Unless you’ve been living under a rock over the past few months, you must have heard about Neymar Jr breaking the world record for the most-expensive transfer ever as he completed his move away from Barcelona. Paris Saint Germain paid a whopping 200 million pounds for his signature. The completion of the transfer has left the whole world in awe, with many football experts and fans contemplating if a single person can be worth that amount.
Football went professional in 1885, which meant that football players could now be bought and sold from their respective clubs by means of currency. This coincided with the formation of the English First Division in 1888. The new league system heralded a revolution in the world of football, with clubs vying to earn the rights of being called the champions of the country. Slowly but surely, they started using money to bolster their starting ranks, thus paving the way to success. The success and the riches that came with it prompted the foundation of several new clubs at the time, and football began spreading at a rapid rate.
In 1893, West Bromwich Albion sold their star striker William Groves for 100 pounds to Aston Villa, the founding club of the First Division. This was the first ever three-digit sum paid for a transfer. For 12 years, all the footballing transfers took place in the realm of three digits. However in 1905, Middlesbrough splashed out 1,000 pounds for Alf Common, one of the best strikers in the English First Division. His departure from Sunderland caused massive outrage from the footballing authorities as well as the public for what was termed as “reckless expenditure of resources.”
More than the sport itself, transfers have become the world’s most-followed game
With the advent of television rights and sponsorships, football clubs started earning more money, and therefore the transfer prices went up slowly too. In 1928, more than two decades after the four-digit mark was breached for the first time, Arsenal broke the five-digit mark to bring in David Jack from Bolton Wanderers for an initial fee of 10,000 pounds, which later rose to 11,500 pounds. The chairman of the English Football Association at the time issued a statement that no individual football player was worth that amount of money. Arsenal manager Herbert Chapman considered it a bargain, as Jack helped Arsenal to three First Division titles.
In 1932, Argentinian champions River Plate became the first non-British club to break the global transfer record when they paid 23,000 pounds to another Argentinian club Tigre for striker Bernabe Ferreyra. Ferreyra went on to score a mammoth 187 goals in 185 games for River Plate, and held the title of the world’s most expensive player for 17 years, the longest ever time period.
After the Second World War, the spending abilities of the British clubs waned a bit, but that didn’t stop Derby County from paying 24,000 pounds to Manchester United for Johnny Morris, thus bringing back the record to Britain. However, after this transfer, the record went abroad to Spain and Italy, and didn’t come back quickly. Although the transfer record was broken seven times between 1949 and 1960, it was the sale of Luis Suarez (not the Uruguay superstar who bit Giorgio Chiellini) from Barcelona to Inter Milan for a fee of 152,000 pounds in 1961 that made the most headlines. This was the first transfer that broke the six-digit barrier, and set the tone for upcoming transfers.
It took almost 33 years to break the six-digit barrier after the first five-digit transfer. However, the arrival of the first million pound player did not take that long. Soon after Pietro Anastasi became the first 500,000 pounds signing in 1968, Bologna’s Giuseppe Savoldi became the first million pound football player when he was signed by fellow Italian club Napoli in 1975. The price was branded as ridiculous by experts and world media. This came just one season after Johan Cruyff, often referred to as one of the best players of all time, came agonisingly close to breaking the seven-digit barrier when he was signed by Barcelona for 922,000 pounds from Dutch club Ajax. Then came Diego Maradona, arguably the greatest-ever football player along with Brazilian legend Pele. After the 1982 World Cup, Barcelona splashed out three million pounds for the highly rated Boca Juniors forward. Just two years later, Maradona broke his own record and left for Napoli for five million pounds, thus becoming the only player to break his own transfer record.
After Maradona, the world record started to topple regularly, Ruud Gullit held it for a while, and Roberto Baggio held it too. In 1992, the 10 million pounds barrier was broken as French forward Jean-Pierre Papin transferred from Marseille to Milan for the coveted eight-digit sum. However, the record was broken in the same year twice by Gianluca Vialli and then by Gianluigi Lentini. Lentini held the record for four years, having cost Milan 13 million pounds. In 1996, Brazilian young prodigy Ronaldo burst onto the scene as an explosive forward with bags of talent and goals. He was snapped up by Barcelona as a 20-year-old for a fee estimated to be around 13.2 million pounds. The same year, Alan Shearer brought the record back to Britain as he joined his boyhood club Newcastle United for 15 million pounds. This kick-started a trend which saw the record being broken almost every other year.
Ronaldo took back his record the next year when he moved to Inter Milan for 19 million pounds, joining David Jack and Diego Maradona in the group of players to hold the record twice. Denilson held the record after being bought by Real Betis for 21 million pounds, and then Chritian Vieri was bought by Inter Milan from Lazio for 28 million pounds. In the immediate aftermath of the transfer, a Lazio fan committed suicide in protest, with his last note bearing the words “I’m disappointed because Lazio sold Vieri. Such a lot of money for one player, but money isn’t everything in life.”
After the turn of the millennium, Hernan Crespo’s transfer from Parma to Lazio broke the 30 million pounds barrier, and prompted the BBC to ask if the world had gone mad. Mad or not, that record failed to stand for a long time too, with Luis Figo’s controversial move from Barcelona to arch rivals Real Madrid just two weeks later costing a whopping 37 million pounds. This heralded the beginning of the Galactico philosophy at Real, as they splashed the cash on multiple players in the following two years, including the acquisition of the best player in the world at the time, Zinedine Zidane, for a world record 48 million pounds from Juventus.
Denilson held the record after being bought by Real Betis for 21 million pounds, and then Chritian Vieri was bought by Inter Milan from Lazio for 28 million pounds. In the immediate aftermath of the transfer, a Lazio fan committed suicide in protest, with his last note bearing the words “I’m disappointed because Lazio sold Vieri. Such a lot of money for one player, but money isn’t everything in life.”
Zidane’s record would stand for eight years, but would ensure that transfer prices of footballers would never be the same, as was proven by the sale of English defender Rio Ferdinand from Leeds to Manchester United for 29 million pounds, and the acquisition of Wayne Rooney by the same club from Everton for a staggering 24 million pounds, considering he was only 18 at the time of the transfer.
In 2009, Real Madrid broke the transfer record for the third consecutive time by buying Brazilian maestro Kaka from Milan for 56 million pounds, and followed that up a month later with arguably the biggest signing before Neymar’s. Portuguese football sensation Cristiano Ronaldo, Balon d’or winner of the previous year as well as Europe’s top scorer in 2008/09, donned the all-white after Real paid a mammoth 80 million pounds to Manchester United. The price might have felt insane at the time of the transfer, but it seems like a bargain now, considering both the performances of Ronaldo in the Spanish capital as well as the relative prices of other footballers.
In 2013, Real Madrid continued their tradition of breaking the world record with the signing of Gareth Bale from Tottenham for approximately 85 million pounds. This was the first ever €100 million signing. In 2016, Manchester United ended Real Madrid’s reign over the transfer record as Juventus’ Paul Pogba became the most expensive football player, costing United a cool 89 million pounds.
BROADCASTERS IN THE DRIVING SEAT
The sudden increase in the prices of football players is down to the fact that almost all the matches of all the clubs in Europe’s top leagues are televised. Along with the profit gained from televised matches, sponsorship bonuses account for a major part of a club’s earnings. Another factor is the acquisition of clubs by foreign tycoons, such as the acquisition of Chelsea by Russian multi-billionaire Roman Abramovich, and the acquisition of Manchester City and Paris by UAE and Qatar-based businessmen.
All of these factors have turned football into a commercial war, with clubs not afraid to splash out cash for players. An example of this trend is the 100 million pounds bid Manchester City made for Kaka in 2009, just weeks after being acquired by Sheikh Mansour. Another major factor in this money war is that small clubs tend to overcharge the bigger clubs because of the happenings in the world of football transfers over the past two decades, and the riches associated with the bigger clubs. Just because it was Manchester United who wanted to buy him, AS Monaco charged 36 million pounds (later rising up to 58 million pounds) for teenager Anthony Martial.
WHAT CAN YOU BUY FOR A NEYMAR JR?
That brings us back to the current record holder. In 2017, French club PSG decided to match Neymar’s buyout clause and paid Barcelona more than twice the previous world record. The deal, approximated at around 200 million pounds is undoubtedly the greatest, and probably the most insane football transfer of all time. Just to put the amount into perspective, with 200 million pounds, you can buy your very own private island. Or if you’re not into holidays, you can buy two luxury yachts of the highest order.
Not into cruises either? With 200 million pounds, you can buy four private jets, or even a super jet. For avid car enthusiasts, the Bugatti Chiron costs a mere 2.1 million pounds. The legendary Ferrari 250 GTO can be bought in a little less than 150 million pounds. So the question arises, can five feet and nine inches of trickery, skill and goals be worth 200 million pounds?
Well, PSG will probably say yes. Ever since the signing was unveiled, they’ve had a multifold increase in the sales of their shirts, and his presence will probably spur them on to further success in France as well as in Europe. Winning the UEFA Champion’s League pockets the club a massive 80 million pounds, so that’s half of the price paid for Neymar.
SURVIVAL OF THE RICHEST
The next question that arises is, should a club be allowed to spend such a ridiculous amount on one player? Well the answer to that is not black and white. It’s in the grey area. To prevent the elite football clubs forming a stronghold over the transfer market, UEFA introduced Financial Fairplay Regulations in 2009. The main aim of these regulations was to ensure that clubs do not spend more than they earn in their chase for success. Although these regulations are confusing to understand, breaching them has severe consequences, including fines and transfer bans.
When Neymar signed for Barcelona in 2013, UEFA and Spanish legal authorities investigated the transfer, and found many irregularities in the documents. The prosecutor announced that the actual price Barcelona paid for Neymar was 71.5 million pounds, rather than the 48.6 million pounds initially claimed by the Catalan club. Neymar’s parents received a massive 36 million pounds sum. At the end of the investigations, a tax fraud case was launched against Barcelona and the club’s president, Josep Bartomeu. In 2015, Barcelona were handed a 14 month transfer ban for the violation of Article 19 of the FIFA Regulations on the Status and Transfer of Players by signing international players under the age of 18. And now, as Neymar moves again, UEFA will definitely be looking into PSG’s summer spendings. Having already been fined once for violating Financial Fairplay Regulations, they might well look forward to having more fines being imposed on them in the near future.
Alf Common’s transfer for a mere 1,000 pounds back in 1905 caused the football governing body to place a limit on the amount clubs could spend on a player. Now, the 100 million pound barrier has been broken, and by quite some margin. Players have ridiculously high buyout clauses to prevent other clubs from buying them, as is portrayed by Cristiano Ronaldo’s Real Madrid contract. His buyout clause is set at one billion pounds, which means, in short, that no one can buy the Portuguese superstar at the moment. But because of the rapid increase in the riches of elite clubs and the prices of footballers, it is estimated that by 2035, the one billion pound transfer might be broken. Prices in the region of 100 million will be ordinary, while the richest clubs in the world, such as Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and Manchester United will be cashing out cheques worth billions for the services of Cristiano Ronaldo Jr., the next Lionel Messi and other superstars that will be gracing the football field then.
Published in Dawn, EOS, October 8th, 2017