The Summer Transfer Window and Big Clubs Paying the Price for Big Spending

Image Credit: Pixabay licence: aasifbin

Ronán Daly discusses the latest developments of the Premier League over the Summer months, including their largest purchases.

Lionel Messi to PSG on a free, Ronaldo returning to Old Trafford, and Real Madrid offering €180 million for a player they could get for free in less than 12 months’ time. The 2021 Summer transfer window has been anything but dull. It has been one of the most remarkable in recent memory, where so many clubs spent big money and the net spend for premier league clubs crossed the £1 billion mark for the 6th consecutive year. So, what happened, how did it happen and what does this transfer window and new regulations mean for the future of transfers in football. 

Big spending in football is one of the hottest debates,  as it seems every year clubs are having to splash more cash just to keep up with the top clubs. While Neymar’s transfer to PSG from Barcelona in 2017 for an eye-watering €220 million may have been the Nadir of football clubs spending large sums of money, this summer has highlighted just how ludicrous it has all gotten as it becomes increasingly clear that this sort of spending cannot be sustainable for much longer. 

Arsenal became the poster boys for spending this summer as they forked out £142 million on new signings, most notably on Brighton defender Ben White for £50 million, as Man United secured four-time Champions League winner and world cup winner Raphael Varane for less money. Arsenal are by no means the only big spenders this season in the PL, as suggested by the £1.1 billion spent across the league this summer. 

At a time when the Pandemic was supposed to be a great leveller at the top end of English football, where clubs were supposedly cash strapped and had to spend more sparingly it is obvious this is not the case. When you look at England’s second tier and the money spent there the gap between the big clubs and those at the bottom end of the premier league and below becomes more evident. Over the Summer, only £40 million was spent on players with only 37 transfers involving fees in the Championship. It has begun to feel like the chance of this gap ever being bridged is increasingly hopeless by the day, and begs the question, how did this happen and is there any way to fix it? 

The obvious answer would be that in order to fix this issue, the governing bodies of football would have to implement stricter regulations on spending than those that already exist. UEFA, Europe’s football governing body, has had ‘Financial Fair Play’ regulations in place since 2013. However, they have been heavily criticised as being essentially defunct and ineffective. When Man City broke FFP and faced a two-year ban in European football and a €30 million fine in 2020 it was overturned and the fine reduced to €10 million, pennies for an oil state funded club who have spent over £1 billion since 2016.

UEFA’s regulations prior to the pandemic allowed clubs to lose €30 million over a three-year rolling period, however this was relaxed over the pandemic, possibly explaining why 2021 seemed particularly hectic. UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin has announced plans to overhaul UEFA’s current FFP regulations to include salary caps and a luxury tax on transfers to control spending by big clubs. UEFA may already have the blueprint to implement these changes as Spain’s new La Liga spending regulations have hit one of the world’s biggest football clubs, planting the seeds for one of the most sensational transfers in football history. 

Up until the day it was announced he was leaving, Lionel Messi was certain he would be staying at the club he had been at since he was 13 years old. However, Barcelona’s reckless spending under former club president Bartomeu has caught up with them and even when Messi agreed to take a 50% wage cut, the club would not be compliant with La Liga’s new spending regulations. Under the new regulations, a club’s salaries cannot be more than 70% of its revenue, even if Messi had agreed to play for free, Barcelona’s salaries would have been 95% of its revenue. In truth, Barcelona were left in a position where they had to cut their wage bill from its 2020 peak of €671 million to just €200 million, equal to that of mid table premier league clubs like Everton and Aston Villa. 

Barcelona are currently €1.3 billion in debt and have had to offload several key players this Summer like Messi and Antoine Griezmann. This is the result of irresponsible spending for years, offering astronomical fees for players like Coutinho and Ousmane Dembele, who combined cost the club nearly €300 million, and have barely played or had an impact. La Liga’s new hard-line regulations have forced Barcelona to pay the highest price, letting the greatest footballer of all time leave the club for no money. Barcelona have paid the price running up big debts and lavish spending, which is what financial regulations should do.

While 2021 may have been a landmark year for big spending, it could also mark the beginning of the end for this sort of spending in football. Barcelona are the first big football club to be truly punished by spending regulations and on early viewing La Liga seem to have got this one right. Barcelona’s spending was unsustainable, and they are being forced to cut back. Hopefully UEFA’s new FFP regulations will follow suit and punish clubs operating at high levels of debt. Many of Europe’s biggest football clubs operate at high debt levels, with clubs like Spurs and Chelsea in England having over £500 million in debt. 

La Liga’s regulations are new and could face problems in the future, but the repercussions faced by Barcelona could act as the blueprint for UEFA’s overhaul of the FFP rules. While there is a lot to be done to bridge the gap between Europe’s elite and the rest of the football, a gap that can probably never be truly closed, stricter spending regulations may help at least stop those at the top completely running away from the rest of the game.