by Alex Langer
On August 4, after about a month of speculation that began with “huh, that’s a funny and also never-going-to-happen thing” and ended with jaws dropping around the globe, Brazilian National Team and (former) Barcelona forward and all-around superstar Neymar Jr. was transferred to Paris Saint-Germain for $263 million. That money, paid by PSG to Barcelona, isn’t only the highest fee ever paid for a player, it almost triples the previous record, set last year by Manchester United when they purchased midfielder Paul Pogba for $116 million. It is an unfathomable amount of money to pay for a single player, even one who is one of the top five goal-scorers in Europe. Barcelona did not want to sell Neymar. Every contract in La Liga has a “release clause;” a sum of money another team can pay to instantly buy a player. For superstars, that number is typically absurdly high. In this case, the release clause was $263 million. PSG paid it anyways. They paid it, and Neymar Jr. left a Barcelona team that, as recently as two years ago, was talked of as one of the greatest sides of all time. He left Barcelona for a less-followed team in a second-tier league, and he did it for his own reasons.
PSG, despite winning France’s Ligue 1 nearly every year, has made an annual tradition of leaving Champions League play in the early knockout stages, and last year suffered the greatest comeback of all time, at the hands of Neymar and Barcelona, losing 6-1 after being up 4-0 after the first leg. Its owners are, basically, the Qatari government, and as such they have as much money as King Midas, the Lannisters, or God himself. Books will probably be written about this strategy. How much better than other players can Neymar be? PSG has obvious holes and older players in its starting eleven. Neymar’s fee could have bought several top-flight defenders and midfielders, and one very good attacking player.
At some point, however, the monetary equation goes out the window. The PSG managing board (similar to American sports teams’ general managers) had a goal to become more relevant on a week to week basis, and make noise in the Champions League. They believe, clearly, that Neymar’s transfer achieved that goal. International football’s style of transfers differs from free agency and trades. In American sports, there are two ways for professional athletes to switch teams. The first way, free agency, is actually the newest way. Free agency—the ability for a professional athlete to sign with any club in the league at the end of their contract, came late to professional sports. The MLB only gained free agency in 1972, and the NFL in 1993. Until then, players had no legal right to move from team to team without their prior team receiving compensation. Trades, whether of players or draft picks or cash considerations, can happen with or without a player’s consent. Transfers, which are generally player for cash, cannot happen without consent, as a new contract with the new team must be negotiated.
Transfers seem to hit a sweet spot between the two American styles of player movement. In American football, trades are nearly nonexistent. Sometimes, players are trades for draft picks, and draft picks are swapped, but rarely do players switch teams without wishing to. This is, of course, done because draft picks (and the cheap, controllable players that are drafted) are invaluable in a sport with a hard salary cap. In baseball, trades and free agency happen often. Every baseball fan has similar thoughts about the Yankees (and more recently the Dodgers), who they accuse of buying success. That might be true. The Yankees can typically offer a better salary to free agents than small-market teams. But they still have to trade for some players. And when the Yankees get a player in free agency, that player is typically at the end of their prime. Imagine what the Yankees could do if there was a transfer system here? Mike Trout would be in center field with Bryce Harper in right and Aaron Judge in left, and it would’ve happened whether or not the Angels had a contract with Trout for the first six to seven years of his pro career.
Neymar Jr. had a contract with Barcelona, one that had been negotiated just a year ago. In the current world, those contracts mean little when it comes to transfers. It is important to note that transfers are unequivocally good for the players. If they think their team is going in the wrong direction, they can demand a transfer to a better team. If they’re Italian, but play in England, and want to go home, they can ask for a transfer. Gone, in general, are the years of talented players being wasted by incompetent management. (This might also be a reason Neymar left, as the Barcelona board hasn't inspired much confidence in recent years). What is good for the player can also be good for the management. In American sports, if you have a superstar player and you’re deciding to rebuild, often the teams that want your player and the teams that have prospects you want aren’t the same. You can try multi-team trades, or you can accept lesser prospects. If you sell a great player to a big club in Europe, you can take the gigantic wads of cash and spend it on whatever players you want. It’s a win-win. But the transfer saga, especially in the last several years, has a downside.
If you, or your friends, wondered why European football concentrated around ten or so elite clubs, the transfer rules are the main reason. Even the Yankees can’t get everyone they want when smaller clubs can control good players for most of their prime. It wasn’t always so concentrated. TV deals, international revenue, and kit sponsorships (where giant companies advertise on the chest of soccer jerseys, both official, player-worn, and fan jerseys) have all focused the money in European football into the English Premier League, Real Madrid and Barcelona, PSG, Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund, and RB Leipzig, and Juventus and the Milan clubs. The transfer market is generally a loop, where money leaves the big clubs and every potential superstar joins them. That is why Juventus has won seven straight titles. It is why either Barcelona or Real win every trophy nearly every year. It concentrates talent in super clubs, and leave supporters of every other club hoping for a top 5 finish.
The transfer market is capitalism at its most unregulated. It is designed to make it near-impossible to hold on to a player who wants to move. American players’ unions could only dream of this sort of mobility for their players. The trade-off comes in the competitive balance: there is none. Sometimes, a team decides it has more money than it could ever want, and it decides to make a team. PSG was not a powerhouse until less than a decade ago. Marseilles and Monaco are older names, but PSG will continue to win their league, not because of coaching or a youth academy or because of a particular style, but because they can buy any player they want. Real Madrid have spent the last two decades perfecting the strategy. Whether it will pay off for PSG is an open question, but sometimes you have to ask if they system is working when one team pays $263 million just to talk to a player, before giving them another $240 million to play for them. I am all for the transfer system. The ways American sports skew the rules to keep contracts low and young, talented players under team control has never sat well with me. Though it does keep players from leaving teams right away, the way to do that should be to create an atmosphere that they want to stay in. At the same time, as a supporter of one of the super-teams (Juventus) that does not have Qatari oil money to spend, I find it frustrating how quickly players move from one team to the other. Juventus has a young attacking player, Paulo Dybala, who, next summer or the one after that, will most likely be the subject of similar speculation. As a Juventus fan, it is a feeling of sinking certainty when I think of that summer.
The transfer system is the right system, but there needs to be more teams with more equitable money. What you have now are a few iconic clubs that have the money because of their status in the sport (Real Madrid, Manchester United), clubs that were historically good that have received an influx of Chinese investment to return to glory (AC Milan and Chelsea), and clubs that were never good who are trying to buy their way to success (RB Leipzig and PSG). Paying $263 million for Neymar is absurd, and it will only get worse. In a few years, one of these new-money clubs will pay half a billion dollars for Paulo Dybala, or Kylian Mbappe. Most clubs in the great European leagues have operating budgets a quarter as big as what PSG spent. Transfers are good, but there is a point when the teams aren’t playing on the same plane as each other. Clearly, that point is now.
 PSG are owned by the Oryx Qatar Sports Investments, an organization funded by members of the Qatari government and dedicated to funding Qatari sports and global awareness of Qatar.