The buildup and backdrop to last week’s Champions League last 16 tie between Paris Saint-Germain and Real Madrid was dominated by one player; Kylian Mbappe. The fact that this game also featured the likes of Lionel Messi, Neymar, Karim Benzema et al. speaks volumes for the importance of the player’s decision next summer. Will the free agent go and become the latest Galáctico or will he stay put as the prince of Paris?
Arguably the next best player in the world, his decision could change the entire landscape of European football. A battle between old and new money, Real and PSG, which could shape the next decade for both clubs. He showed his value with a stunning last-minute goal giving his current side a slender 1-0 advantage heading into the second leg next month.
The fact Mbappe, and his entourage, and not the super clubs, will call the shots here makes it all the more intriguing. It places him at the front of a growing trend sweeping across football – the free transfer.
Free Agent – The New Era of Football Transfers
Mbappe and the Class of 2022
The French superstar is the MVP of the class of 2022, and possibly the biggest summer of free agent football has ever seen.
These are all players in the prime of their careers playing at some of Europe’s biggest clubs, not old has-beens being cast into the unknown. All of these players will have options, and most are putting their current clubs under pressure to pay up.
Of course, there still are older heads who may be available, like Angel Di Maria, Luis Suarez and Ivan Perisic, but all are still operating at a high level and would be a coup for any suitor.
Throw in lower lights such as Andrea Belotti and Jesse Lingard and we’re looking at one of the deepest pools of free agent players ever seen, pointing to the changing dynamics in the game over the last few years.
Free Agent Playets Not as Common in the Old Days but Some Crackers Still Available
There were of course the odd exception but they were as rare as they were spectacular. Think Steve McManaman becoming the first high-profile English player to depart on a free when joining Real Madrid in 1999, Sol Campbell shockingly crossing the North London divide in 2001, Michael Ballack signing on at Chelsea in 2006 and Robert Lewandowski ending any form of competition in Germany by moving from Dortmund to Bayern Munich in 2014.
But that’s about it for players moving in their prime.
So What’s Changed to Turn Football Into an NBA and NFL Type Transfer System?
Well, like the rest of the world, football has been significantly impacted by coronavirus, nowhere more than the balance sheets with revenue significantly down since 2020 at most clubs.
Add in the financial mismanagement of historical levels from Barcelona, and this is how they lost their greatest player ever in Lionel Messi as a free agent to PSG last summer. He didn’t want to leave, they just simply couldn’t afford to pay him.
Incoming free transfers have also been a staple of the Catalans in the last two years. Expect this to continue as they look to right their wrongs.
Some clubs are unlikely to be able to justify the salaries being demanded by players this summer and when weighed up, it might be easier to just let them leave. Liverpool refused to acquiesce to Gini Wijnaldum’s demands last summer despite his importance to the side, as it would have broken their wage policy and structure, and he left for PSG. Surely the same won’t happen with Mohamed Salah in 2023?
Others, even before the pandemic, just can’t compete with the finances on offer elsewhere – this is what has led to Napoli losing Lorenzo Insigne, their best player and captain, on a free to Toronto FC.
Players and Agents Want Their Pay Day
In both of these players’ cases, the desire to land one last big contract was paramount when decision time came. As well as clubs making calls it shows the ever-growing power of players. While Liverpool were somewhat content to let Wijnaldium leave, others are being held to ransom as the players, as well as their agents, hold all the cards.
Nowhere is this more obviously seen than with Paul Pogba. Alongside his agent, Mino Raiola, he’s consistently spoken about other clubs while the months on his contract have slowly dwindled down, increasing the pressure on the brass at Manchester United to pay him what he and Raiola want.
It seems that the club might have seen sense and decided to cut their losses, but then Pogba will probably have a choice of PSG, Real Madrid or another Premier League club, pick up a huge wage and a signing on fee due to the lack of a transfer fee. Oh, and Raiola will also cop a hefty sum for his role in convincing his client of their next “project”. It would also be a second free transfer exit from Old Trafford for Pogba, ten years apart. A symbol of sheer incompetence.
PSG, Real Madrid and the Summers to Come
If you haven’t noticed already, Real and PSG are at the forefront of this new movement, making this summer all the more interesting. On top of Messi and Wijnaldum, the Parisians picked up Italian number one Gianluigi Donnarumma (player power and choice) and Real’s long-term skipper Sergio Ramos (contract length) last summer in a stunning display of free transfer dealing. Real replaced Ramos with Bayern’s David Alaba after meeting demands the Bavarian giants simply refused to.
This summer is the battle for Mbappe but it’s likely only to be the beginning of a new transfer era, with Salah currently the number one pick of the 2023 class of Raheem Sterling, Marcus Rashford, Sadio Mané, Jan Oblak, N’Golo Kanté and Kalidou Koulibaly, amongst others. Is this what Jean-Marc Bosman envisaged all those years ago when he went to court over the free movement of players? A penny for his thoughts.