Gabriele Marcotti
Friday September 5th, 2003

One of the most challenging tasks in illustrating the ins and outs of soccer to a non-fan, especially one of U.S. sports, is explaining the concept of loans.

Loans have been part of soccer for a long time, though in the stodgy Premiership this is the first season that clubs have been allowed to loan players within the same division, which is why Chelsea strikers Mikael Forssell and Carlton Cole have been loaned out to Birmingham City and Charlton Athletic, respectively.

They are becoming increasingly popular and it's only common sense that they should spread quickly, because it's the kind of practice that genuinely helps all parties involved.

The concept is simple. Most loans fall into two categories.

The first occurs when a club has a player it does not want to sell, but, at the same time, it can't give him enough playing time. Usually, this occurs with young players like Forssell, a guy who faces competition from the likes of Hernan Crespo, Adrian Mutu, Eidur Gudjohnsen and Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink and, therefore, is unlikely to rack up too many minutes on the pitch.

Yet Chelsea doesn't want to sell him. He's a good prospect and, in a few years, he could be a valuable player. So, rather than leaving him to rot on the bench or in the reserves, he is sent to another club (Birmingham in this case) where he can gain experience and regular playing time.

The other category concerns players who are generally unwanted, but are difficult to sell, usually because they are saddled with hefty long-term contracts. The obvious example is Lazio's Gaizka Mendieta. Last season he was on loan at Barcelona; this year he went to Middlesbrough.

Lazio, which paid nearly US$50 million for his services and gave him a long-term deal worth some $30 million, would love to get rid of him permanently, but nobody is going to take a gamble on him. So he goes out on loan where, if he regains the form he had three years ago, he can either be sold for a respectable sum or, perhaps, return to the Stadio Olimpico as a better player.

There's actually a third, smaller, category, involving players who, for one reason or another, can't be kept on. Juan Roman Riquelme fits in here -- the signing of Ronaldinho took Barcelona over the five-foreigner limit, and so Riquelme had to be dispatched. However, Barca officials were unwilling to sell him at a loss, so he was loaned out to Villarreal for a season. If he does well -- who knows? -- he may come back.

Taking players on loan can be immensely beneficial. For starters, when you "borrow" a player, you rarely pay a fee. It's like renting a Ferrari, you only need to deal with upkeep, i.e. wages, rather than the price tag.

This is especially important for smaller clubs. To avoid relegation -- and the potential financial meltdown that comes with it -- they often have to upgrade the squad, which means investing heavily. But if they spend a lot of money and then go down, they are stuck with a massive wage bill in the lower leagues and that is simply disastrous, as revenues -- both television and box office -- plummet in the lower leagues.

The nice thing about taking players on loan is that they magically disappear off your books at the end of the season, which means your wage bill is reduced accordingly.

Of course, the system does have its pitfalls. It does create a situation where there are five or six "lending" clubs and a host of "satellite" clubs. And this can raise questions, say, when an on-loan player faces the club that owns him or when bigger clubs use the promise of future loan players to push smaller ones around.

It works the other way around as well. Late in the season, once relegation has been avoided, many small clubs tend to shelve their on-loan players, preferring to showcase their homegrown kids, who will at least fetch a fee when they are sold. There have also been cases of on-loan players who have been exposed to unacceptable levels of risk -- either by playing when hurt or with the aid of painkillers -- since the club who had them on loan didn't really care about their long-term well-being.

Yet when it comes to the loan system, the benefits far outweigh the drawbacks. It helps develop players, it helps spread the talent, it helps bigger and smaller clubs alike financially.

In fact, provided they understand how the system works, it might not be a bad idea for U.S. sports to follow soccer's lead in this area.

GOOD WEEK: For Ronaldinho, who scored an absolute gem of a goal in Barcelona's 1-1 draw with Sevilla, a match with an absurd kickoff time of midnight. For all the controversy surrounding him this summer, it was neat reminder that there is no substitute for talent.

BAD WEEK: For Paolo Maldini, who uncharacteristically allowed nerves to get the better of him in Milan's 2-0 win at Ancona, when he got involved in a nasty melee with Fabio Bilica and got himself sent off. That's not how a living legend ought to behave.

GOOD WEEK: For David Beckham, who showed some glimpses of serious skill in his first competitive matches for Real Madrid and, just as important, got a few major things off his chest in the serialization of his autobiography, most of them relating to Sir Alex Ferguson. Nice to hear the other side of the story for once.

BAD WEEK: For David Seaman, whose outrageous blunder in goal for Manchester City against Arsenal cost Kevin Keegan's men the match. Perhaps Seaman was confused and forgot that he no longer plays for the Gunners.

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