Spain v England

England's summer of rejection

July 2, 2009
By Norman Hubbard
(Archive)

Kaka chose Spain. Cristiano Ronaldo chose Spain. Franck Ribery, should he be granted a choice, appears likely to choose Spain. David Villa wants to remain there. So, despite the offer of becoming the best paid player in England, does Samuel Eto'o. Collectively, it amounts to a considerable snub.

GettyImagesEto'o: Pep Guardiola has seen enough.

While a brochure has already been published to advertise Michael Owen, perhaps another needs to be commissioned to promote the Premier League to elite footballers.

After providing nine Champions League semi-finalists in the past three seasons, England's top division has a compelling case to be regarded as the best in the world. What it does not appear to be, at least in the eyes of the players who might comprise the shortlist for the Ballon D'Or, is the most glamorous.

This has been a chastening summer in the transfer market for the English clubs. Thus far, the only signing from overseas that entailed a sizeable fee is the Belgian defender Thomas Vermaelen; the defender may rectify a flaw in the Arsenal side, but he has rarely been described as a global superstar.

Those lauded in such terms, meanwhile, appear unlikely to ply their trade in England next season.

Karim Benzema talked of staying at Lyon for another year, but has plumped for a move to Real Madrid. Felipe Melo has shown no enthusiasm to trade Italy for England. David Silva may be Rafa Benitez's premier target, but wealthier buyers lurk in his homeland. Indeed, the Liverpool manager is having to ward off interest from his compatriots in Xabi Alonso and Javier Mascherano.

And therein lies part of the problem. Real Madrid have the greatest spending power. They have distorted the market, changing the nature of supply and demand economics with an endless supply of millions and a demand for all the world's recognised top talents. Manchester City may possess a similarly bulging bank balance, but they lack Real's cachet.

The dynamic has changed and England's top four appear to be suffering. Lower down the Premier League, and in more impoverished divisions across the continent, crocodile tears may be shed. For Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal, the regret may be more heartfelt.

There are several factors. Spain's triumph in Euro 2008, coupled with Barcelona's similarly stylish Champions League victory, has made La Liga more fashionable. Economic considerations help. The pound has fallen in the exchange rate with the euro, meaning players from abroad effectively cost English clubs more, while tax rises will affect the players. From 2010, the top rate of taxation will increase to 50% (whereas in Spain, a tax break means high earning foreigners pay 24%, not the previous 43%).

GettyImagesThomas Vermaelen: Thus far the only big money foreign signing of the summer in England

Arsene Wenger, for one, believes that is a deterrent to footballers and Andrey Arshavin has already been vocal in his complaints; such is the hardship of life on planet football though the majority of voters, not troubled by multimillion pound contracts, have proved rather more enthusiastic about the increased demands on the well paid.

Add in the inherent advantages the Mediterranean countries possess for many, such as climate (it is hard for Ronaldo to remain so bronzed when he has to visit drizzling, freezing Blackburn) and the gravitational pull of Real Madrid to the Spanish and Portuguese diaspora, and the Premier League threatens to become the world's richest feeder league.

After making or enhancing their reputations in England, players such as Ronaldo, David Beckham, Ruud van Nistelrooy, Arjen Robben, Lassana Diarra and Thierry Henry have all migrated south.

Few have made the opposite journey with only Liverpool consistently signing established players from Spain. Yet it is worth remembering how the Premier League has improved in recent seasons.

Whereas the influential imports in its initial seasons tended to be players in the second half of their careers - including Eric Cantona, Jurgen Klinsmann, Ruud Gullit, Gianluca Vialli and Gianfranco Zola - or those who, such as Peter Schmeichel and Dennis Bergkamp, were approaching their peak when they arrived, the modern trend has been to recruit at a younger age.

Compile a list of the most significant foreigners in the last half-dozen seasons and it would have to include Ronaldo, Henry, Cesc Fabregas and Fernando Torres. The latter was the oldest upon his arrival, at 23, and the closest to worldwide recognition. None would have ticked Florentino Perez's boxes then; barring the small matter of allegiances to Barcelona and Atletico Madrid, all do now.

The intensity of the league and the quality of the coaching, much of it by imported managers, has enabled each to realise unquestioned potential. While the regulations permitting English clubs to acquire players of the calibre of Fabregas and Federico Macheda at such formative stages in their careers can be questioned, they have proved a boon to the Premier League.

It means, too, that there is an inevitability that they, like Gerard Pique and Giuseppe Rossi before them, will be tempted to return to their own countries.

Yet the traffic in senior players can be one way. The Premier League has prospered less by trading with Spain and Italy than by signing from France, Holland and Portugal, plus South America and Eastern Europe. A dominance was established without often being in direct competition with Real Madrid.

Manchester United's prospective recruitment of Douglas Costa suggests that while Real want the Ronaldo of 2009, Sir Alex Ferguson is looking for someone closer to the 2003 model. Like Nani, Anderson and the da Silva twins before him, he is being targeted for what he might do in the future, not what he has accomplished in the past. As the man who is now United's premier Portuguese winger shows, that is not a failsafe formula, but it has paid dividends at Old Trafford.

While Ferguson still has the best part of £100m to spend and Manchester City even more, marquee signings will remain on the agenda.

But should the summer of rejection continue, it may render next season's Champions League more intriguing as the Premier League quartet, whose progress is often attributed to a financial advantage, have to prove money isn't everything.