By J Hutcherson (Aug 10, 2021) US Soccer Players – In a European game that has seen super clubs going all the way back to Real Madrid’s player recruitment in the 1960s, one team stockpiling talent isn’t new. Pick an era, and some club somewhere was attempting to field a world all-star eleven. It’s as simple of a concept as it gets, providing a team has the ability to spend within the rules. That’s Lionel Messi’s move to PSG.
It comes at the expense of clubs like Real Madrid and Barcelona that built the contemporary model. In its place are the teams backed by extreme wealth in leagues with, at least for now, looser financial regulations. That PSG is doing its business on free transfers is interesting, but it’s still necessary to pay players like Sergio Ramos and Messi. The La Liga clubs are running into payroll limits due to league financial rules, forcing Barcelona to reconsider its reworked deal with Messi and ultimately watch him leave.
As soon as the Messi connection became the likeliest result, PSG coach Mauricio Pochettino got a team with even less excuses. The expectation is that they’ll have no issues in Ligue 1 in the season after they finished 2nd to Lille. In a squad that has Neymar, Kylian Mbappe, and Messi in the attack, the result has to be offense across all competitions. While Messi overshadows any move PSG or anybody else could make this summer, it’s worth the reminder that their big transfer fee spending was on a defender. Achraf Hakimi joined in a €60m deal from Milan a month ago.
What PSG is creating is obviously independent of their home market. They’re the only topflight team in Paris. Ligue 1 is fifth in the UEFA coefficient with a significant gap in points between them and 4th-place Germany. This is about the push for more, backed by Qatar Sports Investments.
Even accounting for PSG’s Champions League ambitions and the recent era of Real Madrid’s three-peat, it doesn’t necessarily take this much talent. Teams have won the last two Champions Leagues with exploitable issues. PSG is doing its best to close that down. Wherever an opponent might see an advantageous match-up, PSG makes a move. That was happening before Messi suddenly became available.
PSG was building against some of the usual suspects like the top tier in the Premier League. Still, the list of challengers for players wasn’t as long as normal. Real Madrid and Barcelona have La Liga financial regulations to consider. Serie A champions Inter Milan is in the process of moving Romelu Lukaku to Chelsea in a deal rumored to cost over $135m. Chelsea’s Champions League title run started with a spending spree last summer, one of the few clubs conducting business as normal. So far this summer, they’ve been selling players bringing in just under $40m. While Lukaku to Chelsea was already in the works, Messi to PSG changes the scope for everybody else.
Pick an elite team, and there’s probably a rumor linking them with a move for Borussia Dortmund striker Erling Haaland. Dortmund already transferred Jadon Sancho to Manchester United in a deal worth $100m. Haaland would bring in more for a team that has to be seeing an opportunity that may not exist for very long. Setting prices at the top of the market in any given window normally depends on other teams spending at the top of the market. There are always outliers, but the European transfer system needs comparative moves to justify prices. Otherwise, clubs enter the dangerous territory of spending based on assumptions.
Resisting the urge to call out the ridiculousness of a system that operates on selling player contracts for cash, what PSG is doing with a free transfer changes the scope of everybody else’s projects. Since there are very few top-level coaches happy with the squad they have from season to season, some change is inevitable. The reworking of squads with some of the best players in the world is part of European soccer’s business as usual. Maybe not at this level, but rebuilding already quality squads is what happens in leagues without hard salary caps and luxury taxes. At least it does in European soccer where stricter financial regulations are still a work in progress in Ligue 1 and altered to account for the pandemic at confederation level.
Messi’s inclusion changes the scope the same way Cristiano Ronaldo did when he passed on staying at Real Madrid in the summer of 2018. Ronaldo’s situation at Juventus has its own swirl of rumors and potential links to other clubs. That’s another piece that could potentially move on a board where it might not be safe to take much of anything as a given.
Lionel Messi changed the scope of the summer 2021 transfer market by moving on a free transfer. With many predicting a subdued transfer market due to the pandemic and growing economic realities across European soccer, that once again changed the scope. Clubs at the highest level don’t have the luxury of rebuilds, something a few of them may find out the hard way this season. Instead, it’s a strategy of spending, positioning, and denying other clubs opportunities. The one that does it the best may not end up lifting the Champions League trophy, but they set the economics of the game. The question we keep hearing asked is how many clubs can really afford to play?
J Hutcherson started covering soccer in 1999 and has worked as the general manager of the US National Soccer Team Players Association since 2002. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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