Gone are the days when footballers were sold for a bagful of kit, as was the price of former Liverpool star John Barnes when he joined English side Watford in 1981.
Football transfers are now, more often than not, in the mindboggling millions, while Neymar’s move from Barcelona to Paris Saint-Germain last month for an eye-popping world record $261 million has set a new benchmark.
English Premier League clubs have already spent over a billion in the market this summer — and teams still have a few more days to spend as the transfer window in that league doesn’t close until August 31.
As well as French side PSG, Serie A’s AC Milan, under new owners, have also been flexing their financial muscle, splurging nearly $250 million so far this summer in a bid to rejoin the higher echelons of European football.
But is this summer’s spending any different to previous years? Was Neymar’s transfer an anomaly, a freakish fee for a rare talent, or has the Brazilian’s move to France irrevocably changed football?
CNN Sport talked to some of the game’s insiders — an agent, a lawyer and a Premier League chief executive — as well as fans to understand what is behind the spending.
The Agent — ‘No-one is worth $261m’
Michael di Stefano is a Football Association intermediary who works in Italy and the UK. He tells CNN that transfer spending, in the Premier League especially, is at its peak.
“The Neymar deal was an exceptional one. It’s not really a transfer fee, it’s the buying out of a contract. It’s not the norm. By meeting the buyout clause, PSG had the right to speak to the player — Barcelona couldn’t refuse it, they had no choice.
“No-one thought they would meet the clause, but there was an appetite for the player. Maybe the Spanish are now realizing that there are a number of clubs able to meet these huge figures and it will probably raise the level of the buyout, but the buyout clause is unique to Spain.
“We don’t really have those in the UK and in Italy, for example, there are no buyout clauses.
“The Neymar deal was just extraordinary, but it hasn’t changed the game.
“If you look at the fees in the Premier League, other than Romelu Lukaku’s move from Everton to Manchester United for an initial $96 million, the fees are similar to last year.
“We’re almost at our vertical limits for transfer fees, however, in England. Sky and BT paid a record $6.58 billion for Premier League rights, but those sorts of deals can’t last forever and the clubs know it.
“Sometimes, you can offer people too much, you can spoil the viewer so much they don’t watch anything.
“Maybe there might be one more deal that’s a tiny bit higher, but unless we start transmitting to Mars I can’t see the appetite being there for the quantity of football that is currently being broadcast.
“The Chinese and the Asian markets stimulated the demand for this Premier League viewing, but the Chinese are being smart by directing people to their domestic football, which is a good thing. If they drop out you can then take 150 to 200 million viewers off the package deal.
“But as long as these TV packages are here, the transfer fees are going to stay where they are now, around the $38-89 million mark.
“Footballers don’t really look at the Neymar deal, they know what the standard wage is and each league is different. Players know their worth, mainly through word of mouth. It’s no secret who’s on what and they try to at least be on each other’s coattails.
“Nobody is worth $261 million. Even the US President, regardless of who he is, is not worth that figure because somebody else can come in and do that job and it’s the same with a footballer.
“Transfers are not sustainable at $261 million, but that was an exception.”
The Lawyer — ‘Clubs can now afford to say no’
Daniel Geey is a partner at sports and media law firm Sheridans. He has worked on a number of club takeovers and high-profile transfers.
“There’s a dual narrative to this summer’s window. In the Premier League, the money that has been spent to date relates to increases in broadcasting money, which means the top clubs are earning almost $192 million from central distribution.
“The Premier League clubs are continuing to spend big, but a counter-balance are the mega continental clubs that still have huge buying power and huge sway. Traditionally, that was Real Madrid, Barcelona and Bayern Munich, but PSG are now in that group.
“Particular players are now being valued depending on the system the club wants to play, and you can see that with Manchester City spending over $128 million on two fullbacks.
“Another phenomenon which differs to previous seasons is the sale of a number of players from Monaco to elite clubs, based on their fantastic run in the Champions League last season.
“But one of the things which may be becoming more prominent is that clubs have the ability — as long as there is no release or buyout clause in contracts — to keep players, even if the bid is a hugely significant sum.
“In the Premier League, the clubs outside the top six are now able to live within their means and can compete with most high-profile continental European clubs because they can afford the wages, the signing on fees.
“And I’m still not sure whether profit is the overall objective for owners. A lot of owners, chairmen and directors would say they want on-field success.
“Is it on-field success which drives commercial revenue and profit, or is it profit and greater commercial value which drives greater squad investment and consequent on-field success? It’s probably a bit of both.
“Liverpool are said to have had two bids rejected for RB Leipzig’s midfielder Naby Keita but Red Bull, the German club’s owners, have very deep pockets.
“They have a long-term plan, and it’s their first year in the Champions League. They want to maintain that approach to on-field success, which again drives commercial success and drives a longer term plan.
“It seems no means no, whereas maybe even a year ago talk of such eye-watering numbers may have enticed a number of owners or directors to accept those kinds of figures.”
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The consultant — ‘No-one’s going to play chicken’
Omar Chaudhuri is head of football intelligence at 21st Club, a consultancy company which works with teams around the world, advising them on player recruitment and managerial hires.
“The transfer fees have gone up, but it’s important to remember that revenues have gone up as well. Spending is proportional.
“In the Premier League, net spending has always been around 15% of the clubs’ revenue and it’s not deviated from that too much, which means clubs are spending within their means.
“The one big outlier is Neymar. Yes, PSG are wealthy but they’ve not got the biggest revenue. But that deal doesn’t really affect many clubs, if any.
“It may impact Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Manchester United, in the way they view transfer fees and spending in the future. It might impact the top end of the market, but it’s a one-off case.
“It’ll be interesting to see how his arrival impacts PSG commercially. Clearly, from a football point of view Neymar isn’t worth $261 million, but from a brand perspective he may actually be worth that.
“He’s 25, and unlike Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, he’s still got three or four years of peak performance left in him.
“There are very few players like Neymar. Manchester United broke the transfer record for Paul Pogba last year, but he isn’t quite at Neymar’s level.
“AC Milan have spent big this summer. They’ve got new owners which has facilitated that and they’ve bought marquee signings — Leonardo Bonucci’s signing from Juventus has the potential to transform them back into a top four Italian club, which they haven’t been for a few years.
“But broadcast deals in Europe still pale in comparison to the Premier League, which is why it’s the big Premier League clubs which mainly top the spending.
“The only thing that has really surprised me this summer is Manchester City spending so much on fullbacks — $64 million on Kyle Walker and $67 million on Benjamin Mendy — but fullbacks have increased in importance in the modern game.
“It’s questionable whether they are worth that much, but there’s no doubt they are good players and City can afford it.
“When you have Financial Fair Play there is always going to be a temperature check and I don’t think anyone is going to want to play chicken with European football’s governing body UEFA as they have a track record of clamping down on financial ill discipline.”
The chief executive — ‘Expectations increase’
Paul Barber is the chief executive of newly-promoted Premier League club Brighton & Hove Albion. He has also worked for Tottenham Hotspur and MLS side Vancouver Whitecaps.
“The automatic assumption is that when you get promoted to the Premier League, you suddenly receive huge sums of money relative to what you had before and that any player in the world is available to you. The reality is that that’s not the case.
“Player transfer fees have really rocketed this summer, as have the demands from players and agents.
“We’re having to compete in a hot market, some would say overheated market, but that’s where we are and we have to do our best and assemble a squad that will allow manager Chris Hughton to be competitive.
“Over the last few years clubs in the Premier League have been able to make themselves profitable for the first time in many years.
“The danger is that those profits are eroded by inflated transfer fees and wage demands and, of course, every individual club will have different resources and objectives.
“We’re trying hard to keep our focus and maintain our policy of not overpaying and not putting the club in a position where the future is in any way jeopardized.
“For the average Premier League club, the TV revenue is by far the biggest revenue stream.
“For many years people have said the revenues can’t keep going up, well it has, that no new entrants will come into the market, well they are, and that the football can’t get any better, it is.
“All of the things that people keep putting forward as barriers to growth seem to be swept aside regularly.
“The Neymar deal does has an effect, but probably only in the top end of the market does it have a significant impact. But invariably people’s expectations go up when a new transfer record is set.”
Paul Brown is the author of “Savage Enthusiasm — A History of Football Fans,” which is due to published on September 9.
“I think modern football, at the top level at least, has already alienated many of its fans, and the fact that PSG have paid $260 million for Neymar won’t make a lot of difference.
“Most fans recognise that huge increases in TV deals are inevitably going to lead to inflated transfer fees.
“The vast majority of modern football fans never go to football matches, and football is becoming an increasingly passive form of entertainment — just a big TV show. This summer’s circus-like transfer window has been part and parcel of the entertainment.
“Unfortunately, the huge amount of money spent during the transfer window ultimately comes out of fans’ pockets.
“Many fans have already been priced out of watching football in person due to high ticket costs. There’s a danger that they are going to be priced out of watching football on TV, too.
“A football TV subscription is already an expensive luxury, and if costs continue to spiral than inevitably more and more fans will cancel.
“We may be close to a tipping point where a collapse in TV revenue will have a major effect on the transfer window, with fans no longer willing or able to subsidize huge transfer fees.”