How COVID-19 will rewrite transfer market regulations in World Football

July 12

It goes without saying that transfer windows are one of the most attention-grabbing parts of every footballing season in all parts of the world. Transfer windows allow clubs to sign new players and reinforce their squads before the start of every new season, while also allowing them to cash in on players who are no longer a part of their plans moving forward.

Transfer windows are equally beneficial for players themselves, as they get to see what kind of attention they have garnered over the previous season with their performances on the pitch. While it offers some players an opportunity to shift bases and pursue new challenges by playing for a different team, it allows others to extend their time at their current club via a contract extension, something which almost always comes with a pay rise.

In the past few years, some of the most popular elite football teams in Europe have spent hundreds of millions of Euros in the transfer market, to make key signings. It all began in 2009, when Real Madrid shelled out €94million for signing Cristiano Ronaldo from Manchester United. The transfer earned the world record for being the most expensive player signing back then, before Los Blancos rewrote it four years later – with a €101million-worth move for Gareth Bale from Tottenham Hotspur.

Real Madrid unveil Cristiano Ronaldo as their player in 2009 (Getty Images)

Bale’s record stayed safe only until 2016, when Manchester United made Paul Pogba the new most-expensive footballer by signing him from Juventus for €105million. The Frenchman’s price was considered unbeatable by experts and fans alike, but little did they know that Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) will shock everyone the next year, by spending a mind-blowing €222million to transfer Neymar Jr. from Barcelona.

Neymar’s transfer remains the most expensive player signing today, but the world has seen may more big-money player signings in the three years since the Brazilian’s move to the French capital. Philippe Coutinho (Liverpool) and Ousmane Dembele (Borussia Dortmund) joined Barca for €145million and €125million respectively, while PSG snapped up Kylian Mbappe from AS Monaco for €145million. Manchester United broke the world record in transfer fees for a defender when they signed Harry Maguire from Leicester City for a transfer fee of €87million, while goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga of Chelsea became the world’s most expensive goalkeeper following his €80million move to the London-based from Athletic Bilbao in 2018.

PSG announce the signing of Neymar Jr. in 2017 (Getty Images)

Neymar’s transfer from Barca to PSG in 2017 played a major role in expanding the divide between the world’s richest teams and other clubs, as far as the transfer market was concerned. The relatively poor teams found it increasingly hard to conduct business unless they were able to sell some of their highly-valued players, and that also led to a major difference in quality between the rich clubs and the cash-strapped ones.

However, just like the rest of the world, the transfer market failed to see the arrival of another game-changer this year. Yes, we are talking about the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent global shutdown. The pandemic and its ravages have affected the world on a massive scale, and the transfer market was no exception, either. To prevent the spread of the virus, football leagues in almost all major countries were suspended for as many as fifteen weeks – and according to a statement made by KPMG’s global head of sports Andrea Sartori, this will see the overall player value in the sport drop by €6.6 billion ($7.5 billion), or about 18% of its value since the outbreak began.

“In the top 10 leagues… the decrease in player value is €6.6 billion or a fall of about 18%”, Sartori said on the Reuters Global Markets Forum, quoting a KPMG study conducted on nearly 4,200 players.

“Players with high values in Europe – the top 20-30 players – are retaining value to a greater extent than other players”, he added further. “In case of continuation of the leagues, the top 20 players – for example Kylian Mbappe, Mohamed Salah, Eden Hazard and Neymar – will see a value decline of 13%.”

Terminating all the leagues prematurely, as France’s Ligue 1 has done, would have resulted in an overall decrease of 10 billion euros in player market value, according to him. He said that the pandemic would not affect the length of new player contracts but salary negotiations in the next renewal cycle would be affected while free agents would not necessarily be more in demand.

“I see many more player exchanges: less monetary transactions, more loans, exchanges, and not necessarily a high number of free agents, Overall clubs are going to be cautious, not only in the next transfer window. The effects will be for 18-24 months, so transfer windows in that time will show the effect”, Reuters quoted him as saying.

Club finances have taken a major hit without matchday revenue for three months, and Sartori said Financial Fair Play (FFP) rules may have to be eased to allow clubs to get back on their feet. Under UEFA regulations any club spending more than the revenue they generate may face sanctions including bans from competitions run by the European governing body, such as the two-year ban it is currently seeking to impose on Manchester City.

“The key rule that could cause major pressure is the break-even rule – the pillar of FFP”, he said. “[It is] the most important regulation of FFP, how clubs have to behave. There will probably have to be an element of relaxation to the break-even rule as clubs need to face the fall in revenue due to the virus, while costs have not fallen at the same pace.”

“Relaxation could be a combination of time allowed to not match the rule as well as the losses permitted”, Sartori concluded.

According to us, the following are five ways the football transfer market is likely to change post the COVID-19 crisis:

#1 Lower prices of players

COVID-19 is likely to bring about a sharp fall in players’ values, as indicated by Sartori above. This, however, could in fact be a blessing in disguise as it is no secret that the football transfer market was heavily inflated prior to the pandemic.

The past few years have seen football clubs willingly shell out exorbitant amounts in transfer and agent fees. Kicked-off by the Neymar deal between PSG and Barca, the sport has seen the likes of Coutinho, Dembele, Mbappe, Joao Felix, Antoine Griezmann, Maguire, Matthijs de Ligt and Arrizabalaga among others garnering insane price tags. But more importantly, clubs were flushed with cash and happy to pay heavily for players who arguably did not command so much money.

As a result of the shutdown, however, football clubs have experienced a hit to their cash flow. Ticket sales have stopped completely while merchandise sales have slowed down to a trickle. Many clubs have also had to furlough employees in order to protect themselves from a serious financial crisis.

Timo Werner at RB Leipzig before completing his move to Chelsea (Getty Images)

The transfer prices of players are hence likely to fall drastically simply because most teams would not have the cash to pay huge amounts. A perfect example of this is Chelsea’s acquisition of Timo Werner from RB Leipzig. The German striker could have easily broken the €100million mark last year but the London club have apparently captured his signature this time for just around €60million, which is an absolute bargain.

#2 Cut the out middleman – No more agents

Agents have seemingly formed some sort of a cartel when it comes to the football transfer market.

Big names like Mino Raiola, Jorge Mendes, Pini Zahavi, and Kia Joorabchian demand huge cuts in order to broker a deal between two clubs and a player. Needless to say, most clubs are not happy to engage with such agents as it adds a significant amount of money to an already significant transfer sum. Due to the aforementioned cash crunch, football clubs would now be far more willing to do business with each other directly in order to eliminate the middleman.

Mino Raiola with Zlatan Ibrahimovic, one of the many players that the agent represents (Getty Images)

It was recently reported that football clubs have turned to an online forum in which they can engage with each other directly rather than go through an agent. Doing so would further help reduce the overall sums of money paid for a player and arguably make the entire process smoother.

#3 Loan moves could become more popular

The upcoming transfer market would most likely see a spur of loan deals between football clubs. Loans are extremely convenient. A small fee and the player’s salary (at times just part of the salary) are far less expensive than shelling out fees for a permanent transfer. A recent trend that has emerged with loan deals in football is the “obligation to buy” clause.

This clause could be extremely attractive this summer as teams can acquire a player but defer the payment of the transfer amount to a later year when the financial situation becomes more conducive. Such moves are a win-win for both parties.

The selling club can get a player’s salary off their books and be assured of a sum for his transfer at a later date. The purchasing club gets the player they want for a small amount, and with time to plan for such a purchase.

Manchester United signed Odion Ighalo on a loan deal from the Chinese Super League (CSL) club Shanghai Shenhua in January, and following his impressive performances with the club in the couple of months that followed, they were interested to retain him as a permanent signing this summer.

Manchester United’s on-loan player Odion Ighalo has earned himself the chance of a permanent move to Old Trafford (Getty Images)

However, the outbreak of COVID-19 and the subsequent economic crisis affected the club’s finances as it did with many other teams – and as a result, they opted to extend his loan deal for another season before considering to buy him on a full transfer.

#4 Swap deals

Swap deals are fairly simple and a literal quid pro quo. Two football clubs can agree to swap players with each other, resulting in a short but effective transaction. They have become very infrequent over the past decade or so but in such trying times, they represent a very straightforward solution. Swaps allow a club to replace an unwanted or underperforming player with one who might be a necessity.

The only caveat, though, is that both players should be of similar stature or value in the eyes of both clubs. While reaching an agreement regarding the valuation of a player might be difficult, the deal itself, if executed, has very few monetary strings attached.

Therefore, we could see a flurry of swaps between football clubs looking to clear their wage bill but at the same time address weaknesses in their squads. Barcelona and Juventus, for instance, recently completed a swap deal as they exchanged Arthur Melo and Miralem Pjanic with each other.

Arthur, who has been a part of Barca’s midfield engine for the past two seasons, will now play alongside Cristiano Ronaldo at Juve, while Pjanic will make the move in the opposite direction.

Pjanic will wear the iconic maroon-and-blue shirt of Barca next season, with Arthur taking his place at Juventus (Getty Images)

Brazilian international Arthur was valued at €70million by his current club while Bosnian Pjanic was rated at €60million by the Turin-based side. Barca hence earned an additional €10million along with Pjanic for Arthur’s exchange.

#5 Fewer transactions

Despite a variety of options, the most sensible and arguably the most likely consequence of the COVID-19 outbreak could be fewer activities in the football transfer market.

Let’s take a look at Premier League hopefuls, Chelsea, for instance. The Stamford Bridge-outfit have proved that having faith in academy players can pay off, with the help of players like Tammy Abraham and Mason Mount, both of whom have created a good impact with the first team under Frank Lampard in the 2019-20 season.

Following Chelsea’s model, many other clubs might also be eager to emulate the same. This could be a period when more sides are willing to take a gamble on their academy graduates as a cost-effective alternative to signing a new player.

Mason Mount (left) and Tammy Abraham (right) at Chelsea (Getty Images)

Doing so would have plenty of positive aspects. It would see more youngsters making their mark at the top level when they would have otherwise been shipped off on loan. If a few of them do make an impact at their respective football clubs, it could prompt a chain reaction where more emphasis is given on developing a strong academy.

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