This dud of a January transfer window is a sign the pandemic is hitting soccer's business hard

Leander Schaerlaeckens
·4-min read

The transfer deadline came. The transfer deadline went. Chances are you didn’t even notice.

Quiet January transfer windows have been the custom for a few years now. Clubs wised up a while ago to the fact that it is seldom worth paying the premium for a midseason transfer. Selling clubs tend to ask for more money in compensation for the disruption to their squad in the middle of the campaign, and accounting for the inflated fee a replacement player will cost them.

But this winter transfer period was so quiet you could just about hear the proverbial pin drop.

The biggest deals were Ajax signing West Ham backup striker Sebastien Haller for $28 million; Manchester United poaching Atalanta prospect Amad Diallo for $25 million; and Dominik Szoboszlai’s reassignment from one Red Bull affiliate (Salzburg) to another (Leipzig) for, nominally at least, $24 million. After that, the only marginally notable move was one between two Portuguese clubs for a 28-year-old striker with three international appearances — Paulinho’s transaction from Braga to Sporting Lisbon, at $19 million.

Mostly, the window was an extensive shuffle of loan moves while the big clubs cleared some unwanted players off their rosters. Liverpool found some cover for its injured center backs with temporary replacements; West Brom picked up a few reinforcements in hopes of staving off relegation; a bunch of Americans moved around.

But for the most part, the transfer window was a spectacular dud. Not even the transfers that were rumored but never actually happened were earth-shattering. Dele Alli on loan from Tottenham to Paris Saint-Germain was the mildly exciting headliner of the non-deals.

And if you were wondering when, exactly, the economic hardship inflicted by the pandemic would hit home and hamstring the soccer industry, the answer is now. Right now. Soccer’s period of austerity has begun.

Super-rich PSG didn't end up making a loan move for Tottenham's Dele Alli, part of a January transfer window that reflected the current climate in world soccer. (Photo by Andrew Kearns - CameraSport via Getty Images)
Super-rich PSG didn't end up making a loan move for Tottenham's Dele Alli, part of a January transfer window that reflected the current climate in world soccer. (Photo by Andrew Kearns - CameraSport via Getty Images)

Soccer is just about the only business where the old theory of a trickle-down economy actually works. An elite club buys a player from a big club, which replaces him with a player from a medium-sized club, which buys someone from a smaller side, and so on. But even the richest teams weren’t active in the market. Barcelona and Real Madrid are in more than a billion dollars of debt and face danger to their very survival. And some of the other typical big spenders had either made lavish transfers over the summer, wisely opted for caution, or both.

Without that injection of cash from the top, the market never really got going.

And it’s not looking like the summer market is likely to rally. France’s Ligue 1 could find itself in a financial tailspin now that it has lost its main broadcaster in a dispute over renegotiated rights fees and no other credible bidder has materialized. Every other league is unlikely to see very many fans return to the stands anytime before this season ends — let alone fill their stadiums to anything close to their old average attendance. The hurt is ongoing. New variants of the COVID-19 virus are emerging. The pandemic isn’t nearly over.

It felt odd that there were any big-money transfers at all last summer, when the economic uncertainty was plain for all to see. That was the real surprise, that the bazaar for soccer players didn’t suffer sooner. It felt immoral that tens of millions were still spent on new players, given that current players were pressured to take pay cuts or defer salary while other staffers were furloughed or laid off.

At length, the market is beginning to crumble.

Before long, you will likely see more leagues and clubs running into real peril. Ligue 1 is hardly the only league forced to renegotiate with its broadcasters, or to offer givebacks. Revenue streams that clubs had counted on, that they had treated as ironclad — TV money, matchday income, season tickets, even sponsorship — have become shaky. Yet the player contracts are signed and the money committed. Installments on old transfers still need to be paid, and other obligations will come due as well.

So, of course, the first expense cut is also one of the most significant ones: buying players out of their old contracts — which is what a transfer fee really is, a buyout — in order to sign them to new ones with your club.

It won’t end there. A soccer recession is now obvious.

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.

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