We’ll return to a topic touched upon long ago, a comparison of the transfer system in European soccer to that of player mobility in MLB. Right now in the Premiership, there is a transfer battle over Wayne Rooney, probably the single most talented young player in all of English football. Rooney plays for Everton, a reasonably small club in the Premiership, a middling achiever probably akin to a team like the Mariners or better, the Reds – a middle market team that probably, in this day and age, will never taste a title but may compete for their version of a wild card (in England, that’s like a spot in the lesser European tournaments, the UEFA Cup or the Intertoto Cup). Two clubs are bidding on Rooney, and those teams are both northern rivals, Newcastle United and Manchester United. Manchester, it goes without saying, is the big bully of the Premiership, David Beckham’s former club, the EPL Yankees to Arsenal or Chelsea’s Red Sox, to make a simplistic comparison. Newcastle is a top tier club, but without a championship in quite some time, and without the wide-open pursestrings of Manchester. Adding to the complications of the transfer are Tuesday’s deadline for eligibility in European tournament play: any player who fails to be properly transferred by then is ineligible for the year-long tournaments, a huge source of money for the teams, particularly if successful. Money means more power to purchase and therefore to perpetuate strength; in European football this is a reasonably vicious cycle. Teams that fail to stay in the Premiership, for example, often do not return immediately to the top division even though they had the talent to be there for an entire year. In fact, some teams plummet disastrously to the lower divisions within just a few seasons, having lost revenues and their marquee attractiveness to even mid-line players who prefer Premiership exposure to toiling in smaller cities and a first-team spot. Everton looks upon selling Rooney as a business deal – they can use the big bucks they will attain to (possibly) buy more role-players, additional talent to shore up a thin team. Or, cynically, the Ownership could pocket the money, spending little on improving the team while casting off its hearthrob, its most marketable talent, and one of the best players to come along in years.
So Rooney is up for grabs, and the asking price has gone from $38M, to $44M, and Manchester has now tabled an offer in excesss of that $44M. This is a team-to-team transaction. Any wages are worked out separately with the player, and those can exceed $200K per week for the top talent (salaries are calculated per week in most football-playing nations).
Here’s the thing: it makes MLB’s system look practically equitable. The fluidity with which players move in our major leagues, though restricted and tipped in favor of those large-market teams, seems almost pure in comparison to the talent-hoarding of some of the top European clubs, like Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester, Bayern Munich, and most famously, Real Madrid. So for just a moment I will lay off the Big Bad Yankees and their greedy ownership. I’ll take a raincheck on bashing the fact that there’s no minimum salary cap, no wage control beyond potentially illegal collusion. For once, though I love the purity of national club football’s relegation system (talk about a meritocracy!), I will admit that it’s infected by the economics of the European transfer system. Rooney’s likely movement to a big club is bad for club soccer, it’s an indication of the almost hyperbolic stratification of the good and the bad, the rich and the poor, the big and the small, in European football. And it makes our own flawed system look almost acceptable.