Spend, spend, spend!

Published : Jul 28, 2001 00:00 IST

THE transfer market seems to have gone berserk. Real Madrid, who set what seemed a crazy new record only last year with their colossal bid for Luis Figo, have left it far behind by paying &pound48.5 million for Zinedine Zidane. In the same week, Manchester United paid &pound28 million - which seemed an almost modest sum by comparison! - for Lazio's Argentine international, Juan Sebastian Veron. And Lazio then proceeded to sell their Czech international midfielder, Pavel Nedved, to Juventus, for &pound25 million.

Where is it going to end, you may well ask; the answer being that it may end very soon, given the compromise between FIFA and the European Union whereby senior players can leave their clubs after only a couple of years. That will surely diminish transfer fees, though the money could well go simply into the players' pockets. As indeed it recently has for Sol Campbell, who left Spurs and their embittered fans for Arsenal on a free Bosman type transfer, but was said to be earning between &pound80,000 and &pound100,000 per week!

Does all this mean that Real Madrid have built themselves an unbeatable team? I wonder. Not least because a glance at the unhappy fate of Brazil's Ronaldo, himself not long ago the most expensive player in the world, reminds us all too starkly how suddenly and severely things can go wrong. I am not thinking so much of the 1998 World Cup when the young Brazilian striker, having had a convulsive fit that afternoon, should never have been allowed to take part in the final, but of all the dire things which have been happening to that ill fated right knee.

Time and again, whether with PSU Eindhoven, Barcelona or Inter, that knee has broken down. Will it stand up to the new Italian season? Can Brazil, whose results this year have been so catastrophic, till their belated 2-0 win in the Copa America versus Peru, be able to get him back, needing him as they do? Who can tell? What his unhappy case does remind us is that soccer is essentially a game of injuries, and that no player can ever be sure he will remain free from them. Spend what you like on a star player, insure him as you will. There can still be no guarantee he will avoid injury; which has been known to come, and disastrously, in training, or even in the home.

Over and above that, can it be said that over the generations money in soccer will always buy success? If you look back at Real Madrid in their real pomp and prime, the marvellous team which won the first five European Cups in a row, what do you find? Answer: you find Alfredo di Stefano. The hero, the motor, the inspiration of that fine team, who was playing Total Football long before anybody ever thought of it. Today, money could hardly buy him. Zidane, for all his undoubted talents, will never have the same impact and influence over Real. Whose already expensive team, please remember, put up such a dull and disappointing show in that most recent European Cup final, against Bayern Munich, who beat them.

Di Stefano cost a relatively low fee, arriving as he did from Colombia, where he had been playing illicitly, outside FIFA jurisdiction for Millonarios, his original club, River Plate of Buenos Aires, having rights in him, too. The most difficult part of the transfer, of course, was that Barcelona, Real's eternal bitter rivals, had a claim to him, too, but some craft footwork by Real, after an initial Judgment of Solomon had given Di Stefano to both clubs jointly, enabled him to play in Madrid. Significantly, when Real subsequently spent money on such stars of the 1958 World Cup as Didi of Brazil and the Swedish centre forward Agne Simonsson, the domineering Di Stefano would hardly give them a game!

Go back between the two World Wars, and the English club renowned for spending money was Arsenal. Indeed in 1938 they established a British transfer record which would last for nearly a decade when they paid Wolverhampton Wanderers &pound14,500 for the little Welsh international inside-left, Bryn Jones. In today's money, I suppose you could call it nearer &pound300,000: though goodness knows you wouldn't get a major star for that amount these days!

Still, everything is relative, and Arsenal under Herbert Chapman, then his portly and rotund successor, George Allison, were renowned as big spenders. I once came across a cartoon from the period in which Allison was deliberating, "After we've won the Cup and the League, we can have a go at the Derby and the Grand National!" But though Arsenal were beyond doubt the dominant English, even European, club of that epoch, they hardly monopolised the honours.

True, they won three successive Championship titles between 1932/3 and 1934/5, but they had to wait till 1937/8, before the arrival of Bryn Jones, to win the League again, and then it was only by goal average over Preston North End. As for the FA Cup, they won it only twice, in 1930 and 1936, though they did lose the 1927 and the 1932 Cup finals.

Coming up to date, what of Barcelona? They may have lost Figo, but they have spent fortunes in recent years and to what overall purpose? Last season, despite the purchase of the Arsenal pair, Marc Overmars and Emmanuel Petit, the presence of a platoon of Dutch internationals besides Overmars, the availability of such as Dani and Alfonso, barely used, for centre forward, they dropped out of the European Cup at the initial stage: and they were the luckiest of teams to qualify for the new version, a superbly executed bicycle kick giving them a 3-2 win over Valencia at the very end of their very last game.

The old saying, money isn't everything blessedly still applies to soccer, which after all remains a team game. By comparison with Real and Barcelona, Valencia have been almost parsimonious in the market, yet look at what they have achieved in the past couple of seasons.

Manchester United may be mighty spenders in England, but since their European Cup victory over Bayern Munich a couple of years ago they have floundered pitifully in Europe, however comfortably they have dominated the English Premiership. Which brings us back to Arsenal who themselves have spent and are spending fortunes, yet have been hopelessly outdistanced by United in the Premiership and sadly unsuccessful in Europe.

Meanwhile, is UEFA's Lennart Johansson right? Will the monetary bubble burst?

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