Time was, not so long ago, when English football, with its history, tradition and, above all, money, was the place to be for the world’s top players.
Whether it be Chelsea, bankrolled by Roman Abramovich, Manchester United, with their global appeal, or Manchester City’s new-found wealth, the Barclays Premier League’s finest always appeared well equipped to take on all-comers in any transfer tussle.
Not anymore. When it comes to marquee signings these days, our leading lights are no longer the happy campers they once were.
A glance at recent market activity paints a worrying picture for the Premier League prospects of reasserting themselves as the dominant force across Europe and beyond.
The warning signs were flashing last season when the Champions’ League reached the semi-final stage and turned into a private duel between Spain and Germany, with Bayern Munich going head to head with Barcelona in one tie and Borussia Dortmund facing Real Madrid in the other.
Bayern look even more formidable, after replacing Jupp Heynckes with Pep Guardiola and pipping United for Barcelona midfielder Thiago Alcantara, and are already being widely tipped to sweep all before them on the domestic front this coming season.
Dortmund felt suitably sure of themselves to send a cheeky message to Shinji Kagawa that he would be welcome back at the Westfalenstadion any time, should he begin to have second thoughts about quitting them for Old Trafford last summer.
Meanwhile, Real and Barcelona continue to act as magnets for the game’s biggest names and show no sign of losing their powers of attraction.
Disconcertingly for the Premier League’s elite, the range of clubs willing and able to pay the going rate for world-class talent now extends beyond Spain and Germany.
Led by Juventus, Italy’s top clubs are slowly but surely emerging from the ruinous days of financial mismanagement, while even the largely unheralded French League, in the shape of Paris Saint-Germain and Monaco, is beginning to tempt those who consider cash as important as kudos.
PSG have led the way for money spent in a single transaction, with their stunning £55million capture of Chelsea and Manchester City target Edinson Cavani, but even that was eclipsed by the sheer scale of Monaco’s staggering £113million outlay on three players.
Portugal midfielder Joao Moutinho had strongly interested Tottenham, but not at £21.5million, while Manchester United may well have considered £38.5million an excessive asking price for winger James Rodriguez. Monaco did not, and scarcely batted an eyelid as they handed Porto a £60million cheque for the pair.
Matchday revenue may be on the modest side at the 18,000-capacity Stade Louis 11, but with seemingly unlimited funds at manager Claudio Ranieri’s disposal since an investment group headed by Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev bought into them in December, 2011, they were able to go out and spend a further £53million on Radamel Falcao.
Again, the Falcao deal went through despite overtures from England. Chelsea were desperately keen to recruit him, and many may feel Stamford Bridge would have been a more appropriate venue for one of Europe’s most accomplished finishers, but money held sway. Anyone see a pattern developing here?
It is not just money, either. When Barcelona announced they had won the £48million battle for Neymar, it came as no great surprise. Pele, no less, had backed his compatriot to supersede Lionel Messi as the greatest player on the planet, and the chance to play alongside the Nou Camp wizard always figured most prominently in the Brazil frontrunner’s deliberations.
Likewise, in Germany, Robert Lewandowski has mapped out a career path that is untainted by financial calculations. Manchester United were convinced he was Old Trafford-bound this summer, after Dortmund failed to talk him into signing a new contract, and so he was until Bayern Munich entered the fray.
The prolific striker will have to see out the remaining 12 months on his Dortmund contract, after they flatly refused to willingly let him follow Mario Gotze to the Allianz Arena, but his wish to spearhead Bayern’s attack, for purely football reasons, will be granted when he becomes a free agent this time next year.
While Bayern go from strength to strength, Serie A champions Juventus are also looking more formidable than ever, after adding Carlos Tevez to Athletic Bilbao free signing Fernando Llorente to create an attacking spearhead that should trouble Europe’s finest defences next season.
The tale of transfer frustration for English clubs goes on, with David Villa joining Atletico Madrid from Barcelona, just as his father Jose Manuel predicted a move to White Hart Lane, and the bidding war for top Spanish prospect Isco reaching its inevitable conclusion after Manchester City lined up against Real for Malaga’s attacking midfielder.
Manuel Pellegrini’s defection from Malaga to the Etihad Stadium hot seat was widely viewed as a powerful bargaining tool that should tip the balance City’s way. But no. Nothing of the sort. As we now know, the glamour of the Bernabeu won out, and the £25million 21-year old signed a five-year deal to take his chances in an already over-populated Real midfield.
We may not quite be second-class citizens, but it is a disturbing trend that shows no sign of ending, following the news that Arsenal have become the latest to have an eagerly-awaited acquisition thwarted by continental buyers. Real Madrid’s Gonzalo Higuain has been courted by Arsene Wenger all summer but ended up signing for Napoli instead.
The fight to enhance our domestic game goes on, with United manager David Moyes doggedly pursuing Barcelona midfielder Cesc Fabregas, maintaining an interest in the immediate future of Tottenham’s Gareth Bale and still hankering after an Old Trafford return for Cristiano Ronaldo.
As he and his rival managers take stock of the most significant transfers of the summer so far, though, they may have to concede that all those claims about the Premier League being the best in the world are beginning to have a hollow ring to them.