What seemed like the transfer coup of the decade took on a more prosaic appearance yesterday as it was revealed that Carlos Tevez and Javier Mascherano were hawked around several clubs before being offloaded to West Ham United at the 11th hour because they were the only club to agree to a raft of unusual conditions.
Media Sports Investment, the company that owns the players and has control over their destinies, initially wanted to sell both in the wake of the World Cup for a substantial profit on the $35m combined (then around £20m) they paid for the pair in 2004. Then, both players moved from Argentina to Corinthians in Brazil, a club controlled by MSI.
But this summer several big European clubs, including Manchester United, baulked at the price for one or both of the players. David Gill, the United chief executive, confirmed that yesterday. Arsenal, Chelsea, Seville and Roma were also reportedly among those not interested.
Instead MSI was left desperately seeking a club that would act as a "surrogate mother" for the players, on several conditions, including a contractual obligation to play them in every match, and a contractual obligation to let them be sold for profits - for MSI to pocket - at a time of MSI's choosing. Portsmouth were unwilling to take the players under such conditions, and neither were Manchester United willing to take Mascherano as part of such a deal. Gill said United were never interested in Tevez.
So while West Ham acquired two of Argentina's World Cup stars, both aged 22, on transfer deadline day, the way they will deploy them is being dictated by forces outside the club. On the plus side, West Ham reportedly paid nothing for the pair in fees, and will need to pay only half their wages, of £1.5m per year for Tevez and £1m for Mascherano.
In a bizarre twist to the saga, the man behind their move to West Ham, Kia Joorabchian, claimed in an interview with the News of the World that West Ham can become bigger than Chelsea "in the very near future". West Ham have confirmed exploratory talks about a takeover are under way with an unknown bidder with anonymous backers, believed to be Joorabchian. Joorabchian said: "When you see two players like that joining West Ham then there is no doubt in my mind the club can become massive."
However, yesterday's revelations by Gill alone cast fresh light on the players' move, making West Ham appear to be more puppet than great persuader.
"We were never interested in Tevez," Gill said. "Mascherano, we were offered him. We watched him throughout last season and he played at the World Cup, clearly. We were offered him at the start of the summer transfer window for a significant sum.
"[Alex Ferguson] and his staff did not want to pursue that. We were also offered him towards the back end of last week in a loan-type deal for a year, and again we were not interested in that."
Joorabchian, 35, an Iranian-born, London-based businessman, sees the Tevez and Mascherano deals as a new blueprint for doing transfers. He has also talked about importing South Americans to England, although his ability to do so may rest with him buying a stake in West Ham, who could become the pair's genuine owners (instead of "surrogates") if they pay £60m. Under stock-market rules, Joorabchian is not allowed to talk about a prospective bid but he has not shied away from talking up West Ham's potential.
"I believe in the very near future West Ham can become bigger than Chelsea and maybe within seven years even challenge Manchester United," he said. "And certainly I feel manager Alan Pardew can take West Ham into new territory, to challenge for the Champions' League and even the title.
"Manchester United are obviously an exception. Like Real Madrid they are huge all over the world but there is massive potential at West Ham. Why? Because the club has such passionate supporters and a fantastic history. As far as I'm concerned they have got a much bigger worldwide fan base than Chelsea."
The big question surrounding Joorabchian is who is backing him? He denies Russian involvement and American, Middle Eastern and Israeli money has all been suggested. He alone could not afford a West Ham buyout of around £60m, unless the club effectively gave him control in return for full ownership of Tevez and Mascherano, which is unthinkably risky.
If and when Joorabchian does front a takeover, it is increasingly likely that the backers will be forced out into the open. Uefa, the European game's governing body, wants all club ownership structures to be made transparent, with full disclosure of all individuals behind companies that own clubs. This could become the official policy of Fifa - which runs the international game - retrospectively applicable, from next summer.