For as long as football’s transfer market has existed, there have been people who felt the money involved in transfers was getting out of hand.
It’s more than 30 years since the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano condemned the world-record fee paid by AC Milan for Gianluigi Lentini as “an offence against the dignity of work”.
The sum in question was 30 billion lira, which converted to around €15 million at the time of monetary union. Football’s economy has since inflated to the point where Chelsea are paying nearly that much just to get Joāo Felix on loan for six months. Clubs keep spending crazier and crazier sums on players, and we keep getting used to it.
Even still, there is something that feels new and strange about Chelsea’s activity in the transfer market since Todd Boehly’s group assumed control of the club last summer.
It’s not that their smashing of spending records is absurd in the context of the general economic hardship in the UK, with the IMF predicting the British economy will shrink faster in 2023 than even Russia’s, and whole swathes of society on strike including rail workers, teachers, nurses, civil servants, ambulance workers, postal service, universities, etc.
Football fans are now so accustomed to that kind of absurdity we hardly notice it. No: the strange thing about Chelsea’s spending is that it seems absurd on its own terms, in the limited context of football itself. Nobody really understands the game they are playing.
In every previous episode where a European football club has gone through a period of dramatically outspending the competition, it was because they were availing of some special economic advantage.
Milan’s dominance of the European transfer market in the late 1980s and early 90s was easy to understand; Silvio Berlusconi was paying the bills. Blackburn won the Premier League thanks to Jack Walker’s steel fortune.
Real Madrid’s first Galacticos era – when they broke the world transfer record in successive seasons for Luis Figo and Zinedine Zidane – was fuelled by the sale of their old training ground to the city government for half a billion euros.
Similarly, the original Chelsea spree that started 20 years ago was paid for by Roman Abramovich’s Russian petrodollar billions. Everyone understands that Manchester City can afford their squad thanks to the wealth of Abu Dhabi, and that the money that has drawn Messi, Mbappé and Neymar to PSG has its source in the gasfields of Qatar.
Chelsea, though, aren’t owned by a billionaire playboy or a Gulf state – the sort of people who are relaxed about burning money because money isn’t really the point, money is just the means by which they pursue other objectives: having fun, buying positive publicity, etc.
Chelsea are owned by a private equity firm – that is, a giant blob of money that exists to make more money. Unless Clearlake Capital is playing by different rules to all the other investment funds out there, the only logical way to understand what they are doing is that they believe they are speculating to accumulate.
So this is the special economic advantage underpinning Chelsea’s world-record spending of more than €600 million since last June. Nothing so tangible as a billionaire sugar-daddy, a property mega-deal or a giant offshore gasfield. This time, the secret ingredient is confidence.
Where does that confidence come from? As far as anyone on the outside can make out, the Boehly group’s belief is grounded in some optimistic theorising about the growth potential of new, as-yet-unexplored revenue streams, combined with extreme bullishness about the future market for top Premier League clubs.
The idea seems to be that they will spend now to assemble a super-team, pay for it by tapping new sources of revenue (as yet undefined), while increasing existing revenues (Chelsea always qualify for the Champions League, right?), and ultimately sell the future successful Chelsea to some other rich people at a handsome profit. (Chelsea were actually holders of both the Champions League and World Club Championship titles at the time Boehly completed his takeover, but maybe future Chelsea can be even more successful than that).
Not since Peter Ridsdale was in his pomp at Leeds has anyone felt this confident about the economic potential of a football club. Certainly, the heady spirit animating the Americans running Chelsea is nowhere to be found among the Americans who currently own Manchester United and Liverpool.
The Glazer family and Fenway Sports Group bought these clubs for a fraction of what Boehly has paid for Chelsea, yet both groups have recently signalled their intention to cash out – which one imagines they would not be doing if they could see a clear path to further massive growth in the near future.
Without doubt, Chelsea have for the time being transformed themselves into one of the most compelling spectacles in all of sport, with so many talented players jostling for selection, and Graham Potter trying to prevent mutiny from breaking out amongst the two-thirds of his senior players who can’t get in the team. (Boehly insists Potter is there for the long run, but in this, as in many other things, it’s hard to fully share his confidence.)
Single-handedly outspending all the clubs in Serie A, La Liga, the Bundesliga and Ligue 1 combined in the winter window, Chelsea have inspired shock and awe across the continent. Spanish and Italian officials and media tend to agree: the Premier League is a de facto Super League, a tyrant that looms over us, how are we supposed to compete, the future for us is bleak, and so on.
Such alarmism forgets the fact that football is not really a market which can be cornered by predatory operators – although the international multi-club networks, such as those operated by Red Bull and the City Football Group, will try – but an international sport which constantly renews itself.
This time last year, hardly anyone in Europe knew Enzo Fernandez existed. The supply of new talents, new football sensations, will inevitably outstrip the capacity of Premier League clubs to hand out new eight-year contracts. Even Chelsea can’t eat the whole world.