Barcelona, with their Johan Cruyff-influenced idea of the game, were once more than just a club. Today, despite high debts, they operate like all the rest. They invest on a scale that very few can afford. Barça officials know that the market will grow for years. So the annual balance sheet doesn’t count for them; they calculate in decades.
Barça bought Robert Lewandowski, among others, for €45m from Bayern Munich this summer. He is 34 and does not represent the continuation of tiki-taka. But he has been top scorer in the Bundesliga seven times.
Lewandowski’s transfer highlights a strategy that has prevailed among the top European clubs for years: they buy players from each other in order to maintain their dominance. This does not bring fresh impetus, because the players are nearing or have already reached their zenith, but it preserves the status quo. It guarantees that the biggest clubs with the most spending power remain at the top table. If we look ahead to the semi-finals of this season’s Champions League, which begins on Tuesday, it is a safe bet that the usual players will be there.
Bayern bought Sadio Mané for €32m. He has reached the Champions League final three times with Liverpool, and the 30-year-old can now round off his career with a few national titles in Germany. The question of how exactly he will replace Lewandowski on the pitch is yet to become clear. Lewandowski was the target man, Mané plays in a different way. To complicate things further for Mané the German players tend to hold all the power in Munich. Two international stars, James Rodríguez and Philippe Coutinho, were unable to find a place in the starting XI while Lucas Hernández needed two years to get going. Having said that the transfer makes sense as Mané is a wonderful player.
Raheem Sterling moved to Chelsea after helping Manchester City win the Premier League on four occasions. City were happy to offload the 27-year-old for €55m. He had to make way because Pep Guardiola was not completely convinced by the England forward anymore, just as he lost faith in Leroy Sané before him. Sterling replaces Timo Werner, whose only only option was to return to Leipzig after a miserable time at Stamford Bridge.
Real Madrid signed Antonio Rüdiger, 29, a physically strong defender who won the title with Chelsea. Casemiro, 30, left Real to join Manchester United who hope the five-times Champions League winner will help restore some defensive stability and enable them to force their way back into the Champions League next season. The price was €70m, and United play in the Europa League.
Liverpool are doing things a little differently, replacing Mané with younger, non-established strikers. That suits Jürgen Klopp; he wants to make them his players. Italy no longer attracts stars like it did in the 90s, a situation underlined by Juventus selling Matthijs de Ligt to Bayern for about €70m.
However, two transfers stand out from all the rest this summer. Erling Haaland, 22, who excelled in the Bundesliga, moved to Man City for €60m. With the help of considerable financial backing, Guardiola has developed City into one of European football’s bigbest clubs over the last six years. Now he has the one thing his finely-tuned winning machine has previously lacked: a clinical striker whom he can mould into a defining figure alongside Kevin De Bruyne.
The other big transfer story was a deal that didn’t happen: Real Madrid’s failed pursuit of Kylian Mbappé. PSG were able to resist Real’s approach to hold on to the France striker but it cost them a lot of money. They raised Mbappé’s annual salary to €100m and gave him a €200m handout. The club ultimately belongs to the Emir of Qatar, who had eight of the most modern stadiums built for this year’s World Cup. That kind of financial muscle turns the world of sports politics upside down.
Whatever the cost, PSG and City have secured the services of two players who can make their mark on the biggest stage for the next decade because of their talent and age.
One thing is indisputable: the European football market is thriving. The pandemic is over. Last year, Uefa paid out more than €2.7bn in the Champions League. In addition, money from outside is increasingly flowing into football. “We are seeing an increase in external investment in the big five leagues,” says Deloitte’s latest financial report. The new owners are wealthy individuals or private equity firms. “This underlines the attractiveness of football from an investor perspective.” This is confirmed by figures from Forbes: the ruling family from Abu Dhabi has invested about €2bn in City over the years, and today the club are worth more than double that. Then there are the political profits for the owners, who use sport to cultivate their image and contacts.
The Champions League delivers exhilarating nights like the semi-finals between Real and City last year. But is a competition that only about five clubs can win really what we want or European football needs? “The Champions League has, over the years, lost all of that uncertainty,” writes the New York Times. It will be “rooted in the same inequality”, and feels like “a parade of the inevitable”. PSG versus City, the duel of the geopolitical rivals from the Middle East, would therefore be the logical final.
And the spending wars are not over yet, according to Deloitte. Newcastle United are likely to inflate the market further with the financial backing they have. The club paid €70m for Alexander Isak, a 22-year-old Swede who, unlike Haaland, failed to make it at Dortmund. If their ambition is to not just qualify for the Champions League but be competitive in Europe’s elite competition it is going to be an extremely expensive proposition. It is no longer possible to achieve with a mere $2bn. However, Newcastle’s Saudi Arabian owner can afford it. His fortune is estimated at $320bn.
Philipp Lahm’s column was produced in partnership with Oliver Fritsch at Zeit Online, the German online magazine, and is being published in several European countries.