. In many ways, it is a totally irrational market.”
Longtime soccer fans know it was not always this way. Until 18 years ago, there were rules that allowed clubs to keep a player from leaving for a team in a different country even at the end of a player’s contract, as well as quotas in several countries that restricted how many players from other nations were allowed on a given team.
In 1995, however, the European Court of Justice ruled on a case brought by Jean-Marc Bosman, a player for a Belgian team who sued on grounds of restraint of trade after his team would not grant him a transfer. The court’s ruling, which abolished quotas on Europeans and allowed players at the end of their contracts the right to leave without club consent, essentially opened the transfer market within Europe.
“That was the landmark case,” Laurent Dubois, a professor at Duke who writes frequently on the intersection of soccer and politics, said in an interview. “The system as we know it now began with Bosman.”
From that point, teams had an incentive to deal players before their contracts expired or risk losing them for nothing. Given that possibility, cash is generally king; big-money clubs like Manchester United and Barcelona (which recently paid 57 million euros, about $74 million, to Santos for the right to sign the Brazilian wunderkind Neymar) can poach young talent as they see fit.
And the nouveau riche, like Monaco, which is now backed by a Russian billionaire, can leap to the upper echelon with a summer like the one the French league team is currently enjoying (it has already spent about 120 million euros, or $155 million, to sign three top players).
Smaller clubs can cash in by developing youngsters and then trading them (though the odds of pulling off a superstar sale are always long), and Dubois pointed out that despite the big splash of the top-end transactions, the true foundation of the transfer system lies in the reality that most players are essentially owned by a club from a young age.
Without a college system like the one in the United States, talented young players enter a club’s academy as teenagers, or even at a younger age, and are trained and educated. At some point in their late teens, they are either promoted to the club’s top teams, released or dealt, if there is an interested buyer. “It’s sort of like if Duke sold players directly to the Los Angeles Lakers,” Dubois said.
Critics of the system point to the utter lack of transparency as well as the rampant opportunities for corruption and back-room bartering, but fans’ fascination with the transfer system is immense. Countless Web sites track transfer market rumors, and there is constant debate over players’ hypothetical value.
“Some of the prices have become quite high,” said Stewart, “but I think it is like houses. For a while, houses went up and up and up. Now they have come down. At some point, the same thing will have to happen in football.”
Of course, not all transfers are of the seven- or eight-figure variety. Ian Wright, an English striker, was sent from Greenwich Borough to Crystal Palace in 1985 for a set of free weights, and Zat Knight, a defender, went from Rushall Olympic to Fulham in 1999 for 30 warm-up suits.
Neither of those transactions compares to the 2006 transfer of Marius Cioara, who was dealt from Arad, a club in Romania’s second division, to Regal Horia, a team two divisions lower. The price agreed upon was 15 kilograms (roughly 33 pounds) of sausage and other meat, but Cioara left his new club with buyer’s remorse, retiring a day after the transfer was processed.
In what is surely one of the more bizarre moments in transfer history, Cioara’s decision forced officials with Regal Horia to try and recoup their losses — specifically, the meat — by pleading with Arad for repayment. Their requests were denied.
“We are upset because we lost twice,” a team official was quoted as saying by a Romanian news agency. “Firstly, because we lost a good player, and secondly, because we lost our team’s food for a whole week.”