Halftime Sports

The Confused World Of Soccer’s Transfer Market

September 5, 2014

This summer, Luis Suarez transferred from Liverpool to Barcelona for €95 million.  After a brilliant World Cup, James Rodriguez moved to Real Madrid for €80 million.  Last year, Tottenham sold Gareth Bale to Madrid for €100 million.  These are ridiculous sums of money, but that’s not the point I’m trying make.  I am more interested in where all of that money goes, because the answer is not as obvious as you might think.

In America, players move between teams either through trades or free agent signings. The system has its flaws, but at least you don’t get dizzy trying to follow the streams of money.  In the world of European soccer, on the other hand, you might get a little vertigo.  Clubs gather talent through the transfer market, in which a team pays another team in order to acquire their player.  Essentially, the teams trade players for cash.  Sounds easy, right?  In theory, it is.  In practice, all sorts of third parties combine forces to make for a confused and inconsistent system.

Take the recent example of Neymar’s transfer to Barcelona from the Brazilian club Santos.  Barca paid €57 million for the Brazilian international.  Or, that’s what the club said that it had paid.  Later, it was revealed that the true number was closer to €75 million.  Or maybe €86.2 million.  It’s hard to say, several reports emerged in the scandal that followed the deal, many offering differing figures on the player’s price.

However, they did all agree on the fact that a large portion of that figure went to Neymar’s father.  In all, around €40 million went to Neymar’s family.  Santos came away understandably upset, as it only received €17 million.  The Brazilian club has since sued to try to get more money from the deal, while Barcelona faces a criminal investigation for tax fraud for claiming it paid less than it had.  To make things even more fun, the club launched an internal inquiry which resulted in the resignation of Barcelona club president Sandro Rosell.

This may be an extreme example.  These things don’t usually end in criminal charges.  Still, the idea of a transfer fee is for one team to pay another for its player.  Yet Santos received only €17 million, while Neymar’s father walked away with €40 million.  Like I said, it’s not as easy as one team gets the cash while the other gets the player.  Sometimes teams throw in a little (or a lot) extra to make sure the deal goes through.  In this case, that extra went to Neymar’s family and other associates.

Even on the less shady side of the of the transfer market, money sometimes divides itself in unexpected ways.  When Suarez went to Barcelona, Liverpool got €95 million for their troubled superstar.  Except they didn’t, because when Suarez’s former club, Ajax, sold him to Liverpool, they received the rights to 6.5% of any future deal Liverpool made to sell the Uruguayan. This might seem strange, but deals regularly include clauses like this one.  It makes sense, acting as a reward for the smaller teams who develop talent only to see it lured away to the larger, richer clubs like Liverpool and Real Madrid.  In the wildly unequal world of European football finances, this type of clause, so foreign to the American fan, acts to restore the tiniest amount of balance.

But wait, there’s more.  Barcelona reported the worth of the Suarez deal at only €82 million.   Liverpool disagreed, saying the full €95 million release in Suarez’s contract had been met.  The Spanish side doesn’t have the most credibility on these sorts of things, but who knows which side, if either, is telling the truth.

Looking back a little further, we can find the case of the transfers of Carlos Tevez and Javier Mascherano from Corinthians to West Ham in 2007.   That was the deal that resulted in the BPL fining West Ham £5.5 million and banning third-party ownership.  To be clear, that means third-party ownership of players.  As in, the deal gave the agents of the two Argentines so much decision-making power in the affairs of the club that they were considered owners.

It’s a lot to process.  The money one team pays for another’s player might go to that second team.  It might go to the player’s family.  Or, it could go to business associates or sports representatives.  Then, for good measure, the team might make those representatives part-owners of the club.  The structured, well-regulated sports leagues of America cannot compare.  If you join the many Americans who have decided to wade into the tangled mess of world soccer, then be prepared. These clubs throw a lot of money around. Where it goes, even they don’t always seem to know.


Kevin Huggard
Class of '17. Formerly EIC and writer/editor for mostly sports and opinions. Halftime forever. On twitter as @kevinhuggard.

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