Sports

The Problem When Teams See Athletes as Assets

One of the things that appealed most to Manchester City about Marlos Moreno was his flexibility. The club spotted him as a teenager, coming off the back of a breakthrough season in which he helped Atlético Nacional, his hometown club in his native Colombia, win not just a national title but the Copa Libertadores, too.

Moreno, then 19, had the air of a rising star. He was the sort of prospect who stood out among the thousands of players around the world whose names and performance data flash in front of the eyes of the scouts and analysts at Europe’s biggest clubs.

City’s recruitment team liked what it saw: not just Moreno’s finishing, but his creativity, his ability to play in a variety of places. The club decided to strike, paying Atlético $6 million or so to sign him, and tying Moreno to a five-year contract. Executives were sufficiently excited by the acquisition of a player they felt was one of the most promising in South America to mention his name to Sheikh Mansour, City’s owner.

“He’s a versatile player,” City’s director of football, Txiki Begiristain, said when Moreno’s arrival was confirmed. “We believe he has a fantastic future in the game, and with City.”

That was five years ago, in August 2016. Moreno, 24, has now completed his initial, five-year deal with City. He has not played a single game for the club. He has, instead, spent the last half-decade on a series of loans. As it turned out, he has needed to be a very versatile player indeed. Just not in the way Begiristain intended.

There is, on the surface, little pattern to the arc of Moreno’s journey these last few years, no easy evidence of some grand design at play. Sometimes, he has gone to clubs in Manchester City’s orbit — Girona and Lommel, two of his stops, are owned by City Football Group — and sometimes he has not. There have been spells in Spain, Portugal and Belgium, but also Brazil and Mexico. If there is a rhyme or a reason, it is difficult to discern.

Marlos Moreno, left, signed with Manchester City in 2016 but has yet to play for the club.Credit…Miguel Sierra/EPA, via Shutterstock

This summer, Moreno left Manchester on loan again. (There has never been official confirmation that he has signed a new contract, but it can only be assumed that City extended his terms beyond their initial expiration date this summer.) He has joined Kortrijk, in Belgium. It is his seventh club in five years.

Moreno is not, though, an outlier. There are plenty of players on City’s books who have a similar story to tell. Yangel Herrera, a Venezuelan playmaker, is now on his fourth team in four years since signing with Manchester City. None of them was Manchester City. Patrick Roberts, once considered something of a breakout star in English soccer, is with his sixth team in six years. He has, at least, appeared for Manchester City in a Premier League game. That was in 2015.

But this is not simply a Manchester City phenomenon. Chelsea, too, has a troupe of players on loan: 21, in fact, after the closure of the transfer window. Some of them — like Billy Gilmour, the Scottish midfielder lent to Norwich City for the year — are undertaking a vital step in their development. The hope at the club remains that they will come back stronger, better, more experienced and ready to command a place with the first-team squad. Others, like the fullbacks Kenedy and Baba Rahman, are not.

Chelsea is often credited — if that is the right word — with pioneering the idea of a soccer club as two separate but linked businesses: one designed to put the best team on the field, with the aim of winning trophies and claiming glory; and one set up to trade players, with the aim of making a profit that can then be reinvested in the other side of the company.

Matt Miazga’s Chelsea tenure has been a European tour: He has been lent to clubs in the Netherlands, France, England, Belgium and, most recently, Spain, where he now plays for Alaves.Credit…David Aguilar/EPA, via Shutterstock

Whether Chelsea invented the idea is a matter of debate. Several Italian teams might suggest they were operating along similar lines long before the current European champion. There is no question, though, that Chelsea has not only industrialized the concept, it has refined it, too.

Its approach has two strands. Some players are bought, developed and sold a couple of years later, flipped like real estate. Others, though, are treated as rentals, lent again and again to different clubs, the return on the initial investment spread over several years of loan fees.

This practice could, perhaps, be named in honor of goalkeeper Matej Delac, a Croat who spent nine years at Chelsea, and spent each and every one of them at a different club. The whole approach — of effectively spinning off a player-trading business as another part of a club’s identity — could easily be termed the Chelsea model.

Except that it is, now, not just Chelsea. It is Manchester City, too, with Moreno and Herrera and others. Liverpool is doing it more frequently. There are players at Juventus and Real Madrid, among others, who have had similar experiences. It is now pretty much standard practice at most of Europe’s elite clubs.

There is a reason it has been widely and quickly adopted: It is a good idea. It is a particularly good idea now, when the coronavirus pandemic has ravaged most clubs’ finances and only a handful of teams are able to pay actual transfer fees. The loan market will grow and grow. Having players contracted for that very purpose ensures a steady stream of income: small beer, perhaps, for a team like Manchester City or Chelsea, but perhaps a vital source of funds for the teams expected to compete with them.

The impulse behind it is not just economic; it is also, to some extent, sporting. The teams that are good at it — the ones that can identify talent and develop it, the ones that can command a market for those players, the ones that can place them adroitly at teams that allow their value and demand to grow — are the ones that are rewarded by the system. Chelsea can bring in Romelu Lukaku, to some extent, because it has developed an effective transfer strategy to offset some of the costs. That is to its credit.

There is only one sticking point. It is a simple question, and it is one that does not traditionally detain soccer for long, but it is worth asking. Is this OK? There is economic sense here. There may be some sporting logic, too. But morally, is the idea of players not as athletes but as assets something we should not just accept but incentivize?

The transfer market, as a whole, is underpinned by a deep weirdness. It is rarely mentioned — the soap opera of the market is sufficiently compelling that we, as observers, willingly suspend our disbelief — but it is unusual that an employer can prevent an employee from taking another job, one that is better paid or more appealing, regardless of what that employee wants.

Manchester City signed Yangel Herrera as a teenager but has yet to play him. Instead, he has appeared in Major League Soccer and for three Spanish clubs.Credit…Savvides Press/EPA, via Shutterstock

Of course, plenty of employees have contracts, which bind them to a company. But for the most part, they also have notice periods, giving them some sort of agency over their careers and lives. Perhaps a company might make life difficult should a star employee wish to leave. Perhaps it will place him on some type of gardening leave. There are not many examples where it will keep him until a prospective employer pays a wholly arbitrary sum in compensation.

We tolerate this state of affairs in soccer partly because of tradition, partly because it protects sporting integrity; partly because we (wrongly) assume that everyone is extremely well paid anyway; partly because players do jobs we all dream of doing, so we adore them individually but hate them as a concept; and partly because the transfer market is an important and reasonably effective mechanism for wealth distribution.

Even by these low and strange standards, though, the use of players as nothing more than assets — to be fattened for sale like livestock or to be rented to the highest bidder — feels like a step too far.

It is akin, perhaps, to those complex derivative packages traded on financial markets, the ones that are bets on the outcomes of bets, on and on into eternity. The original purpose has been lost: It is no longer about trading to get better; it is simply about trading to make money. And the things being traded, in this case, are humans, ones who are no longer in control of their own destiny, not really.

This is one of those rare problems in soccer that has a relatively easy solution: The authorities who run and, in theory, safeguard the game could quite easily rule that clubs can have only a certain number of senior professionals on their books. They could ban teams from having more than, say, five players on loan at any time.

They could, but of course they won’t, which means there will be more cases like Marlos Moreno and Yangel Herrera and Matej Delac and all the others, forever on the move, hired out to whoever will take them, bonded to a club that sees them not for what they can do but for how much they can make.

Selling Tomorrow

Antoine Griezmann completed a round-trip journey to Madrid. Barcelona paid coming and going.Credit…Lluis Gene/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Just as time expired, the money started pouring in. The great bazaar of Barcelona had been open all summer, but it was only in the final couple of days that anyone came through the doors, the buyers and the bargain-hunters, all hoping to take advantage of soccer’s great distressed sellers.

If the sale of Emerson Royal to Tottenham was a little strange — he had officially joined Barcelona only a month earlier — it is the departure of Antoine Griezmann that will sting the most: the sheer humiliation of allowing a player signed with great pomp and ceremony two years ago to return, initially on loan, to Atlético Madrid.

Still, it could not be helped: Barcelona’s most pressing need was first to save and then to raise money, and at the end of the transfer window it had done just that. Lionel Messi has gone; Sergio Busquets, Gerard Piqué, Jordi Alba and Sergi Roberto have all agreed to reduced terms; Griezmann is off the salary bill. By next summer, when his move to Atlético is made permanent, Barcelona will have generated $115 million in sales.

What Barcelona could not do, of course, is sell off the players that it most needs to sell: the high earners, the waning stars, the reminders of its years of folly. Philippe Coutinho, Miralem Pjanic and Samuel Umtiti are all still there. Barcelona does not have a vast amount in common with Real Madrid, but here, perhaps, there is some common ground.

Whether Real’s approach (or approaches) to entice Kylian Mbappé this summer was real or not we will never know, not truly: Real Madrid insists it was, Paris St.-Germain is adamant it was not. Either way, the club has spent the last couple of seasons trying to raise the funds necessary to sign the 22-year-old Mbappé: funds that would either have been used as a transfer fee or as a golden handshake.

To do that, it would have liked to sell players like Gareth Bale and Isco: big names on money to match. But nobody came forward, and so instead Real Madrid has had to cash in on a suite of promising youngsters: Achraf Hakimi and Sergio Reguilón and Óscar Rodríguez last season and Martin Odegaard this summer.

The policy has worked, of course, but it brings with it an unavoidable question: How much brighter would Real Madrid’s future have been, how much more balanced would its side be, if it had been able to add Mbappé to a promising young squad, rather than having to sell off many of those players to finance his eventual arrival?

It is the same question that lingers over Barcelona. Emerson, like Junior Firpo and Carles Aleña and Carles Pérez and Arthur before him, might not have made Barcelona great again, but he would, at least, have helped to rejuvenate an aging squad. Instead, he was sold, as they all were, to cover the costs of the mistakes of the past. Barcelona’s finances are in better shape now than they were a month ago. The price is a high one, though: It has had to mortgage tomorrow to pay for yesterday.

Correspondence

There was an intriguing thought in an email from Jillian Mannarino, touching on the varying fortunes of Arsenal’s two senior teams. “Everyone following the Premier League is talking about how bad Arsenal men’s team is,” she wrote, “but no one seems to be talking about how good Arsenal’s women’s team is: stacked with superstars like Vivianne Miedema, Kim Little, Danielle van de Donk and Beth Mead, and consistently good for the last decade.”

Arsenal has at least one team that is making its fans smile.Credit…Steven Paston/Press Association, via Associated Press

We will cover the start of this season’s Women’s Super League in England elsewhere this weekend. But it is worth pausing a moment on Arsenal, too, because there is a stark contrast between its two elite divisions.

The women’s team recruits sufficiently and consistently well enough — including the arrival of Tobin Heath this week on a free transfer — to punch above its weight: It has not spent quite as much as Chelsea and Manchester City in recent years, but it remains a peer of those teams in a way that it is very much not in the men’s game. How can that be explained? Why can the club make good decisions for its women’s team, but not its men’s? Is it to do with the executives working on the women’s side? And if so, should someone maybe not ask their advice?

These are questions I cannot answer — though I will endeavor to do so — but I can, at least, furnish Mary Jo Berman with a response. “Did Barcelona receive nothing in return for Lionel Messi?” she asked. “Couldn’t they have traded him or transferred him for cash?” They couldn’t, for the very simple reason that the club had allowed his contract to expire: He was free to move wherever he wanted. The fact that Barcelona allowed that to happen, too, remains the most interesting aspect of this summer.

And Calvin Wagner was quite right to pull me up on a poor turn of phrase last week. “The transfers of Messi, Mbappé and Ronaldo are clearly more driven by the statement of acquiring their star power than footballing fit,” he wrote. “But surely the Lukaku deal has more sporting logic to it? It seems to me that he brings greater marginal gains in sporting quality to Chelsea relative to the other transfers mentioned in your column.”

This is, of course, quite right. Lukaku makes complete sense from a sporting perspective — he fills a glaring need that Chelsea has — in a way that Ronaldo, for example, does not, particularly. Lukaku was included simply because of his cost, one that would have been beyond the reach of all but three or four teams this summer, rather than because of the motivations behind the deal, but that should have been made more clear.

That’s all for this week. We may now be behind the paywall, huddling against the cold, but the usual rules still apply: Questions go to askrory@nytimes.com, urgent matters go to Twitter, all of the other thoughts I’ve had this week that I could not crowbar into this newsletter are littered throughout Set Piece Menu.

Have a great weekend,

Rory

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