Can Neymar’s world-record transfer fee ever be beaten in a post-coronavirus market?

FUTURE OF FOOTBALL Neymar transfers GFXGetty/Goal

So it appears football could return in the coming weeks. But how long will it be before the game as we know it is back – if ever?

Big changes are coming, that is for sure. For the world’s most popular sport, the impact of the coronavirus crisis will be felt for some time, whether in the shape of behind-closed-doors matches, adjustments to the calendar or, more importantly, the financial implications for clubs, competitions and governing bodies. 

Those implications, potentially, are huge. For many clubs across the world, simply surviving will be a challenge. There will be cost-cutting, there will be losses, there will be tough business decisions to be made.

Most of all, though, there will be fear and uncertainty across the board.

That will certainly be seen in the transfer market, with experts predicting a sea change in the coming weeks and months.  Whisper it, but the days of free spending, spiralling fees and astronomical wages could well be over – for a few years at least. 

“In short, Covid-19 has the potential to be the single most impactful event on the transfer market for many years,” Tiran Gunawardena, a sport legal specialist at Mills & Reeve law firm, tells Goal. “The fallout could lead to a paradigm shift by all football stakeholders with respect to player wages and transfer fees. The industry – and in particular the values of players etc - may look completely different by the time this is over.”

Gunawardena’s view is echoed by many others within the game. Goal spoke to a number of sources – including agents, club executives, players and managers – and the picture being painted, generally, is an alarming one.

“It’s going to be a long way back,” says one agent involved with numerous players across Europe. “So much is going to change, and everyone is waiting to see just how big the impact will be, and how long it will last.”

Premier League Coronavirus
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Football, at the highest level at least, has never been richer, and yet even the most-profitable clubs are expected to suffer, with revenues hit by the lack of gate receipts, an expected drop in sponsorship money and, potentially, a dip in television revenue too.

Ed Woodward, the executive vice-chairman of Manchester United, told a supporters’ forum last month that “it may not be business as usual for any clubs – including ourselves.”

United have been linked regularly with the likes of Jadon Sancho, James Maddison and Jack Grealish in recent weeks, and are better protected than many clubs due to their vast commercial revenues, but at the same forum Woodward went on to add that “speculation around transfers of individual players for hundreds of millions of pounds this summer seems to ignore the realities that face the sport.”

That view has been echoed across Europe. Uli Hoeness, the former president of Bayern Munich, told Kicker that he “cannot imagine in the coming years that there will be signings for €100 million (£87m/$108m)”, while in Italy the Juventus sporting director, Fabio Paratici, told Tuttosport that “there will be a lot of swaps, a situation that will make football closer to the NBA.”

Beppe Marotta, chief executive of Inter, spoke of “a poorer market” and “a general drop in prices.” Udinese’s sporting director, Pierpaolo Marino, added that “it will be a market in recession - a player priced at €50m will [now] be worth €30m.” 

The upshot, surely, is fewer transfers? Tony Bloom, the Brighton owner, believes “it may not be the best window to sell players”, while from a buyers’ perspective the risks are huge, especially with the prospect of a second or third wave of Covid-19, which could lead to further disruption to the footballing calendar in the future.

“Clubs would be wise to stick with what they’ve got, it’s true,” one Premier League executive tells Goal. “There will be some that will want to have a go still, and believe they are strong enough to withstand this, but many will be fearing the worst. This will shake the game to its core, and I think we’ll see a big change in the way a lot of clubs operate, especially with regards transfers.”

Ed Woodward Manchester United
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The Premier League, of course, is the world’s biggest spending league when it comes to transfers. 

Last summer its 20 clubs, according to analysis from Deloitte’s Sports Business Group, splashed out a combined £1.41 billion ($1.75bn), with 11 of those clubs breaking their own transfer records. Transfer expenditure covered more than 27 per cent of the clubs’ estimated revenue for the 2019-20 season.

That revenue has, of course, been torpedoed by the pandemic. One recent newspaper report spoke of an unnamed Premier League club which was losing £9m ($11.1m) per week during lockdown, while a study from German site estimated that the value of Premier League squads had dropped by as much as £1.6bn ($2bn) – a fall of 20%.

Clubs have already moved to try and limit the financial impact. Most of Arsenal’s first-team squad and coaching staff have agreed pay cuts of up to 12.5% over the next year, West Ham, Sheffield United, Southampton and Aston Villa players will defer part of their salaries for the next four months, while both Norwich and Newcastle have placed the majority of non-playing staff on furlough leave. 

Liverpool, Tottenham and Bournemouth initially opted to do the same, only to reverse their decision following heavy criticism, though Liverpool’s statement announcing that U-turn spoke pointedly of “a massive downturn in revenue” and “unprecedented operating losses.” Just over two months ago, the Reds were announcing record revenues of £533m ($665m) and a profit of £42m ($52m). If the world’s seventh-richest club can suffer, then what of those further down the food chain?

Mohamed Salah Liverpool 2019-20
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It is not yet clear when the summer transfer window will run – if at all. One thing is for sure though, those expecting a raft of big-money deals, or who live their life in the gossip columns, are likely to be disappointed.

“It will be one of the quietest we’ve ever had,” one respected agent tells Goal, though he adds, rather optimistically, that “I think it will be back to normal next summer.”

Damien Comolli, formerly the sporting director at both Tottenham and Liverpool, predicted on Sky Sports that “maybe only three Premier League clubs” will be willing, or indeed able, to spend significant sums this summer, though the example of Neymar’s switch from Barcelona to Paris Saint-Germain suggests that one major transfer can often have a ripple effect, inflating fees and encouraging other clubs to make moves. 

That 2017 summer window, which also saw Ousmane Dembele join Barcelona and Romelu Lukaku swap Everton for Manchester United, remains comfortably the most expensive in football history, and will remain so for some time, one would assume. Neymar, at €222m (£193m/$240m) is likely to be the world’s most costliest player for a few years yet.

Which clubs, if any, are prepared to take the plunge this time round? Manchester United and Chelsea had been expected to spend big – Chelsea have already secured a deal for Ajax star Hakim Ziyech – while Liverpool were tipped to move for RB Leipzig striker Timo Werner. Real Madrid, too, were set for an active summer, while it would have been a surprise if any of Manchester City, Bayern Munich or PSG had chosen to lay dormant. 

And now?

“We might see very little transfer activity,” Comolli says. “We might see swaps, we might see loans and I think we are going to see a massive decrease in transfer fees and transfer activity, at least transfers involving money.”

Another source involved with a Premier League club has told Goal they believe the global transfer market will, for a year at least, resemble Serie A after the boom period of the 1990s and early-2000s turned into a recession. 

“Expect the loan market to be huge,” the source says. “It might be the only way some clubs can do business for a while.”

Gunawardena agrees, saying: “FIFA were initially intending to introduce new rules and restrictions on loans from July 2020. However, in light of Covid-19 they have, sensibly, deferred the implementation of those new rules. So we may see clubs use more loans to try and get through the next season.”

Gianni Infantino FIFA UEFA

And what of those clubs operating away from the top level? The further down the footballing pyramid you travel, the more precarious the situation. 

In the Premier League, for example, around 13% of clubs’ total revenue comes from matchday, with the bulk of it made up by commercial deals and, of course, the remarkable television rights package. Clubs, then, are better equipped to deal with behind-closed-doors games, and the income lost as a result.

Head into the Football League, however, and the landscape shifts dramatically. TV revenue in the Championship is hefty, but the majority of clubs rely heavily on gate receipts, and with fans unlikely to be allowed into stadiums until at least the winter months (and maybe beyond that), their very existence is under threat. 

“It’s a worrying time,” John Coleman, manager of League One club Accrington Stanley, tells Goal. “We’ve already seen a club [Bury] go out of business last year, and another one [Bolton Wanderers] nearly followed them. This will threaten a lot of clubs in Leagues One and Two, and we haven’t even mentioned the non-league scene…”

The Premier League has agreed to advance funds of £125m ($155m) to help alleviate the situation with lower league clubs, but that is, according to one source within the Football League, “like sticking a plaster on a gunshot wound.” The fallout, he says, will last much longer than just a few months.

It is not just clubs living in fear, either. It is estimated that as many as 1,400 Football League players are out of contract this summer. Many will struggle to find new clubs at all, while those that do are likely to do so on significantly reduced terms, with clubs simply unable to pay what they could 12 or even three months ago.

“What we’ll see this summer is who the good agents are and who the bad ones are,” says Coleman. “Any Football League player that comes out with a two-year deal or better, well their agent has played a blinder. Players over 30 who were looking for a decent payday can forget it. It’s going to be an absolute bunfight.”

The issue of contracts is a thorny one across all levels, actually. FIFA has approved plans to extend deals which were due to expire at the end of June – something which will affect players such as Willian, Adam Lallana, Dries Mertens and Jan Vertonghen, among others - so that competitions can be played to a conclusion, but that brings its own problems. 

“Say you’ve got a player who knows he isn’t getting a new deal at a club,” Coleman says. “He’s hoping to get a contract somewhere else, maybe he’s had interest from clubs. He might even have agreed a deal in principle.  Suddenly you’re asking him to go back and play nine or 10 games in five weeks, risking an injury which would leave him out of work. Would you take that risk?

“One player, Jean-Marc Bosman, changed the whole transfer system in the 1990s. Can you imagine the amount of legal challenges we will have after this? It’s madness.”

The Wham Stadium, Accrington

So what of the potential positives to emerge, then? There must be some, right?

Maybe. A tightening of the transfer market may, for example, force clubs to put greater trust in the players already at their disposal, and in particular those emerging from their youth systems. “It’ll be important to be able to exploit the resources of our academies,” says Marotta at Inter. 

It is widely expected that squad sizes will be smaller, and several sources have speculated about whether clubs will show a little more patience with managers too. 

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The average tenure of a manager in the Championship has hovered at around 12 months for some time now, but there will surely be a greater degree of understanding from owners and chairman, given the circumstances? Especially as most clubs would, one would assume, wish to avoid increasing their outgoings by paying out hefty severance packages to sacked bosses.

The bigger picture, though, is a stark one. In the coming months, and maybe longer, we can expect spending to fall, loans to rise and clubs to struggle. Football has long been an industry as much as a sport, and both aspects are under extreme pressure.

The future of the game, from the top down, looks as clear as mud right now.