Crying crocodile tears over foreign fat cats

Transfer fees: Departure of Overmars and Petit cannot hide fact that Premiership clubs still boast vast array of overseas talent
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For an industry that employed a third of the world's top 50 footballers last year, the English Premiership seems to be feeling rather sorry for itself.

For an industry that employed a third of the world's top 50 footballers last year, the English Premiership seems to be feeling rather sorry for itself.

Even though the current world player of the year, Rivaldo, is staying in Barcelona, Gabriel Batistuta has chosen Rome ahead of Manchester and Luis Figo has joined Real Madrid for a world-record fee, the domestic top flight is not without some sought-after world-class talent. Not that you would know from listening to England's élite clubs.

The Arsenal vice-chairman, David Dein, says too much money and too little talent in the world game has led to the kind of rampant inflation that left him helpless to decline Barcelona's bid of £30m for Marc Overmars and Emmanuel Petit.

Leeds United's chairman, Peter Ridsdale, believes foreign clubs are spending themselves to penury and that the players currently commanding the biggest fees are motivated purely by self-interest. "The players you see being traded at the moment are what I call mercenaries," he says.

And, within the last 48 hours, Manchester United's Roy Keane has waded into the debate, wondering loudly in public whether the lure of the lire and the peseta might not soon tempt David Beckham and Paul Scholes to foreign climes. "The wages on offer and lifestyle abroad must have crossed their minds, it certainly crossed my mind a year ago," said the Irish midfielder, who added that the crÿme de la crÿme of the world game will never want Old Trafford as their home. "We would love to have a Figo, Zidane or a Rivaldo at United but the players don't really think about them because they realise they are never going to come here," Keane said. "I don't think United will [pay] that extra bit."

The cause of all this ire is a spate of summer transfer deals that, while admittedly large, should be examined in context before concluding that England's top clubs are the paupers of European football and will struggle to field 11 competent men apiece this season.

Of the 21 "big" moves - £10m or more - during the close season so far, 13 of the buying clubs have been Italian. One club, Lazio, has made five of the "big" purchases alone (including Hernan Crespo for £36m) while two others, Parma and Roma, have made two "big" buys each.

Significantly, none of the 21 "big" moves involved a player leaving Italy, whereas seven moved there from other countries, including Spain, France, England, Portugal and Germany. High wages were undoubtedly part of the draw.

As for the other eight "big" moves, four players moved to Spanish clubs (including Overmars and Petit to Barcelona, and Figo to Real), two moved to English clubs (Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink to Chelsea and Serhiy Rebrov to Tottenham) and two moved to French clubs.

To talk of hordes of overseas clubs having immense spending power in excess of their English counterparts, however, is nonsense. Those hordes effectively boil down to a handful of clubs in Italy (led by Lazio, Milan and Internazionale) and two in Spain (Real and Barcelona). Their financial dominance, at least in recent years, is well illustrated by how many times each has spent £10m on a single player. Lazio have done it 10 times, Barcelona nine, and Inter, Milan and Real three times each. But such spending is achieved because of the personal ambitions of rich and powerful presidents such as Sergio Cragnotti at Lazio, Jean Gaspart at Barcelona and Florentino Perez at Real Madrid, and not because it makes any fiscal or long-term sense.

In many cases (and this is where the likes of Parma and Atletico Madrid become involved), the sums being spent might be huge, but it is mostly the same money being recycled. Why should Barcelona care about paying £30m for Overmars and Petit when they have sold Figo for £7m more? How extravagant is it for Parma to spend £30m on two players when they have offloaded Crespo for £36m? What, more to the point, is stopping English clubs cashing in on offers of £20m-£50m for the likes of Beckham, Scholes, Harry Kewell, Michael Owen and the like, then joining the spending spree at the highest level? What, apart from a reluctance to pay up to £100,000 a week in wages, a reluctance that will inevitably disappear as the new era of television riches unfolds? The notion that English football once enjoyed the halcyon days of buying up the world's best players but can no longer compete is absurd. Such days never existed. And, if anything, they seem more likely now, not less.

Before this summer, only two players (Jaap Stam and Thierry Henry) had ever moved to Premiership sides from foreign clubs for £10m or more. That tally has been doubled this summer by the arrival of Hasselbaink and Rebrov.

Only three players from Premiership sides (Juninho at Middlesbrough, Hasselbaink at Leeds and Nicolas Anelka at Arsenal) had been coveted abroad to the extent that they attracted fees of £10m or more. Until now, of course, with the departures of Overmars, Petit and Robbie Keane.

In the past, English clubs were content to moan about being left out without doing anything about it. They are still moaning now, but the (albeit grudging) sales of Overmars and Petit might indicate that change is on the way.

* Number of £10m men