Can astronomical fees for star players ever be justified?

With Brazilian superstar Neymar reportedly close to a world record £198m move from Barcelona, Chris Bond asks if football transfer fees have gone too far.
Superstar: Neymars move would shatter the existing world transfer record. (Picture: PA).Superstar: Neymars move would shatter the existing world transfer record. (Picture: PA).
Superstar: Neymars move would shatter the existing world transfer record. (Picture: PA).

When Trevor Francis joined Nottingham Forest in 1979 for a record £1m, the club’s manager Brian Clough joked the real figure was £999,999, as he tried to ease the pressure on the young forward who had just become Britain’s most expensive player.

It makes you wonder what the man they called ‘Ol’ Big ‘Ead’ would make of the astronomical, some say obscene, sums being forked out on modern footballers.

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It’s 17 years since Leeds United bought Rio Ferdinand for £18m, making him the most expensive defender in the world at the time. Two years later Ferdinand left to join the Elland Road club’s bitter rivals Manchester United for £29m, which would probably buy you his right leg in today’s bloated transfer market but little else.

In recent years the world transfer record has been repeatedly broken but could be shattered with Barcelona’s Neymar set to join Paris St-Germain in a £198m (€222m) deal. Yes, that’s right – £198m for one player.

If the Brazilian superstar is sold it would more than double the existing world transfer record – eclipsing the £89m Manchester United paid Juventus for Paul Pogba last year.

Dr Dan Plumley, a football finance expert at Sheffield Hallam University, says a deal for Neymar would set a new benchmark in the world of football.

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“There has been quite a lot of talk about the first £100m player and if this goes through it would take that to a completely different level. It would be the most significant transfer in football history,” he says.

The move is part of a growing trend as football’s elite clubs spend ever larger sums in their pursuit of more silverware. Manchester City are among those that have embarked on a spending spree this summer shelling out over £150m on its defence which, it has been pointed out, is more than the entire annual military budgets of some countries.

To non football fans, and in truth even to many that are, these are staggering amounts of money. “These are eye-watering figures but typically transfers aren’t paid in full up front, they’re paid in instalments over the course of the player’s contract,” says Dr Plumley.

Critics argue that these transfer fees aren’t sustainable in the long run, but at the same time there has never been more money in football as wealthy investors seek to harness the sport’s global appeal.

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Dr Plumley points out that the English Premier League’s broadcasting rights have increased dramatically over the past 25 years – in the latest deal Sky and BT Sport paid £5.136bn for live TV rights for matches up until 2019.

With so much money available clubs have been able to splash the cash in a way they couldn’t have dreamt of 20 years ago.

Premier League newcomers Huddersfield Town have broken their transfer record three times in the space of a fortnight this summer. The club has spent in the region of £40m on eight players which sounds a lot but is just over half the amount Manchester United agreed to pay Everton for Belgian striker Romelu Lukaku.

But this, too, is dwarfed by the sensational Neymar deal. The proposed move would have to meet Financial Fair Play (FFP) rules – implemented five years ago by European football’s governing body Uefa – which stipulate that European clubs cannot spend more than they earn.

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However, if the transfer goes ahead it may be a figure that isn’t topped. “Neymar is a world famous superstar, he’s in the same bracket as Messi and Ronaldo which is why I think this is a stand-out transfer,” says Dr Plumley. “It’s highly unlikely that we will see a deal as big as this for quite some time – if at all.”