If you squint your mind’s eye ever so slightly, you’ll remember a time – not so long ago – when the idea that a player could earn more in a week than a doctor over a year seemed utterly preposterous, when Chelsea were bringing the game into disrepute by signing Shaun Wright-Phillips for £21 million, when Manchester United forking out £89.3 million for Paul Pogba seemed like financial depravity. That was last season. Exactly one year on, Neymar has just moved for Barcelona to PSG for twice that, and then some.
It doesn’t take a particularly brave pundit to say £198 million is too much money to pay for a footballer. In fact, practically every pundit has been saying this since the first player swapped ends for a packet of fags. Literally everyone has noted just how obscene each fresh increase in the transfer record has been, but we are powerless to stop it. Now there’s so much money knocking about that people don’t even say “pay doctors/nurses/Our Brave Boys footballer’s wages” anymore. The fees have gone from astronomical to abstract in their levels of ‘too much’. From Where are they getting that much money? Levels Of Too Much to I literally can’t even conceive of that much money Levels Of Too Much.
Anyway, the laboured point being: with each grotesque distortion of ‘too much money’, we start to re-evaluate everything that came before as ‘actually quite reasonable by today’s standards.’ Nabbing Gareth Bale for less than half a Neymar? A great deal. Chucking £30 million at Andriy Shevchenko, then the best striker in the world? An absolute steal. Two Jonathan Woodgates at Real Madrid for the price of one Michael Keane at Everton? Sale of the century. Spending any money at all on Mikael Silvestre? Still unacceptable.
What if there was a way to find out how much all these players would be worth if they moved during this window, the stupidest one yet (until next year) rather than in their own (relatively) less stupid one?
We asked football journalist and data analyst Paul Tomkins, co-inventor (with Graeme Riley) of the Transfer Price Index. “TPI works by calculating football inflation, which runs far faster than normal inflation, generally running in parallel with TV deals. Football inflation means that every £1 million spent in 1992 is equivalent to £18 million now; whereas with standard UK inflation that would be under £2 million.”
And while the TPI figures are only correct as to the end of the 2016/17 season – “We’ll only calculate this summer’s money in Feb 2018, when the whole season’s sales’ windows have closed,” says Tomkins – and this summer’s silly season has skewed the numbers even more, it still works as a decent marker to show you that, for example, my our own maths, Shaun Wright-Phillips’ £21 million move from City to Chelsea in 2005 would be £105.3million in today’s market.
Ronaldinho’s move from PSG to Barcelona two years earlier, for £29.03 million would be £122.8 million today, and Real Madrid signed Beckham for what equates to £133.7 million. Luis Figo moved from Barcelona to Real for what would be only £106.9 million in 2017. A damn bargain.
Arsenal’s move for record goalscorer Thierry Henry in the summer of 1999 would be £62.9 million now (exactly the same price Chelsea signed Chris Sutton for that year, which is itself nearly five million more than what the West London club paid for Alvaro Morata last month...)
And Liverpool’s capture of a then 22-year-old Emile Heskey from Leicester in 1999? Why, that’s the current equivalent of £69 million. Nice.
The Five Most Expensive Players Since 1992 (according to TFI)
1. Gianluigi Lentini
Torino - AC Milan
2. Cristiano Ronaldo
Manchester United – Real Madrid
2009: £80 million
2017: £226 million
Barcelona - PSG
2017: £198 million
4. Gareth Bale
Spurs - Real Madrid
2013: £91 million
2017: £177.4 million
5. Zinedine Zidane
Juventus - Real Madrid
2001: £46.6 million
2017: £168.2 million
But what about players before 1992, you ask? Your Peles, your Maradonas, your George Bests?
“Maradona and a player like George Best, players with personality, would definitely be worth more today than someone like Pele,” says Scott Smith, son of legendary super-agent Jo Smith, and a qualified agent and director of RAPS Management. “Although Pele was one of the first to be considered a complete player, he kept himself to himself. Pele was more of an ambassador of the game, whereas Maradona and Best really embraced the celebrity lifestyle.
“In today’s market, personality is almost as important as what happens on the pitch: it’s why Neymar can go to PSG for all that money – he’s a good looking boy and he’s very sellable.”
Smith puts his estimate at around £250 million for Maradona or George Best in today’s market, with Pele coming in at closer to £200 million. “But,” he adds, “with that said, players can have one good season or one good tournament and go for close to £100 million now: who knows what that might’ve meant for Pele coming off a performance in the World Cup final like he did in 1958 as a 17-year-old...
“I think it’s hard to say how much they’d be worth today,” says Tomkins. “You could argue that they’d just be equivalent to the current world record as they’d have generated world records back in the day. But of course, had they generated world records, every fee coming afterward may have been further inflated by anchoring,” the psychological process where a high or low benchmark effects further negotiations.
“So,” he explains, way better than we can, “a new world record of £200 million this summer would mean that ‘£70 million-players’ are upgraded to ‘£100 million-players’ by the owning club. While there is a general market rate, every player is unique, and it’s a question of how desperate the buying club is and how staunchly the selling club wants to hold out…”
But while this summer has seen average prices absolutely skyrocket from ‘very high’ to ‘fucking hell, mate’, Scott Smith thinks that things will start to settle down (a bit) soon.
“I don’t think we’ll see too many more transfers over the £100 million mark – Pogba’s £90 million will be about right,” he says, “unless there’s a release clause to be met. PSG have shown that the clauses can be activated and if players like Marco Asensio and Isco at Real Madrid have £300 million release clauses, who knows where it could end…”