Remember the pandemic? Remember when we thought nothing would be the same again? Remember when we thought the damage done to football’s finances was so severe that transfer fees might never recover? We were part right. This summer, Premier League clubs have spent €2.25bn (£1.94bn), more than La Liga, Serie A, the Bundesliga and Ligue 1 combined.
The net spend is even more remarkable: €1.35bn for Premier League clubs, with La Liga a distant second on €52.44m (and then only because of Barcelona’s lever-driven splurge).
Nottingham Forest have spent more than every Championship and Brazilian club combined. And for all the concerns about whether their new squad can gel, perhaps that is the only way for a promoted club to compete. What is the alternative? Who wants to be Bournemouth, scorned for spending a meagre €27m, which is the same as the entire Greek league?
On the one hand, of course, this is all very exciting. We get to see players such as Erling Haaland, Darwin Núñez and Casemiro in the Premier League. Every day, we get the dopamine rush of our clubs signing players for €20m, €50m, €100m.
The great transfer mill trundles on, one of those rare phenomena that seems to benefit everybody: the players who improve their terms; the agents who take a slice; the directors who can swagger about after landing a star or congratulate themselves on their acuity in snaffling a prospect; the marketers who can build new campaigns around new blood; the fans who can dream that this, at last, will be the final piece of the jigsaw; the journalists who filter the rumours, analyse where the new player will fit and pontificate about what it all means in columns such as this.
Little wonder there now seems a subculture more fascinated by the workings of the mercado than by the actual game. But this cannot be healthy.
It cannot be good for English football that the gulf between the Premier League and the Championship is so great that the Forest approach feels it may be the least bad available. How can it be that the only viable owners of Premier League clubs are hedge funds, public investment funds, sheikhs, oligarchs and tax exiles? How have we got ourselves into a position where the two wholesome plucky outsiders are professional gamblers?
It cannot be good for the global game if most of the wealth, and thus talent, ends up in one country. As the pandemic hammered the finances of continental clubs, the Premier League, insulated by its enormous broadcast deal and by the fact that so many of its owners are not reliant on gate receipts or the sort of commercial revenues that depend on spectators being in the stadium, has found its already dominant position enhanced.
The hollowing-out undergone by the Netherlands, Portugal, Scotland, Belgium, Scandinavia and the leagues of central and eastern Europe is now happening to Spain, Italy, Germany and France. Perhaps the super-clubs, fortified by history and a network of fans across the globe, will continue to thrive, but the main obstacle to the Premier League hoovering up the best talent is the Home Office and its arcane work-permit regulations.
And there is perhaps something particularly jarring about the spending given the general economic picture. As energy prices rise, threatening millions with fuel poverty and potentially bankrupting tens of thousands of businesses (including lower league football clubs, for whom floodlights may soon become an impossible expense), the idea that €100m can be spent on Antony (or €5m on Calvin Ramsay, for that matter) comes to feel almost distasteful.
This is not a question of inherent value. It is not some moral panic that even fairly mediocre players earn more in a week than a nurse or teacher earns in a year.
Rather it is about economic structure and in that regard the two issues – energy prices and Premier League transfer fees – are not unrelated.
In English football until 1983, 20% of gate receipts went to the away team, while a levy of 4% was redistributed between the 92 league clubs. Television revenue was shared equally between every club until 1985, when the Heathrow agreement split television revenue so 50% went to the top flight and reduced the levy to 3%.
The birth of Premier League in 1992 brought an end to the sharing of television revenues and the levy was reduced to a total of £3m. The advent of the Champions League the same year increased the flow of cash to the top clubs.
It has taken three decades, but this is the result. The richer the club, the more they can spend on players and the less significant the consequences for poor decisions. Even in a systematised game in which, as Valeriy Lobanovskyi put it, the bonds between players are as important as the players themselves, money is the biggest single determinant of success, not least because the richest clubs can afford the best coaches and sporting directors.
And so outlay leads to success which leads to greater prize money, television revenue and fan engagement, which leads to more success. Without some sort of redistribution, some regulation to prevent the rise of unstoppable giants, the rich get richer and the rest can only watch them disappearing into the distance, knowing that if they do develop a young player or unearth a gem that helps them, temporarily, to bridge the gap, the rich will soon swoop to take him away.
The irony is that one of the main drivers of the Premier League’s global popularity was collective bargaining and the relatively equitable division of broadcast revenues, which retained a degree of competitiveness alien to most top leagues. That is now being eroded, but as even the Premier League’s middle-classes can spend wildly, perhaps it does not matter; perhaps supremacy has been secured.
But the consequence of that is a desperate outlay just to keep up. Seven clubs have spent more than €100m net this summer. These are sums beyond the rest of the world, yet some of those sides may not even finish in the top half.