In Football, Unrestricted Poaching of Players

Superbowl Sunday was a tipping point in the sports world. Two superstar quarterbacks, Patrick Mahomes and Jimmy Garoppolo, met in the NFL’s penultimate game, representing perhaps a shift away from the old guard’s dominance. The NFL’s appeal to me, as a non-fan, is how it sets a stage for the best quarterbacks to succeed. It is quite egalitarian in structure (with salary caps and drafts) which would typically mean a variety of teams succeeding in a certain period, but Tom Brady’s Patriots were able to dominate the league on a yearly basis. The best players perform, even under a constraining framework.

Soccer is not like the NFL. If Manchester City want to spend €45 million on a young defender, they can. When that defender underperforms, they throw €55 million at the problem. A year later, head coach Pep Guardiola wanted another defender, so they spent €65 million on Aymeric Laporte. There was no exchange of players or draft picks, just cash. And if Laporte’s club objected to the transfer? He would simply boycott playing until Bilbao green-lighted the move.

What this transfer structure means for the world of soccer is two-headed. Firstly, the top teams continuously amass greater power than those below them. Manchester City don’t possess any more inherent value than Athletic Bilbao, Laporte’s former club. Both sides have storied histories in their respective leagues, large fan bases, and unique personalities. But finances are king in European soccer. Bilbao is largely owned by its fans. Manchester City is bankrolled by the United Arab Emirate’s royal family.

The pure cash element to soccer transfers not only leads to a hegemony at the top, but a wider stratification across Europe. No teams outside the traditional top five leagues (England, Spain, France, Germany, Italy) are top-20 earners, while only three crack the top 30. Mid-level clubs in England like West Ham or Leicester City have the money to attract top players from other countries. The world of European soccer is basically laissez-faire capitalism, which has generated huge inequality between the top, middle, and bottom.

The Netherlands inherited this inequality unlike any other country. The Eredivisie’s top clubs, Ajax Amsterdam, PSV Eindhoven, and Feyenoord Rotterdam were all at one point or another champions of Europe. Now the Dutch league is so low in revenue compared to the Big Five that Feyenoord and PSV struggle to make it out of the Champions League group stage, if they even qualify. In a once-in-a-decade (or more) event, last year Ajax made the semi-final stage, losing to Tottenham Hotspur, and their two most valuable players were subsequently poached by top clubs.

PSV aren’t as rich as Ajax but won the domestic league three times in the past five years. First with the mercurial Memphis Depay, then with the speedy Hirving Lozano and sublime Steven Bergwijn, PSV were able to blitz teams with their talented attacking unit, making up for deficits in other aspects of their team. But in a small European league, there is a fine line between being good enough to win and being too good, so much that the larger sharks begin circling your finest players. Depay left for Manchester United in 2015, while Lozano and Bergwijn have recently departed for Napoli and Tottenham, respectively.

On Superbowl Sunday, a strong Ajax side defeated PSV 1-0. Ajax have not been at their best this season, especially without Frenkie de Jong, who left for Barcelona, but are still top of the league. PSV fired their manager in December, are floundering in fifth place, and have not found adequate replacements in their attack. De Topper, as the rivalry is called, on Sunday was a meeting of two Dutch giants: one showing some transitional pains, the other simply struggling to stay afloat.

Tottenham Hotspur, who went on to lose to Liverpool in last season’s Champions League final, had a brilliant Sunday. Hosting back-to-back Premier League champions Manchester City, Spurs resisted waves of attacks to score two brilliant second half goals. Bergwijn struck the first, a wonderful chested volley under pressure, on his Premier League debut. His old club missed him on that day, but the PSV fans won’t be upset. That’s the way things go in soccer. Like watching a kid grow up to leave home, everyone knew Bergwijn’s time to leave was nigh. He deserves the bigger stage, the greater salary, and the global name recognition. Perhaps the new Spurs man could have achieved all that and more in Eindhoven, but those days are past. Virtually unrestricted player poaching is the name of the game and Spurs—whose finances pale in comparison to City’s—are playing it to perfection, building a squad by poaching from the Netherlands.

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