The Curious Case of the Transfer Embargo

Considering that the house of cards that Blatter built is currently collapsing, and allowing for the majority of the staff being put to work on the gold-plated industrial shredders (thanks Russia!), it may be difficult to imagine any real work getting done, especially the day-to-day stuff like enforcing Financial Fair Play or covering up the labour conditions of stadium builders in Qatar.  Plus ca change, as Monsieur Platini might remark with a non-committal shrug of the shoulders, looking forlornly at the smouldering mess with nothing but a rucksack full of watches to keep him company on the chartered plane back to the Deathstar as Darth Valcke awaits with open arms and a closed briefcase.

Of course, it is not becoming of the audience to look beyond the stage, so it comes as a surprise that someone is still ready to pull open the curtain backstage even as the main cast have conspired to set off the fire alarm before the staging of The Emperor’s New Clothes.  Or have FIFA conjured a new act from the ashes of previously disastrous productions? The announcement of the “transfer ban” imposed on Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid will at least pull our eyes from the car crash on the motorway to the sight of a man-hunt in distant hills, and this more than anything else may be the reason behind the latest development of the January transfer window.  

It is not unreasonable to suggest that FIFA may be putting themselves ahead of others once again, with two European powerhouses as the fall guys.  This could be as much of a statement as a diversion – showing the world that FIFA mean business in a very high-profile way, without any internal rumblings or sackings to inflict further damage to a shady reputation.  Certainly a couple of steps down from any real change in policy – re-assessing World Cup bids or creating a meaningful drugs policy for example – this is no less a significant flexing of the muscles, with potential ramifications across European club football.    State of the game diatribes aside, it is hard to believe that the punished clubs in question are the only two across the continent to have flaunted rules on international transfers and registrations of underage players.

The consequences in the short-term are hard to predict, beyond the fact that the bans will not start until after the current transfer window.  An appeal process will no doubt also leave the summer window on the latch for both clubs, meaning that Real Madrid and Atletico to a lesser extent will feature in most football gossip columns until the start of next season at least.  The wheels in that regard have already been set in motion, an understated Atletico response - the club “not in agreement with the sanction” - being typically overshadowed by Real’s more bombastic statement describing the ruling as “absolutely unacceptable”.

While plenty more promises to happen behind the scenes, in more footballing terms the ruling will in some way influence transfer activity between now and the end of the month.  Only the foolhardy attempt to predict the markets, and the football transfer market can dip and spike even to the echoes of Roman Abramovich’s loose change jangling down the corridors of Stamford Bridge.  Speculating on how the transfer window will be affected could therefore easily invite ridicule, and the ripples emanating from yesterday’s news could prompt a flurry of activity as easily as a drop in trading, unless Jorge Mendes really is the all-powerful football puppet-master he is sometimes thought to be.  

Likewise, Real and Atletico might be forced to forge separate paths as far as transfer strategy is concerned.  Real are one of only a few clubs that are in a position to spend freely – their revenue keeps them treading the waters of Financial Fair Play, whereas Atletico will have to offset purchases at least partly by sales to ensure the books are balanced in the eyes of FIFA.  

If Real adopt a stockpiling-type strategy, funds would be released into the market and therefore open up potential of other transfers across Europe, as some clubs will be forced into an arms race situation and others still will be desperate to replace a star performer using an inflated fee courtesy of the Galacticos.  Their new manager may well dictate over a busy window, but with a squad that can be volatile when they feel threatened – as Rafael Benitez will attest – Zidane could as easily keep his hands in his pockets in the bank as well as the sideline.  Unless Atletico have any serious targets, their supposed desire to bring Diego Costa back to the Calderon aside, they too may retreat to the back of the crowded room.  

The implications for English clubs must also be considered.  Manchester United were a fax machine away from losing their only genuine world-class footballer last August, and may not be so lucky a second time.  In such a case, even with Madrid paying a premium, money will be a poor substitute for David De Gea - especially given the slapstick spending at Old Trafford in the last two years.  Chelsea on the other hand were thought to be pursuing Atletico’s Antoine Griezmann, which could well be scuppered by the transfer embargo.  

Arsenal could profit if they pull a similar deal to the one that brought Mesut Ozil to London in the past – if Real spend big there will inevitably be some big names deemed surplus to requirements, and the whims of Fiorentino Perez have been kind to Arsenal before.  Diego Simeone does not seem the type to give up easily, but he could see the ban as a major hitch to his long-term plans.  If any one of Chelsea or either Manchester club come calling, he may be tempted.  For the neutral, the prospect of the three aforementioned clubs being in the hands of Guardiola, Mourinho and Simeone next season is tantalising.   

Such is the way with FIFA.  The decisions cast by football’s governing body generally range from poor to criminally incriminating, but by some kind of Butterfly Effect they can sometimes create moments of seismic change within the game.  Neither Russia 2018 or Qatar 2022 fall into this category, but the next 18 months of domestic football just might.