European football transfer spending falls despite Messi and Ronaldo moves


European football’s biggest clubs have slashed spending on players, even as the sport’s summer transfer window included blockbuster moves for the likes of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.

The reduced spending on transfer fees reflects two years of financial losses caused by the coronavirus pandemic leaving the sport’s executives struggling to profit from the multibillion-euro player trading market. 

The transfer window — a three-month period in which teams can sign players — closed on Tuesday night. Overall spending during the window by Europe’s “big five” leagues in England, Germany, Spain, Italy and France was close to €3bn, according to figures from the consultancy Deloitte.

The figure is down from €3.25bn a year earlier, and the record €5.5bn spent in 2019, before the pandemic hit club income thanks to the loss of ticket revenues and rebates to broadcasters due to postponed or cancelled fixtures. The European Club Association, the body that represents about 200 leading teams, has estimated that clubs across the continent have suffered a collective revenue shortfall of €3.6bn over the past two years. 

Bar chart of Net summer transfer spend (€m) showing English clubs remained the most acquisitive across Europe

While spending on fees fell, there remained plenty of movement between clubs. This included an increase in “free” transfers, such as Messi’s move to Paris Saint-Germain from Barcelona, with the Spanish club unable to afford the salary of its most prized playing asset as it seeks to reduce debts of more than €1bn.

There were also a series of high-profile “loan” deals, such as the transfer deadline day moves of Saul Niguez from Atlético Madrid to Chelsea and Antoine Griezmann returning to Atlético from Barcelona. 

Loan moves allow clubs to offload players with expensive wages. Player salaries, rather than transfer fees, are the biggest cost at most European clubs. Loan deals often include an option or obligation for the acquiring club to pay a fee that makes a move permanent at a later date, in effect delaying some cost to later seasons. 

“There’s been a bifurcation,” said Dan Jones, head of Deloitte’s sports business group. “The top clubs are still spending huge money on the best players, but at the other end of the market there has been a lot of free transfer and loan deals.”

For some teams, the reduction in spending on transfer fees is exacerbating the financial crisis that is still afflicting clubs. 

An executive at a leading Italian side said that smaller clubs relied on selling the best players for about €10m-€30m to help balance their books each season. But demand for acquisitions at this level has evaporated, as teams in Spain, Italy and Germany seek to reduce their outlay on players. “It’s a jammed market,” the person said.

Column chart of £bn showing Premier League football transfer spend

Total spending among the 20 clubs in the English Premier League, Europe’s most valuable domestic competition, was £1.1bn, down 9 per cent compared with the same period last year and the second consecutive summer window that fees have fallen.

English clubs remained the most active across Europe. The Premier League’s net transfer spend — player sales minus acquisitions — was £560m (€655m) this summer. The figure dwarfs net spending in Spain’s La Liga, at €65m, Italy’s Serie A at €61m and France’s Ligue 1 at €15m. Clubs in Germany’s Bundesliga made a net profit from player sales of €40m.

The biggest outlays in the Premier League have been concentrated at Arsenal, Manchester United, Manchester City and Chelsea, the highest revenue-generating clubs in the competition. However, across the league, net transfer spend as a proportion of estimated revenue is 10 per cent this year, compared with 18 per cent last year, in another sign that even elite English clubs are being forced to live within their means.

Players considered among the very best are still in demand. Ronaldo’s return to Manchester United from Italy’s Juventus has been secured for a fee of up to €23m, but he is still expected to be the English club’s highest earning player in terms of wages.

Spain’s Real Madrid offered up to €200m in transfer fees to sign Kylian Mbappé from Paris Saint-Germain, despite the French striker’s playing contract expiring soon, meaning he can be signed next summer for no fee at all.

People involved in those transfer discussions said that Real Madrid’s motivation for seeking the Mbappe transfer stemmed from a bitter rivalry between the clubs. 

The Spanish club’s president Florentino Pérez was the chief architect of the European Super League, a breakaway competition that collapsed earlier this year following opposition from, among others, Qatar-owned PSG.

People close to Perez said the French side’s ability to resist such an exorbitant offer for Mbappé highlights how wealthy PSG is not restrained by the same budgetary considerations as others, particularly at a time that so-called financial fair play regulations have been loosened because of the pandemic.

Manchester City and Chelsea were among the clubs to show an interest in acquiring Erling Haaland, Borussia Dortmund’s Norwegian striker who is represented by “super agent” Mino Raiola. 

They backed off after being told that Haaland, considered among the top prospects in European football, would cost £500m over five years, a figure that includes the player’s salary and transfer and agent fees, according to a person close to the talks.

“This whole reduced transfer fee thing is a complete red herring,” said the person. “Agent fees are still going up and the wages are just obscene.”

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