FOOTBALL: WHAT THEY DID THIS SUMMER

September 08, 2019

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Harry Maguire, the biggest news of the summer | Reuters
Harry Maguire, the biggest news of the summer | Reuters

The summer season: long afternoons of golden sunshine, and in our part of the world, scorching heat. The time of year when children enjoy time off from schools and footballers get a break from their jobs; and for every football fan in the world, a restless period till league action resumes in mid-August.

However, football doesn’t come to a complete standstill. There was the small matter of Cristiano Ronaldo firing Portugal to their second international trophy win with a hat-trick, as they added the UEFA Nations League to the European Championship they secured in 2016. Then, three international tournaments started simultaneously; the FIFA Women’s World Cup, Copa America and the Africa Cup of Nations. The Women’s World Cup saw multiple records rewritten, including the biggest margin of victory as the eventual winner United States thrashed hapless Thailand 13-0. Copa America was full of controversy, highlighted by Lionel Messi claiming that the tournament was designed to favour hosts Brazil, who eventually emerged victorious. The Africa Cup of Nations witnessed brilliant football, and when the hosts Egypt, led by Mohamed Salah, crashed out in the pre-quarterfinals, it made the competition very interesting. The final was a showdown between Sadio Mané’s Senegal and Riyad Mahrez’s Algeria –– the latter getting their hands on the trophy.

THE NEYMAR PROBLEM

The main feature of the summer though, as always, was the transfer window. And like 2017, the headlines were dominated by Neymar. Having missed Brazil’s successful Copa America campaign with an injury, he soon became the subject of a heated transfer battle between Real Madrid and his former club Barcelona. Both clubs were ready to part ways with star players and offered huge sums of money to Paris Saint-Germain (PSG), the French champions who bought Neymar for a record €222 million.

High profile tournaments, fierce transfer battles and a club’s expulsion from an important league have kept soccer fans invested in the game all summer

So what, you might think? He is one of the best players in the world, he won the Champions League for Barcelona, and his record with PSG is breathtakingly good. And being the most expensive player ever, he’d never come cheap. Here is where the complexities kick in.

Real Madrid, who reappointed Zinedine Zidane as head coach towards the end of last season, splashed out big deals to reinforce their squad which looked way off the pace last year. Eden Hazard was the star signing, while Luka Jovi, Éder Militão, Ferland Mendy and Brazilian prodigy Rodrygo also came in for hefty fees. The total expense exceeds €300 million. Barcelona’s main signing was Antoine Griezmann, and other players to come in included Frenkie de Jong, Norberto Murara Neto and Junior Firpo while Emerson Aparecido Leite de Souza Junior has been shown the exit door already. The total expense in this case exceeds €250 million.

But cash should never be a problem for clubs as big as Real Madrid and Barcelona. They are, after all, the second and third biggest clubs in the world in terms of revenue. Here is where the other side of the story comes in. Real Madrid has nine players who can play on the wings, the position Neymar generally occupies — names as big as Gareth Bale and Eden Hazard, local favourites in Isco and Marco Asensio, and young talents such as Vinícius Júnior and Mariano Díaz Mejía. They let James Rodríguez leave on a loan move last season. Similarly, Barcelona have six natural wide players, including Messi, Antoine Griezmann and Ousmanne Dembélé. So much so, they were forced to send out €145 million signing Phillipe Coutinho on loan to Bayern Munich. While Neymar would be an upgrade to many of these players, the urgency shown to sign him by the two clubs defies logic. And sure enough, both found the Brazilian too expensive and he remains set to stay in Ligue 1.

PREMIER GRABS

In the Premier League, Manchester United head coach Ole Gunnar Solskjaer commenced the clean-up operation required to move the club forward. Romelu Lukaku was sold to Inter Milan for a club record £74 million (approximately €81 million), Alexis Sánchez joined him on loan, Chris Smalling was allowed to join Roma on loan, Matteo Darmian shipped out to Parma, Antonio Valencia allowed to leave and fan favourite Ander Herrera was lost to PSG because of a disagreement over contract terms renegotiation. In came Harry Maguire, breaking the record for the most expensive defender at £80 million, Aaron Wan-Bissaka, another entry in the top 10 for most expensive defenders at £50 million, and Daniel James, as Solskjaer looked to fix United’s defensive problems.

Arsenal spent big, bringing in Nicolas Pépé for a figure around €80 million and strengthening their defence with the signings of Kieran Tierney and David Luiz, topping it off with the acquisition of midfielder Dani Ceballos on loan from Real Madrid. Henrikh Mkhitaryan found himself the one to make room, joining Roma on a season-long loan. Manchester City brought in Rodrigo from Atletico Madrid for a cool €70 million as an alternative to the aging Fernandinho. Tottenham broke their transfer silence of over a year and a half when they signed French international Tanguy Ndombele from Lyon for over €60 million and Ryan Sessegnon from Fulham for €27 million.

OTHER DEALS

Bayern Munich and Juventus both strengthened their squads as they look to maintain their dominance in their leagues, trying to overcome major losses.

Bayern lost club legends Franck Ribéry and Arjen Robben, James Rodríguez’s loan came to an end, and Mats Hummels returned to Borussia Dortmund. World Cup winning full backs Lucas Hernandez and Benjamin Pavard were brought in for lucrative deals, the former almost as expensive as Maguire; and another World Cup star was called upon to fill the shoes of Ribéry in the form of Ivan Periši, along with Coutinho.

Juventus lost wing-back João Cancelo to Manchester City in a trade deal that saw them receive Danilo in return, while youngster Moise Kean was allowed to leave when Everton came knocking. Matthijs de Ligt was brought in to complement an aging defence for a deal that could rise to €85 million, and they secured Aaron Ramsey, Adrian Rabiot and club legend Gianluigi Buffon on free transfers.

PSG signed Keylor Navas on deadline day to patch up their keeping problems, as they try to find the missing jigsaw piece to the Champions League puzzle. Rabiot has been replaced with Herrera, while the biggest addition to the squad is the arrival of Mauro Icardi from Inter; yet another shining entry to the collection of forwards they possess.

Ajax, on the other hand, lost the two faces of their new generation that took them to the brink of the final of the Champions League; club captain de Ligt leaving for Juventus after a tussle between the Italian giants, Manchester United and Barcelona, and de Jong joining Barcelona for a reported €75 million. Young striker Kasper Dolberg also bid farewell to the Amsterdam club, joining Nice for €20 million.

THE DEMISE OF BURY

UEFA Financial Fair Play Regulations (FFPRs) is a set of strict rules for clubs to ensure that financial parity is maintained and that the ‘big’ clubs don’t dominate the transfer market with monetary influxes from their rich owners. Breaking these rules often comes at a heavy price, as experienced by Chelsea, who are currently undergoing a two-window transfer ban and AC Milan, who were stripped off their qualification to the UEFA Europa League. Manchester City might have been banned from the Champions League, but their matters are still under probe and hence the decision has been delayed for the time being.

The other side of these FFPRs involves making sure that each club’s balance sheet is acceptable, so no football club gets trampled by continuous loans and is forced to liquidate its assets. In a window where billions of dollars were spent on transfers, two clubs in the third tier of English football, Bury and Bolton, faced economic turmoil and were given 14 days to provide ample proof of sustainability or to face the revocation of their licenses. The two clubs have immense history; Bolton Wanderers was one of the founding members of the English First Division in 1888, while Bury had completed 125 consecutive years in the English top-flight. While Bolton managed to find new owners, Bury was not so fortunate; expelled from the league five games into the season. A whole town deprived of their most valuable asset, grown men and women took to the streets weeping and offering to clean the stadium one last time.

While Bury Football Club isn’t dead and it may soon be back in the English top-flight if they find the right management (Wimbledon bounced back from bankruptcy to consolidate its position in the third tier), its story proves how football is more than just the fancy cash flows we hear about from the richest teams on the land. Deep down, it is still a game of emotion and passion; of towns uniting to support their heroes, and of little kids aspiring to kick footballs in their team colours.

The writer tweets @tahagoheer

Published in Dawn, EOS, September 8th, 2019