Why the ‘transfer madness’ makes sense

To ask whether injury-prone Fernando Torres is worth £50million is to mistake the world of football for business.

Duleep Allirajah

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Transfer deadline madness. That was the consensus within the headline-writing community. Fernando Torres to Chelsea, Andy Carroll to Liverpool, transfer records shattered, fans burning shirts. Who needs proper football when buying players is so much fun?

Mubarak’s regime is teetering on the brink but English football’s deadline-day spending spree shared frontpage billing in The Times. A symptom of the dumbed-down news or simply a recognition of football’s hyper-inflated social value? Judge for yourself. Maybe Mubarak’s fatal error was not making a late bid for Torres. What Egypt and the Premiership did have in common was the symbolic burning of images. In Cairo, they were burning pictures of Mubarak. In Liverpool, they were burning Torres shirts. Even the Geordies tried to get in on the act. Well, one Geordie to be precise and not very successfully. A YouTube video – now removed – showed a fan unsuccessfully trying to set fire to a Carroll shirt. ‘You’re not fit to burn the shirt’, tweeted Oliver Kay of The Times.

‘The UK market is crazy right now’, was England captain Rio Ferdinand’s verdict on his Twitter feed. The nation’s collective jaw dropped as the deadline day events unfolded. Is Torres worth £50million? Is Andy Carroll worth £35million? Has football gone bonkers? Now that the window has closed we can take a more sober look at the issues.

This week’s staggering transfer deals raise the question: ‘How much are footballers worth?’ What we need to understand here is that football clubs are not like ordinary businesses. Success is not measured by profit or loss. Roman Abramovich isn’t interested in the financial return on his investment. For super-rich oil tycoons like Abramovich or Manchester City’s Sheikh Mansour, a football club is essentially a vanity project. It’s their way of stamping their mark on history; a bit like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, but without the nauseating missionary zeal.

And, just as football clubs don’t follow conventional business rules, star players are not ordinary commodities, so it’s no use consulting Adam Smith or Karl Marx here to calculate their worth. Transfer value is not determined by the quantity of coaching time invested in their development or the number of hours they’ve racked up on the training ground. Like other luxury goods such as antiques or oil paintings, transfer values are much more subjective and depend on how much club benefactors are willing to spend.

On the face of it £50million – a record paid by a British club – for the injury-prone Spanish striker does seem like silly money. Is Torres really worth more than David Villa, who cost Barcelona £35million? However, we have to bear in mind that the January window is a seller’s market and this tends to inflate transfer prices. There really are very few strikers in world football of Torres’ pedigree. He’s a proven goalscorer, arguably the world’s best when he’s fully fit and on-form (admittedly not very often in the past year). He’s not just a penalty-box predator like Michael Owen. Torres is a game changer and that’s priceless – or at least worth £50million in Chelsea’s view. If his goals can help Chelsea secure more silverware, no one will be quibbling about the price tag in a couple of years’ time.

Andy Carroll’s £35million transfer to Liverpool is more debatable. Paul Kelso in the Telegraph has suggested that Liverpool owners John Henry and Tom Werner were guilty of panic buying. ‘[T]he plunge on Carroll has made Henry and Werner look like short-term gamblers more concerned with heading off a supporter backlash over the sale of Fernando Torres than long-term strategy.’ Liverpool do seem to be taking a big punt on Carroll. The 22-year-old is still largely unproven. He hasn’t yet played a full season of Premiership football. He has no Champions League experience. He also comes with several suitcases worth of off-field baggage: last year he was charged with assaulting an ex-girlfriend and recently injured himself during a six-hour casino boozing session.

Carroll, however, does have time to mature and prove his worth. There were similar howls of disbelief when Manchester United paid £29.1 million for the 23-year-old Rio Ferdinand in 2002. Eight years’ later that deal looks like a great piece of business. The £57.7million Liverpool spent on Luis Suarez and Andy Carroll appears extravagant until you consider that the combined revenue from the sale of Fernando Torres and Ryan Babel was £56 million. Or, put another way, they’ve shipped out two unsettled underperforming players and brought in two strikers with something to prove.

With jawdropping sums of money changing hands it is tempting to conclude that English football has lost its marbles. Profligate spending in the current economic climate has been widely branded as immoral. ‘It was obviously too much to hope that the so-called “beautiful game” might put a brake on the obscene levels of spending and recognise that the rest of the country was having to come to terms with the age of austerity’, thundered Alex Brummer in the Daily Mail.

But, here too, some perspective would help. It is true that Premiership clubs spent £225million last month, the highest total since the January window was introduced. However, the perception of a decadent spendfest is misleading. As Dan Jones from accountancy firm Deloitte has pointed out, just four clubs – Aston Villa, Manchester City, Chelsea and Liverpool – were responsible for 80 per cent of the expenditure. If we remove the six big-money signings from the equation, the picture looks very different. ‘[T]his was a particularly polarised window, with only a few clubs flexing their financial muscles, on what was a deafening final day of an otherwise quiet window’, explained Jones.

So, not quite the obscene cash spunkathon it appears at first glance. But I guess ‘Transfer market sluggish bar a few wealthy exceptions’ just doesn’t work as a headline.

Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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