Italy’s Last Age of Superfluous Spending

All Euro values are from Transfermarkt. Transfer expenditures are described via seasons, i.e. 1998/99, because the transfer window was only universally introduced in the 2002/03 season. Before that, transfers were conducted year round.

Even by the exuberant standards of the Premier League, England has seen some incredible transfer fees this summer. Liverpool have splashed out nearly €70 million for Sadio Mane and Georginio Wijnaldum – an inconsistent winger and a relegated attacking midfielder respectively. Two years ago, that number would have almost gotten you an Angel Di Maria in his prime.

On the other hand, they’ve also managed to sell their deadwood for similarly ridiculous amounts of money. Jordan Ibe has gone to Bournemouth for €18 million, and Joe Allen left for Stoke City to the tune of another €15.5 million. The new TV deal has made English clubs the modern day equivalents of the Spanish Empire, with far too much money for their own good.

However, this excessive spending is a relatively modern phenomenon for Britain. Historically, they, and the rest of the world, have been outspent by the Italians.

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In the early years of the sport, England held all the transfer records. With no comparable excitement and money anywhere else in the professional footballing world, the British repeatedly broke the transfer record with Willie Groves becoming the first £100 player in 1893, Alf Common as the first £1000 player in 1905, and David Jack the first five-figure transfer at the price of £10,890 in 1928.

However, as the graphic points out, never again did England cross a milestone mark first. The Italians beat them, and everyone else, to the £100,000, the £500,000 and the £1,000,000 transfer. Even Denis Law, who was to become England’s first six-figure transfer, was transferred for £100,000 to Torino the year before!

denis-law
The first Britisher to be the subject of two six-figure sums

By the time the English had achieved parity in terms of transfer amounts by the 1980s and 1990s, Italy took another leap forward. In 1992, the Italian giants in Milan and Turin combined to break the record three times in the space of an astonishing 61 days. First, AC Milan purchased Jean-Pierre Papin for £10 million, to make him the first eight-figure transfer in history. Not to be outdone, Juventus stepped in to buy Gianluca Vialli from Sampdoria for £12 million. In response, Milan regained their record by purchasing the ill-fated Gianluigi Lentini for £13 million.

His record would stand for three years, until Newcastle United broke it to bring Alan Shearer home for £15 million for the 1996/1997 season. As England’s first transfer record in nearly fifty years, Shearer’s switch potentially signaled the arrival of the Premier League as the strongest financial league in the world.

This was supported by the wide disparity in transfer expenditure between the top flights in England and Italy. Serie A spent just over €95 million in 1996/97, while the Premier League spent nearly double that amount with around €185 million. Compared to the record breaking Shearer, Italy’s most expensive transfers were wingback Vincent Kandella for €9.6 million and Manchester United reject Andrei Kanchelskis at €8 million.

1997/98

97-98

In the 1997/98, Serie A spending does increase dramatically, but it is still behind the Premier League in terms of total expenditure. However, upon closer viewing, there are signs of what is to come in the following years. While English spending is more spread out, with Graeme Le Saux as the only €10 million plus transfer, Italian spending is concentrated. There are five €10 million plus players in Serie A, including the holder of the world transfer record – Internazionale’s new, €28 million-rated striker, Brazilian superstar Ronaldo. This would prove to be only the first, and most modest, in a series of Italian purchases that would leave neutrals gasping and cursing the state of the game.

1998/99

98-99

In a season when the transfer record would be astonishingly broken by Real Betis, who bought Denilson for €31.5 million, spending in Italy and England would continue to rise rapidly. In England, Alex Ferguson, wounded by Arsenal’s double the previous year, would respond by splashing the cash. Among others, Dwight Yorke and Jaap Stam would come in, for €19.25 and €17 million respectively. However, outside Manchester, there would only be four other players to break the €10 million mark in the Premier League.

In Serie A, there were thirteen players to be traded for an eight-figure sum, including four for over €20 million. Christian Vieri (€25 million) and Juan Sebastian Veron (€30 million), both to Lazio, justified their fees as they would be subject to even greater transfers in the future. The other two players to break the barrier were those legends, Nicola Ventola (€21 million) and Domenico Morfeo (€20 million). Italian spending was beginning to feel spurious.

1999/00

99-00

The 1999/00 season would finally see Serie A break free from conventional norms of financial decency, and well beyond the amounts quoted in the Premier League. With Manchester United coming off a European treble, there was less need for a marquee signing at Old Trafford, and this affected overall spending. Emile Heskey would prove to be England’s most expensive player at €16.5 million, with only four others crossing the €10 million threshold that season.

In direct contrast, Serie A witnessed fourteen different eight-figure signings, as well as seven that were more expensive than €20 million. With this kind of money flying around, it became the league to play in with Hidetoshi Nakata (21.7 million), Andriy Shevchenko (€23 million), Clarence Seedorf (€24.5 million) and Márcio Amaroso (€28 million) opting to stay in, or join, Serie A. However, the cherry on the cake was Christian Vieri. At €45 million, his transfer to Inter comprehensively overtook Denilson’s record, and firmly established Italy as THE country with silly money.

2000/01

00-01

After a boring 1999/00 Premier League season, in which Manchester United won by a whopping 18 points, English clubs decided to spend their way into contention. There were twelve eight-figure transfers, as well as two over €20 million. The most expensive player was Rio Ferdinand, who transferred to Leeds United during the Peter Risdale era for €26 million. It would turn out to be a record year for English spending, but they still remained behind their Italian counterparts.

Serie A clubs would buy sixteen players for an eight-figure sum, including five for over €20 million. The transfers of Claudio Lopez (€23 million), David Trezeguet (€23 million), Savo Milosevic (€25 million), and Gabriel Batistuta (€32.5 million) would promise to maintain the quality of the league, but Hernan Crespo’s €55 million switch to Lazio would be the straw that broke the camel’s back. The world transfer record has only been broke four times since, every time by Real Madrid’s notoriously daft accountants. In response to the arrival of the Roman club’s new striker, the BBC would run the iconic headline “Has the world gone mad?”

2001/02

01-02

If the BBC thought transfers in 2000/01 were excessive, they were in for an almighty shock. Although English spending increased by just over a €100 million, or under one Paul Pogba in modern parlance, they were still drastically behind their continental rivals. Manchester United would once again lead the way, with €42.6 million for Veron, an English record, and €28.5 million for Ruud Van Nistelrooy. There would be thirteen other players to transfer for over €10 million, though none would exceed €20 million.

Serie A mocked the efforts of the Premier League, as Italy witnessed twenty two eight-figure transfers, including eleven players over €20 million and a scarcely believable five players over €40 million. Roma would match Van Nistelrooy’s transfer with the purchase of 18-year old, secondary striker Antonio Cassano. Juventus would lay the foundations of their 2003 Champions League runner-ups, with the transfers of Pavel Nedved for €41.2 million, Lilian Thuram for €41.5 million, and Gianluigi Buffon for €52.88 million, a reigning record for a goalkeeper. Gaizka Mendieta (€48 million) and Rui Costa (€42 million) would complete the €40 million-plus quintuplet. 

2002/03

02-03

For the first time in four seasons, the Premier League would outspend the Serie A, due to a combination of the introduction of the transfer window and the implosion at Leeds United. In an era before the hype of deadline day, the limitation of transfers to only four months drastically reduced expenditure across Europe. In England, this was offset as Risdale’s Champions league semifinalists were picked to pieces, and the Premier League recorded eight transfers for over €10 million. The pick of these was Rio Ferdinand’s move to Manchester United for €46 million.

The ex-Leeds defender’s transfer would prove to be the first time the Premier League had paid more for a player than Serie A since Shearer’s move in 1996. The Italians still had more eight-figure transfers, with eleven, but they were definitely in decline. Alessandro Nesta would make a highly successful switch to AC Milan for €30.5 million, while Crespo transferred (yet again) to Inter for €36 million. Despite an all-Italian final in the Champions League, at Old Trafford, Serie A’s days were numbered.

2003/04

03-04

As Italy continued to be affected by the implications of the transfer window, as well as declining spending by the otherwise exuberant lesser lights like Lazio and Parma, England was given a significant boost with the arrival of Roman Abramovich. The new Chelsea owner realised that only way to break through the glass ceiling was with money, and the London club went on a spree.

Chelsea bought four players for over €20 million and another four for over €10 million by themselves, not including the just shy Joe Cole for €9.9 million. Overall, there were five €20 million-plus players among the thirteen eight-figure transfers in the English top flight in 2003/04. Comparatively there were only five eight-figure purchases in Serie A, with only Parma’s belated attempted at replacing Buffon with €21 million-rated Sébastien Frey crossing the €20 million barrier. Symbolically, both Crespo (€24.27 million) and Veron (€21.5 million), who were subject to various Italian transfers, were both bought by Chelsea. The last age of superfluous spending in Serie A had well and truly ended.

The Premier League and Serie A Today

In the intervening period, the situation has only become worse for Italian clubs. After dominating the playing field in the 1990s and the transfer market at the turn of the millennium, they are stranded today. Although both Milanese clubs have won the Champions League since, both victories can be attributed to the immense leadership of one man. For AC Milan, Kaka was their on-field dynamo, while Mourinho was Inter’s off-field general. Both clubs have drifted into relative obscurity since their respective departures. As for Juventus, they were relegated due to Calciopoli, and have returned to subject the league to a monotony that is killing the neutral viewership.

The Premier League, on the other hand, has become a booming business where obscene transfers are par for the course. Manchester City’s arrival at the big boys’ table sparked a round of purchases in 2009, with the transfers of Robinho (€43 million), Jo (€24 million), Joleon Lescott (€29 million), and Edin Dzeko (€37 million) among several others. Similarly, Manchester United’s identity crisis after Ferguson’s retirement would lead to the purchases of Juan Mata (€44.73 million), Angel Di Maria (€75 million), Anthony Martial (€50 million), and Henrikh Mkhitaryan (€42 million) in successive seasons.

This doesn’t even include the major purchases made by the other big clubs. The end of Arsenal’s frugality in 2013 marked the start of their spending power, with the arrivals of Mesut Ozil (€47 million), Alexis Sanchez (€42.5 million) and Granit Xhaka (€45 million). Additionally, the breakup and the rebuilding of Abramovich’s Chelsea would see the transfers of Fernando Torres (€58.5 million), Eden Hazard (€40 million), Willian (€44.73 million), Diego Costa (€38 million), Cesc Fabregas (€33 million) and Michy Batshuayi (€39 million) among others.

It’s tiring to just write those figures, and it doesn’t even include the money spent by clubs like Tottenham and Liverpool to break into the top four. Nor does it include desperately rich clubs fending off relegation, like Sunderland and Newcastle United.

tottenhan-summer-signings-2013
Just some of Tottenham’s post-Bale transfers

There have been six €30 million-plus transfers in the Premier League this summer alone, with half of those crossing the €40 million barrier. In comparison, there have only been six €30 million-plus transfers in Serie A since 2002/03. Only Gonzalo Higuain’s €90 million switch to Juventus this summer crosses the same €40 million threshold, and only his earlier €37 million move to Napoli in 2013/14 came before last summer.

In the last two seasons, Paulo Dybala and Miralem Pjanic have moved to Juventus for €32 million each, Geoffrey Kondogbia transferred to Inter for €31 million, and Carlos Bacca has been bought by AC Milan for €30 million. However, despite appearances, Italian football is still struggling financially. The purchases of Dybala, Kondogbia and Higuain to Napoli were all after sales of similar or higher value. Additionally, this summer’s buys of Pjanic and Higuain by Juventus are sure to be heavily offset by the departure of Paul Pogba to Manchester United.

As of August 1, Serie A clubs have spent €475.24 million on transfers, compared to the Premier League’s €606.25 million. This is not including the recently concluded Leroy Sane deal for over €40 million, plus however much Ed Woodward finally ends up paying to bring Paul Pogba back to his first family. Not to mention, Wenger’s €30 million-plus chase for Alexandre Lacazette.

Italian football may be spending more than they used to, but they are still significantly behind the other major European leagues. While some may say that it is great that at least one league is being prudent in these times of global worry, the caveat is that it is not a choice. Serie A clubs aren’t withholding their money because they believe mega-transfers are obscene. Their actions at the turn of the millennium betray that idea. Instead, they are unable to spend. As much as Juventus are now favoured as a top four club in Europe, Serie A is in serious danger of losing its status as a top four league.

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