The world transfer record was broken twice in the summer of 1996.
The Brazilian forward Ronaldo went from PSV Eindhoven to Barcelona for around £13.2m but his record did not last long. Twenty years ago on Friday, Newcastle United paid Blackburn Rovers £15m for Alan Shearer. Both theoretically had their best years ahead – Ronaldo was 19, Shearer 25 – and were probably the best strikers in the world at the time. In that year’s Ballon d’Or they finished second and third, behind the Germany sweeper Matthias Sammer.
The contrast between those two and Gonzalo Higuaín, who has moved from Napoli to Juventus for £75.3m, shows the extent to which football has changed in the last two decades. Money doesn’t just talk; it never shuts up. Higuaín is a superb attacker, whose 36 goals in 2015-16 equalled the record for a Serie A season, but he will be 29 in December and few would regard him as one of the world’s best players. Last October he did not even make a 23-man shortlist for the Ballon d’Or. And he is worth £75.3m.
The Higuaín transfer might mark the day the last sane person was bundled out of the asylum. He is the third most expensive player of all time, behind Real Madrid’s Gareth Bale (£85m) and Cristiano Ronaldo (£80m). He may soon be fourth on the list, if Paul Pogba joins Manchester United or Real for a world-record fee. A 25-year-old Ronaldo or Lionel Messi would probably be worth £200m.
The reaction to the Higuaín move feels instructive. There was a bit of surprise but little disgust at a fee that not so long ago would have been seen as a vulgar indictment of the decadence of society. We have been desensitised to such grotesque transfer fees – and to reports Pogba’s agent, Mino Raiola, will receive £20m if his client leaves Juventus.
Stratospheric agents’ fees are an accepted part of football. From October 2015 to February 2016, Manchester United paid out £10m in them – and they did not buy a single player. That money was paid to agents for their part in negotiating contract extensions.
Football has developed its own economy, with its own inflation rate. While the real world is looking down the back of the sofa, football burns money for a laugh – literally in the cases of some especially offensive players. A socialist sport has become an orgy of unashamed, self-congratulatory avarice.
The transfer market has become such big business there are times when the actual football feels almost secondary. The excitement of buying players trumps the reality of watching them play, and transfer deadline day has replaced the FA Cup final experience as the most keenly anticipated date on the calendar.
Agents such as Raiola and Jorge Mendes are now some of the most important people in football. Except calling them agents is not enough: they are “super agents”, the football equivalent of Cindy Crawford, Eva Herzigova and the other supermodels on the famous Vogue cover of 1990. Their battle for supremacy is a game of its own. They even have their own power rankings on some websites.
The unprecedented worldwide popularity of football has allowed all this to happen. Twenty years ago, when the Deloitte Money League was published for the first time, Manchester United were top with revenues of £88m. The most recent table, for the 2014-15 season, had Real Madrid top with £439m. The broadcasting war between Sky and BT drove the last TV deal up to £5.14bn over three seasons, while the Chinese Super League has so much money Shandong Luneng can pay a reported £230,000 a week to Graziano Pellè.
It is a culture that is hard to relate or warm to, even before you consider the nefarious elements that are inevitable when so much money is involved. Nor is this just an idle point of principle. Football’s obsession with money is the principal reason for the dramatic change in the game in the last 25 years, from pricing out younger fans to the lack of leaders and characters on the pitch.
It is hard to see how this greed-is-good culture can be arrested. If you don’t like it, you can go and watch cricket. This is not a midlife crisis or a temporary state; this is the value system of 21st-century football. A value system in which paying £75.3m for a 28-year-old barely raises an eyebrow.
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