Kylian Mbappe, Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Harry Kane and Donny van de Beek will be representing clubs they didn't want to be in. You could say that for Lionel Messi and Sergio Ramos too given that Paris St-Germain (PSG) wasn't the first choice for either. And by all accounts, had Inter Milan's finances not been a shambles, Romelu Lukaku wouldn't have been tending to unfinished business at Chelsea.
Players may be the biggest actors in football but as is seen by these examples, they often have little agency in choosing clubs. "All I want to do is go where I'm wanted and where I'm going to play," wrote England international Maitland-Niles on Instagram after playing 19 minutes this term and 485 minutes in 2020-21 for Arsenal. But Arsenal didn't find an offer that was good enough and after "clear-the-air" talks with manager Mikel Arteta, the midfielder is staying.
On the day news broke that Cristiano Ronaldo would be returning to Manchester United, Pep Guardiola said: "Cristiano will decide where he wants to play." The Manchester City coach had also said Messi and Ronaldo are among the few who can decide where they are going to play. "They have the absolute leading role in negotiations and everything. They knock on the door, they call," he said.
As it turns out, Messi doesn't really and neither do World Cup winners like Mbappe and Ramos or England captain Kane. With its bar on transfer fees at the end of a contract, the freedom to sign a pre-contract with another club if six months or less remain in the current agreement, the Bosman Ruling has made players' lives significantly easier. But as Kane, Mbappe, Maitland-Niles and Van de Beek found out, imbalances remain in this employer-employee relationship.
In a summer of never-before transfers, one that was as much about Messi and Ronaldo moving as it was about Kane and Mbappe not being allowed—PSG have reportedly turned down a USD236 million offer from Real Madrid and Spurs thought City's offer of USD175 million wasn't enough—players have also been barred from representing their country.
His hands tied and in a Chelsea shirt, Thiago Silva's Instagram post told its own story. As did Richarlison's where he wrote Everton on a picture that showed him celebrating a goal for Brazil. Silva and Richarlison are among the nine Brazilians who couldn't travel for this week's World Cup qualifiers because clubs cited Covid-19 quarantine rules to not release them. Also not travelling reluctantly for the same reason is Uruguay's Edinson Cavani, who plays for Manchester United, Chile's Ben Breton (Blackburn Rovers) and Paraguay's Miguel Almiron (Newcastle). Another example of suits not studs being the movers and shakers in this industry.
It is the suits, and not the coaching staff or data analysts that top clubs now employ, who decided if a player is needed this summer. Or did in at least two cases. So Mauricio Pochettino has to create a playing style that accommodates Messi, ditto Ole Gunnar Solksjaer at United for Ronaldo. And if Mbappe does go to Real—he has reportedly refused a six-year deal with one of the best pay packets at PSG—it is not clear where he will play. But these signings increase the power of a handful of clubs that can afford such big names.
Club power was evident from the way a closed European super league was planned. A report on Juventus' website dated August 29 says the idea of the breakaway competition is alive. Though the six clubs from England have opted out, Real Madrid, Barcelona and Juventus have not. This despite UEFA, Europe's apex unit, saying any club involved with this competition would be banned. "Juventus, Real Madrid and Barcelona intend to continue with our proposals, also in solidarity with those who were too afraid to stick to them," goal.com quoted Juventus president Andrea Agnelli as saying in June.
The club that rose the most in stature with the failed super league was PSG. PSG president Nasser Al-Khelaifi is on the UEFA executive committee and heads the powerful European Clubs Association. By getting Messi, Gianluigi Donnarumma, Ramos, Achraf Hakimi and promising left-back Nuno Mendes, they have a team that on paper looks difficult to beat. On the day of his unveiling, Messi said some of the best players in the world are his teammates. It wasn't an exaggeration then and with Mbappe staying, it seems even less so now.
That PSG, despite a loss of $148 million in the Covid-19 hit 2019-20 season, could ignore Real's offer for Mbappe shows how deep their pockets are at a time when most clubs in Europe are struggling financially. In four months, Mbappe could sign a pre-contract with Real and leave for free next summer. But in their quest for a maiden Champions League, PSG seem willing to take that hit.
La Liga president Javier Tebas thinks this can't go on. "Covid losses of more than 300m, TV revenue in France down 40 percent, and yet more than 500m in salaries? Unsustainable," he tweeted on Wednesday. PSG have maintained they comply with Financial Fair Play rules which UEFA has said need to be relooked at in the time of Covid-19.
Football's superstars may be richer than ever before but in the era of super clubs, they sure play second fiddle.