The dispute over Thibaut Courtois’s eligibility to play in the biggest game yet of his thrilling young career is obviously not a resounding endorsement of the loan system.
It is a shame that the most important story on the day of the draw for the semi-finals of the Champions League relates to whether the wording of a loan agreement contravenes article 3.01 of Uefa’s tournament regulations.
It surely must be upsetting for Courtois, the best young goalkeeper in the world, to have this hanging over him as he tries to focus on the final few weeks of the season: his push for the Spanish title and the Champions League, to say nothing of the World Cup beyond that.
Clearly, it is not ideal that a club who struggles to pay the bills should have to find €6m (£5m) so that they can field one of their best players in one of their biggest games.
There will surely be an amicable, private solution to this disagreement: Chelsea, Atletico Madrid and Courtois all have very good reasons not to upset each other too much. Chelsea want Courtois to sign a new long-term deal, Atletico want him back next year and Chelsea would not be averse to signing Atletico’s brilliant striker Diego Costa.
In future, there might need to be new regulations to prevent this type of difficult tangle, to free clubs from this type of obligation or decision. But these, in fact, would be small tweaks, to a system that is worth saving.
Because, while it may not always be pretty, the loan system is one of the few mechanisms in football for the redistribution of players away from the biggest clubs. The inherent financial imbalance in the game means that the richest clubs can stockpile the best young players. The £5m Chelsea paid for Courtois in 2011, or the £20m for Romelu Lukaku that same summer, is certainly worthwhile for a club so well resourced. Any big club that can afford such a strong squad would rather have the players than not, and if the players develop into world stars on loan, then so much the better.
Of course, many fans yearn for a game of equal financial firepower, where clubs would only buy the players they need. If that were true, Chelsea’s squad would be smaller, as would Real Madrid’s and any of the other European super-clubs. But that is a rather distant dream, even in the era of Financial Fair Play.
Atletico Madrid will never be able to match Real Madrid or Barcelona for spending, so they need the loan system to try to make up the gap. Everton do not have the benefactors of Chelsea or Manchester City, so they have borrowed Romelu Lukaku and Gareth Barry instead.
There needs to be a corrective mechanism to the inbuilt imbalances of billionaire-benefactor football. The loan system, which releases players to where they are needed from where they are not, is the best way yet designed for doing that.