On 12 July 2019, Antoine Griezmann became the ninth player to move clubs for a fee of at least €100m in 35 months. Starting with the return of Paul Pogba from Juventus to Manchester United in August 2016, Neymar, Ousmane Dembélé, Philippe Coutinho, Kylian Mbappé, Cristiano Ronaldo, Eden Hazard and João Félix have all joined the €100m club during a period that may one day come to be seen as the transfer market’s golden era or the moment football finally lost its marbles, depending on your viewpoint.
Yet 12 months after a summer when clubs in Europe’s big five leagues set another record by spending almost €5.5bn on players, the global economic crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic means even some of the sport’s biggest names are feeling the pinch.
Emilio Butragueño, the former Real Madrid striker and the club’s director of public relations, said this month that “we can foresee the [transfer market] situation is going to be different compared with other summers”, while Bayern Munich’s chief executive, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, called for the industry to become more rational. He said: “In the past 10 years, with these ever-higher, ever-further, ever-faster sums for player transfers and player salaries, football has shot a long way past the goal. We have to find better solutions in Europe.”
Bayern’s signing of Leroy Sané from Manchester City for an initial €45m at the start of July means the German champions are one of the few clubs to have entered the market before it officially opens on Monday. The hiatus caused by Covid-19 means Premier League teams will have 10 weeks, until 5 October, to trade players with overseas clubs, followed by another two weeks that have been set aside for domestic transfers only.
But despite clubs having extra time on their hands, Matias Lipman – an agent from Argentina who acted as the intermediary in Miguel Almirón’s move to Newcastle in 2019 and has worked on several other deals – believes there will be even more pressure on recruitment teams to deliver results in the current climate. “Some huge decisions need to be made,” he says. “A sporting director who makes a wrong call on a player could be devastating for a small or medium-sized club that really needs those funds to be able to continue competing. I would say it’s their biggest challenge ever.
“So far, it’s been really difficult for the market to get moving. Some clubs still don’t know how much their budgets will be affected by the pandemic. Like in any other industry, the smaller clubs need the bigger clubs to start spending money. Until that happens, it will be hard for everything to take off.”
With many of the continent’s biggest spenders involved in European competition next month, however, it could be a long wait. Some financial forecasts have predicted Premier League clubs could lose around 20% of their revenues as a result of the pandemic, while there is also the issue of attempting to offload players who were signed at inflated prices and are earning high wages.
“Those clubs are looking for deals to recover the money they spent, but that is going to be really difficult. The market is simply not the same as it was in 2017,” says Lipman. “Even if you have an option to buy a player for a certain value, some clubs are going to offer less because they know things have changed. A lot of release clauses don’t make any sense any more. It’s definitely a buyer’s market – whoever has the money will set the tone for the rest of the clubs.”
In April, Christian Seifert, the Bundesliga chief executive, predicted the transfer market would collapse in an interview with the New York Times, adding that “some leagues will understand that money is not coming automatically every month from heaven”. But with most of Europe’s major domestic leagues now almost completed, there are already a few positive signs of activity.
Chelsea’s pursuit of Kai Havertz from Bayer Leverkusen after committing the best part of £90m in transfer fees on Timo Werner and Hakim Ziyech shows that some clubs are willing to take a risk, although it remains to be seen whether in-demand players such as Borussia Dortmund’s Jadon Sancho can command the same fees as they could in the past.
“It could be an opportunity for some clubs to steal a march on their rivals but not all owners are going to be that gung ho about it,” says Omar Chaudhuri, the head of football intelligence at 21st Club, a consultancy that works with many leading sides in Europe. “Down the leagues will be more scrambling than anything else – if you’re a Championship or League One club and have a player that is worth a little bit of money then you’re going to want to try and sell him now because your financial need is probably greater at the moment.”
Research from 21st Club has estimated that for every euro a top-division European club outside the big five leagues earns from one of the three traditional income streams, they receive €0.41 in transfer income. In Croatia, which was found by a study from CIES Football Observatory to be the biggest exporter of players in the world based on population in 2017, that rises to €3 for every €1 in traditional income, meaning falling prices this summer are bound to hit clubs who rely on selling players to survive.
“In England, Brentford is the most obvious example of a club who have done that very well and more and more are trying to go to that model,” says Chaudhuri. “The biggest issue is that it’s hard to predict – if you have a bad year then that can set the whole club back five years. But there is a confidence that things will slowly recover and I can see there being more €100m transfers in the next two or three years.”