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The Quiet Bazaar: Soccer’s Transfer Market Braces for the Unknown

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Let’s start with a game. Here are two prophesies about the immediate future of soccer’s transfer market — that great bazaar of haggling and horse-trading, whispers and bubbles — offered by two executives at European clubs.

One sounds confident, bullish, determined to see the shafts of light amid the gloom. “The market for young stars will still be the same,” he said. “Maybe you will not see deals for people like Kylian Mbappé, but the fact that clubs are prepared to pay $30, $40 or $50 million for young talent? That will continue.”

The other sounds a little more downbeat. “I’m convinced there will be an impact,” he said. He had spoken to colleagues across Europe, he said. All of them were concerned by the financial picture they could see. All of them seemed to think they might have to sell players before they could buy.

“There are many clubs who would like to put players on the market to sell, and there are not so many clubs able to pay in cash or meet their demands,” the executive said. “I believe prices will go down. Maybe salaries as well.” That offers a glimmer of hope. “Maybe, then, we will be able to bring them down to a more stable and rational basis,” he said.

Which of those views, would you say, belongs to an executive who approaches the market as a vendor, and which as a buyer? Which interpretation of reality — precisely the same reality, built on the same data and the same figures and the same knowledge — is more likely to belong to Michel Louwagie, the chief executive of the Belgian club K.A.A. Gent, and which to Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, his counterpart at Bayern Munich?

That is the thing with the transfer market: Everything is a game. Louwagie, of course, wants to believe that values will hold up, because he has an asset — the Canadian forward Jonathan David — to hawk. Rummenigge needs to assert that values will come down, because Bayern’s needs to approach negotiations for the likes of Leroy Sané from a position of supposed weakness.

Neither, in truth, offers a full picture of what the first post-coronavirus transfer market will look like. Neither could, in fact, because Louwagie, Rummenigge and the rest of soccer are all driving blind into the next transfer window. They could not know, because nobody knows, for sure, quite how deep the impact of the shutdown will run.

It feels, certainly, like it is being underestimated. Over the next week, Italy and England will join Spain and Germany back on the field, making it four of Europe’s five major leagues returned to action, all of them hopeful that in doing so, they have safeguarded the majority of their television revenue for this season.

Of the leagues that have not — France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Scotland — at least three can at least take solace in the fact that they have new broadcast deals coming into play at the start of next season. That will help to make up the shortfall.

But that is only the start of it. Every team in Europe now must face the prospect of months without any ticket revenue, as well as attendant decreases in sponsorship value. Though we tend to think of the economics of soccer as entirely dependent on television revenue, that is an oversimplification.

Most teams, even in the Premier League, make only comparatively slender profits, if they make profits at all, compared to their revenues. Removing an entire income stream for several months will be enough to devour cash reserves — at the clubs farsighted enough to, you know, have them — or to tip accounts from the black into the red.

Stemming the losses from television contracts was crucial, but it was not a panacea. There is still pain to come. In many ways, the pain is only just starting.

What will define the fate of the transfer market is how clubs respond to that. In that sense, Liverpool’s decision not to pursue a long-anticipated deal to sign the Germany striker Timo Werner from RB Leipzig is telling.

In soccer’s pre-pandemic world, Werner represented good value: $60 million or so for a 23-year-old striker with an excellent record and blistering pace. Liverpool, of course, did not sign a single senior player for a fee last summer, despite winning the Champions League and reporting record revenues. It had the cash to spare.

Three months on since the shutdown, that is no longer the case. Or, more accurately, it may no longer be the case: Liverpool, a club run on a largely self-sustaining basis, does not yet know how much money it will have available to spend because it does not yet know exactly how great the shortfall in its accounts will be.

Perhaps, in July or August, it will have a clearer idea. Perhaps, by then, it will be able to loosen the purse-strings a little. But for now, Liverpool had no choice: as Jürgen Klopp, its coach, said, it would be absurd to be contemplating salary waivers for players and staff members while simultaneously spending $60 million on a striker. Those days, for now, have gone.

Werner will sign for another team with money to spend, thanks to a summer in which it kept its powder dry: Chelsea. It is striking, in fact, that only two major deals have been agreed ahead of next season, whenever it starts: Werner signing for Chelsea and Mauro Icardi, the Argentine striker, joining Paris St.-Germain for a similar fee.

Neither of those teams are immune to the financial damage of the shutdown, of course. P.S.G. has estimated its costs will run to around $115 million. That both clubs have felt comfortable spending suggests they are confident that shortfall can be made up elsewhere: perhaps by player sales, perhaps by a reduced salary burden, or perhaps covered by an owner.

In a summer in which UEFA is expected to loosen — temporarily, initially — the financial fair play rules that govern European soccer in an effort to enable teams to ride out the downturn, this may prove to be the decisive factor in the transfer market.

Those teams who cannot rely on the private largesse of their owners may find it harder to spend than those who, perhaps, can. The former group extends from Liverpool to Bayern, and from Juventus to Manchester United; the latter includes only P.S.G., Manchester City, Chelsea and possibly Real Madrid.

It may prove to be the case that soccer needs those clubs to spend, to keep some degree of liquidity in the market. It may also prove to be the case that this is the summer in which one model of running a club simply cannot keep up with the other. Nobody knows, not yet. Reality can still be what you want it to be. The game is only just beginning.

Hansi Flick’s record since replacing Niko Kovac as Bayern Munich manager is, frankly, offensive. He has coached the team for 27 games. He has won 24 of them. Statistically, he is outstripping even Pep Guardiola.

Bayern has won its last nine Bundesliga games. It followed up a win at Borussia Dortmund, which effectively sealed yet another championship, with victory at Bayer Leverkusen, just in case anyone had not yet gotten the message.

Flick has revitalized a team that seemed to be drifting down from its peak, powerless to stop the decline. Even the enforced hiatus has not interrupted Bayern’s rhythm. Even more impressively, thanks to that narrative arc — of a team shining bright once again, just as the light was dying — Flick has done the impossible: He has made Bayern somehow lovable.

In the last couple of weeks, it has become an established fact that Bayern is now favorite to win not just the Bundesliga, but the Champions League, too. Its second leg against Chelsea is a formality — it leads by 3-0 from the first game — and its blend of momentum and experience makes it a formidable proposition.

The problem is, of course, that there may be a month or more between Bayern’s final game in the Bundesliga and the condensed final rounds of the Champions League, now likely to be held over the span of two weeks in August in Portugal. The logic runs that his team will be well-rested, and its focus absolute.

That seems a generous interpretation. The most significant factor in this year’s Champions League will most likely be fitness. The final eight teams will arrive at vastly differing stages in their seasons. Some, like P.S.G., may be undercooked; others, exhausted after cramming almost a dozen games into six weeks, may be stretched too thin.

The worry for Bayern, of course, is that its monthlong rest may be counterproductive, smoothing off the edge Flick’s team has built over the last few weeks. Bayern may, in a way, suffer for the Bundesliga’s being the first league back. The old adage runs that being the best team in August means nothing; it is being the best team in May that matters. This year, the reverse is true, and Bayern may suffer for it.

As I believe I have pointed out before, it is a fool’s errand to write off Real Madrid and Barcelona. No sooner have you looked at Real’s unbalanced, squabbling squad and its unproven manager and it has gone and won three straight Champions League titles. Within moments of suggesting that Barcelona has lost its way, the club will invariably go and be crowned the Spanish champion.

Far safer, then, to say this: One of the two biggest clubs in the world will win the Spanish championship this season. Barcelona has the slight edge as La Liga resumes this week — a two-point lead and, now, a fully fit Luis Suárez — but much may rest on how it adapts to playing in the cavernous, empty Camp Nou. Real Madrid, by contrast, has shifted its home games to its training facility.

But there is a lingering fin-de-siècle air about it all. This is the rivalry that has defined European soccer for more than a decade, but both teams now look in dire need of reinvention.

More troubling still, neither club seems especially well-placed to ride out the effects of the shutdown. Barcelona’s salary bill is the most expensive in all of sports, while its board is doing its best to alienate not only the fans but the players, too. Real Madrid, meanwhile, is resting all its hopes on a phalanx of young Brazilians and, apparently, the immortality of the human red card Sergio Ramos.

This is a road I have been down before, of course. The chances are one of Barcelona and Real Madrid will win the Spanish title next year, too, but without substantial change, it is hard to escape the feeling that they are stagnating. They were once the center of the world. They now seem a little closer to its borders.

First — though not for the first time — a mea culpa: in last week’s newsletter on the rise of athlete activism in soccer, I missed a very obvious parallel. There is, as more than one of you pointed out, a long tradition of activism in the women’s game, one that has focused not only on issues of gender equality but minority and LGBTQ rights, too.

Men’s soccer does not, then, need to look even as far as the N.B.A. to find inspiration as it seeks to find its voice: Women’s soccer has already blazed much of that particular trail. It is not hard to imagine that the willingness of male athletes to speak out now is linked, to some extent, in seeing the likes of Megan Rapinoe and many others using their platforms so effectively over the years.

I’m also grateful for the explanations as to why M.L.S. might have something of a lingering inferiority complex. Darren Katz is correct to say the league is “in a unique position in global soccer,” in that it has to compete with “a dozen other soccer leagues for talent, and four more established domestic sports for eyeballs and money.”

That sentiment was echoed by Geoffrey Hayes: “The pressure has to do with the competition with the Premier League, Bundesliga, La Liga and Serie A. If those leagues are back at a time when M.L.S. is usually uncontested for audience, M.L.S. loses ground in the marketplace. It is important for them to have a story to tell during this time, to help them compete.”

That is true, though I stand by my doubts about whether you should tell that story at Disney World. Ahmet Unal also sent a compelling, considered thought, but then lost me by saying that “soccer is great fun to play, but not so much fun to watch, unless you are a devoted fan.” I will be suggesting that as a slogan to M.L.S.’s marketing people immediately.

That’s all for this week. By the time we’re next together, we should have four of Europe’s major leagues to talk about. Thanks for staying with me for the last three months. I still have quite a number of reader suggestions to get to, but they’re still welcome, along with questions and criticisms and general feedback, to [email protected]

My Twitter is here; the prospect of actually going to a soccer game means I may as well plug Instagram, too. We invited friends onto Set Piece Menu again this week: it was a lot of fun. And you can tell everyone you know about how nice it is to get an email every Friday here.

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