There is one out-of-contract Premier League footballer who has played in the Champions League, who is waiting for a £10 million signing-on fee before committing to a new club this summer, sources have told ESPN. But with just over two weeks to go before the start of the new season, there have been no takers.
Argentina forward Paulo Dybala, meanwhile, has just completed a free transfer to Jose Mourinho’s Roma after running down his contract at Juventus. Sources said that the 28-year-old was hoping for a move to the Premier League or LaLiga, but he priced himself out of the market to the extent that he has instead switched from Italy’s fourth-best team, and a Champions League campaign, to a club which finished sixth in Serie A last season and are preparing for a year in the Europa League.
Paul Pogba at least secured Champions League football by leaving Manchester United, England’s sixth-best team last season, for Juventus. But having done little to dampen speculation that he wanted to move to Real Madrid, a return to a declining Juve, six years after leaving in a then-world record £89.3m transfer, is hardly an example of cashing in on free agency status.
Ever since the Bosman Ruling was introduced in 1995, after Belgian footballer Jean-Marc Bosman won a legal case to overturn a club’s ability to retain control of a player’s career even after their contract had expired, there is huge value placed on free agency status in the transfer market. The clubs get to sign a player without having to pay a transfer fee, while the player can negotiate a higher basic salary with their new side because their arrival hasn’t impacted the spending budget.
But a free transfer is anything but a free transfer due to the increasing demands for escalating signing-on fees and inflated wages. Sources have told ESPN that this summer is seeing, in financial terms, a correction in the market.
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“Agents and players are getting greedy,” a senior Premier League executive told ESPN. “We know of one free agent asking for a £10m signing-on fee, but clubs aren’t interested in caving in to those demands.
“Clubs are trying to pay less in terms of transfer fees but they’re also looking to cut wage bills too, so the days of free agents being able to negotiate big signing-on fees and salaries are over. Only the very top players can do that.
“There are a lot of free agents still out there this summer, but they all want silly money. This is why you will probably see some surprisingly big-name moves to Saudi Arabia or Qatar next month.”
Some leading players have already completed free transfers this summer. Dybala and Pogba are two of the highest profile, but Gareth Bale (LAFC), Christian Eriksen (Manchester United), Angel Di Maria (Juventus) and Antonio Rudiger (Real Madrid) have moved, too. Alexandre Lacazette (Lyon), Nemanja Matic (Rome), Divock Origi (AC Milan), Andreas Christensen and Franck Kessie (both Barcelona) have also found new clubs.
Of those players mentioned, only Eriksen and Rudiger could argue that they have taken a step up. The rest have either moved sideways or backwards. But at least they have found a club. Jesse Lingard, Juan Mata, Edinson Cavani, Isco, Luis Suarez, Andrea Belotti, Adnan Januzaj and many others have been searching for a new team since June 30 with no success thus far.
It is perhaps no surprise that Lingard, Mata and Cavani, who is speaking to Villarreal, have yet to find new teams given they were paid handsomely during their time at United. Leaving the Old Trafford payroll for a less wealthy club will require them to substantially lower their salary expectations, and the same will apply to Suarez (Atletico Madrid) and Isco (Real Madrid.) Meanwhile, Ousmane Dembele, who had been out of contract at Barcelona, chose to avoid that level of uncertainty by signing a new two-year deal at Camp Nou on reduced wages.
Perhaps the world’s new financial reality amid the COVID-19 pandemic and the rising cost of living is beginning to sink in with some players. ESPN has been told that the player wanting a £10m signing-on fee began the summer wanting a four-year contract worth £180,000-a-week — a package totalling £47.4m over the course of that contract — but is now prepared to accept £150,000-a-week.
That would still amount to £41.2m over four years, but the potential new club would be saving more than £6m. The price drop hasn’t worked so far, however, because the player continues to be unemployed.
With the transfer window open for another six weeks, supply and demand will ensure that the majority of free agents still looking for a club will find a team before the Aug. 31 deadlines. They aren’t tied to that deadline because of their status, but players begin to panic as clubs fill up their 25-man squads leaving no space for free agent signings after the window closes. All of those still waiting for a new start will be realising that they can’t call the shots like they used to and that free agent status isn’t quite the golden ticket that many had believed it to be.