Germany 2006: The biggest shop window in the world

With the World Cup almost upon us, English clubs are desperate to buy the best players available before prices go through the roof
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The Independent Football

It is expected to be Fernando Torres. The number of scouts, coaches and managers scrambling for tickets for Leipzig on 14 June, Stuttgart five days later and Kaiserslautern on 23 June should indicate whether or not the 21-year-old Spanish striker is, indeed, the most sought-after player at next month's World Cup.

Tottenham Hotspur tried to get him in January but found that £20m was not enough. At least another £10m should be added to that, especially if the Atletico Madrid captain lives up to his star billing. Torres, himself, knows the importance of the competition. Not just for the present but for the future.

"This World Cup is so important to me because I have to demonstrate that, even though I haven't played in Europe, I'm ready for this level," he says. "There is no better place to show the world what you are capable of. I know the rumours about my future are strong right now. I think it's because there's a World Cup coming when people always think about big transfers."

The signing of Torres, who will leave Spain if he leaves Atletico, is expected to be the biggest deal hammered out in Germany. Unsurprisingly, his rivals for that mantle will also be strikers. The names are easy to reel off. For Argentina there is Carlos Tevez - watched by Chelsea and coveted by Milan - and Hernan Crespo, who can leave Stamford Bridge, although Didier Drogba would love to beat him out the door. For Brazil, Adriano is unsettled at Internazionale and may seek a move while Ronaldo's future is even more uncertain at Real Madrid.

Then there is Sweden's Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who always cuts a brooding, unsettled presence and will be even more so, given the current implosion of Italian football and the possible ramifications for Juventus. Cologne, meanwhile, need to cash in on Lucas Podolski before he walks away next summer for less than £1m, a 10th of what he is worth.

Chelsea certainly want Ukraine's captain, Andrei Shevchenko, who will probably give a decision on his future tomorrow, while, for the Netherlands, there are Dirk Kuyt and Ruud van Nistelrooy. Kuyt was also wanted by Spurs, has been looked at by Chelsea and, more recently, scouted several times by Newcastle United as Alan Shearer's replacement. Strong and quick, the Feyenoord captain was urged by the Dutch coach, Marco van Basten, to keep his options open until after Germany and is doing just that. He will cost around £12m.

Van Nistelrooy, also interesting Newcastle but, at present, not many others, will not be rushed into a decision over his future at Manchester United and will clearly use the tournament as a showcase for his talents. A strong showing and a bigger club may come in for him, although United had hoped for a quick sale. "Maybe this will benefit Holland," Van Basten said of his striker's predicament.

A similar argument is being put forward by Serbia & Montenegro for their giant Nikola Zigic, who stands 6ft 7in and is far more imposing than the bean-pole Peter Crouch. West Ham United wanted him but failed in January while Portsmouth are leading the current chase. Rumours persist that Arsenal may also intervene for the Red Star Belgrade striker, who is available for £7m and is destined for the Premiership.

Aston Villa's Milan Baros is unhappy and also looking for a strong display and a move which will probably take him away from England. Despite a £17m buyout clause in his contract Villa will struggle to attract bids of more than £7m no matter how well he performs. If he leaves, his strike partner, Jan Koller, a 33-year-old, also 6ft 7in, may arrive. He is available on a free transfer from Borussia Dortmund, having recovered from torn knee ligaments. The World Cup is a showcase for him, too.

But what is also clear is that many clubs have wised up to the dangers of buying after the tournament. More than ever they want to get their deals done early while fewer and fewer players are unknown quantities. Inflation is a fear. "I'd like to do all the business before the World Cup, but it is not always feasible," says David Gill, the chief executive of Manchester United, and it is a shared philosophy. "The sooner you do it, the better for the players concerned." And the buyer. Otherwise, and with a series of good performances, the price may become ridiculously bloated.

At the other end of the scale three English clubs are already bidding the £500,000 it will take to secure South Korean striker Ahn Jung-hwan from the German club Duisberg. His claim to fame was being sacked by Perugia after scoring the goal which knocked Italy out of the last World Cup.

English clubs are likely to be the most active. Already they contribute one in seven players who are at the tournament - unsurprisingly, Chelsea have the most with 16, one more than Arsenal and four more than Manchester United - while the recently announced new football broadcasting deals should give them even more financial muscle.

It is an old maxim of the Arsenal manager, Arsène Wenger, that players should not be bought on the back of major tournaments - a maxim he himself jettisoned in the last World Cup when he acquired the relatively unknown Gilberto Silva - and many other managers appear keen to test it in Germany.

"The market has become inflated because of a lack of numbers," says the Bolton Wanderers manager, Sam Allardyce, about the importance of being at the World Cup. "We're all fighting over a small amount of talent." He has tried to strike early with an £8m bid for Crystal Palace's Andrew Johnson while the United States right-back Steve Cherundolo is already said to have agreed a £1.4m move from Hanover 96.

The Wigan manager Paul Jewell, armed with a transfer kitty reputed to be worth at least £20m, will base himself in Cologne for 10 days and aims to take in six group stage matches. "We obviously can't compete with the big clubs trying to sign world-class stars, but we've already identified some very good players and we'll see what happens," he said.

Spurs' head coach, Martin Jol, will be in Berlin for a week while West Ham's Alan Pardew will watch a handful of group games and then fly in and out if certain players take his interest. Neil Warnock, the manager of newly promoted Sheffield United, says he will pay particular attention to the tournament's lesser-known nations. "We are going to keep a really close eye to things out there," he adds. "We'll especially watch the first-round games and some of the teams who people either didn't expect to qualify or are appearing for the first time. There are bound to be some really good players out there and the idea is to identify the ones we would stand a reasonable chance of getting. We're examining ways of making sure we can get the best out of the tournament."

Clearly, that means extra scrutiny of the African nations - represented by Ghana, Togo, Angola and Tunisia. Indeed, Portsmouth's Harry Redknapp has already scouted the veteran Tunisian striker Francileudo dos Santos Silva - a naturalised Brazilian - while the queue of scouts following Henri Michel's Ivory Coast team will be long indeed. For the Elephants there is full-back Arthur Boka, Marseilles' central defender Abdoulaye Meite - whose agent is keen on England - Kolo Touré's younger brother, Yaya, and the much-in-demand and powerful Didier Zokora, who may soon end up at the heart of a Premiership side's midfield. It helps that they are in the most challenging of groups.

There is a warning, however, delivered by Ghana's coach, Ratomir Dujkovic. He says of his players, of whom Derek Boateng and Sulley Muntari may attract interest: "If we play African teams, it is all about gaining prestige on a continental level. Against European teams, the players give their all, in the hope that a European club will sign them. The players suddenly perform with European-style tactical discipline because they know that otherwise they wouldn't be considered by the clubs. I'm not the first to say that poor discipline is the biggest problem in African football." Liverpool fans need only be reminded of El Hadji Diouf and Salif Diao.

Of the more established nations much interest will centre on Spain's young squad. Scouts have earmarked the winger Joaquin, the striker David Villa and - particularly - the central defender Pablo, who wants to move to Italy or England. Similarly, the Swedes will be monitored for the displays of their goalkeeper Andreas Isaksson and the midfielder Kim Kallstrom - apparently interesting Spurs and West Ham - while Croatia's Darijo Srna and Niko Kranjcar are also targets for these shores.

Portugal's Simao Sabrosa and Petit are both being touted by their club, Benfica, for moves over here. Polish players will also be in demand, particularly in the Championship and in Scotland, while interest is being shown in the Americans DeMarcus Beasley, Josh Wolff and Clint Dempsey. A few clubs may finally take a punt on a Mexican, and Paraguay's Carlos Paredes could get the big move his talent appears to demand. England will hope it will not be on the back of how the midfielder performs against them.

Money is tight for some. John Wardle, the Manchester City chairman, says: "Stuart [Pearce, the manager] has not been told he has to sell to buy but he has got a little bit of money available and he is looking in his market place, at Bosmans, loans and small fees." Indeed, there are some interesting players to be acquired for "free" - including the Tunisia right-back Hatem Trabelsi, who is set to leave Ajax and was once strongly tracked by Arsenal, and the 31-year-old Brazilian midfielder Ze Roberto, who has left Bayern Munich.

But it will be the smallest, fourth-seeded nations which will provide the most fun. Aurtis Whitley, the 29-year-old Trinidad & Tobago midfielder, who was recently on trial at Portsmouth, sums up the mood of many. "It could be the break I've been waiting for," he says. "I have a good career but going abroad will be better, so it will be a huge opportunity to show what I can do."

It remains to be seen, however, whether the Premiership gets its first Iranian or Saudi Arabian.

Players On The Move

Top of the Range... £30m Fernando Torres

Would cost around £30m, but although he and his advisers realise it may be time to leave Atletico Madrid there is no pressure to sell on the club, who have just made £250m on a property deal. The 22-year-old striker has been fiercely loyal but is starting to accept, with another failure to qualify for European football, that his future lies elsewhere.

Middle of the Range... £6m Didier Zokora

Defensive midfielder who would fit the role of enforcer in any Premiership team. His agent is pushing hard for a lucrative move from St-Etienne to the Premiership. Would have cost £6m but price may spiral if he has a good World Cup with Ivory Coast.

...and Bargain Basement... £0.5m Ahn Jung-Hwan

The South Korean striker is 30 but has apparently already attracted interest from three English clubs, including one from the Premiership, as well as Heart of Midlothian. Is available from his German club, Duisberg. Has a release clause set at £500,000.

Money transfer: Biggest fees paid in the past six years

Player/From/To/Fee

2000

Luis Figo (Por) Barcelona Real Madrid £37m

Hernan Crespo (Arg) Parma Lazio £35.5m

Marc Overmars (Neth) Arsenal Barcelona £25m

2001

Zinedine Zidane (Fr) Juventus Real Madrid £45.62m

Gianluigi Buffon (It) Parma Juventus £32.6m

Gaizka Mendieta (Sp) Valencia Lazio £29m

2002

Rio Ferdinand (Eng) Leeds Man Utd £29.1m

Ronaldo (Bra) Internazionale Real Madrid £28.49m

Alessandro Nesta (It) Lazio Milan £19.12m

2003

Ronaldinho (Br) Paris St-G Barcelona £21.25m

David Beckham (Eng) Man Utd Real Madrid £17m

Damien Duff (Irl) Blackburn Chelsea £17m

2004

Wayne Rooney (Eng) Everton Man Utd£27m

Didier Drogba (Ivory C) Marseilles Chelsea £24m

Ricardo Carvalho (Por) Porto Chelsea £19.85m

2005

Michael Essien (Gha) Lyon Chelsea £26m

S Wright-Phillips (Eng) Man City Chelsea £21m

Michael Owen (Eng) Real Madrid Newcastle £16m

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