Bayern Munich and Hamburger SV have much in common this season. Both are underachieving, for starters: fourth and sixth place in the table, respectively, are well below expectations. The two powerhouses of the German game are also beset by internal strife, as sporting directors (Christian Nerlinger, Bastian Reinhardt) quibble with increasingly isolated managers (Louis van Gaal, Armin Veh).
Over the last few days, there was yet another parallel: both had to deal with want-away, 30-something Dutch players. Mark van Bommel and Ruud van Nistelrooy had only a few months left to run on their contracts, yet the outcomes of both sagas couldn't have been more different. While Van Bommel was allowed to move to AC Milan on a free transfer, his compatriot will have to stay in the Bundesliga against his express wishes. "He cannot understand (why Hamburg did not let him go to Real Madrid) and he has got a problem with it", van Nistelrooy's agent Rodger Linse told Hamburger Morgenpost. "It is very, very painful."
In terms of cold, hard numbers it's indeed hard to comprehend Hamburg's intransigence. Real Madrid offered €2 million ($2.7M) for the forward as well as a friendly match valued at roughly the same amount. That's €4M ($5.4M) for a 34-year-old striker with no discernible transfer value on the open market, €4M for the four months he's still under contract at the Imtech-Arena. Factor in the player's somewhat lack-lustre performances, a questionable body language and murmurings about a threat to strike and it makes you wonder even more why Hamburg didn't cash in. Instead, president Bernd Hoffmann declared it "unthinkable" that he should leave. "We've rejected the latest offer and told the player that it won't happen", said HSV president Bernd Hoffmann.
Van Nistelrooy was so keen to return to the Bernabeu that even offered to take a pay-cut and thus effectively pay for part of the transfer fee out of his own. "It's a great annoyance", he told Spanish reporters after negotiations had broken down. "I really begged the club to allow my dream to come true. Now I'm staying, even though my heart is beating for Madrid." According to Linse, van Nistelrooy has made up his mind that he will definitely not renew his contract with the Germans at the end of the season. Veh, however, thinks that the situation might change again in coming weeks. "I don't have any doubt that he will give his all, either," said the 49-year-old manager.
Only time will tell if van Nistelrooy will behave as professionally as his employers expect. But what exactly was the thinking behind this astonishing non-transfer?
"Better the sparrow in the hand than the pigeon on the roof," goes a German proverb. Better pick the low-hanging fruit than aim too high. Hamburg, though, chose the pigeon on the roof in this specific case -- it's forsaking a quick, lucrative deal in the hope that van Nistelrooy, still the club's most reliable goal-scorer, will fire them into Europe next season. Qualification for the Europa League would only bring in modest revenues on a par with the Madrid transfer fee, to be sure. But Hamburg obviously believes that third place -- and a shot at the much more lucrative Champions League -- is there for the taking. The team is only four points adrift, despite enduring fairly torrid season so far. The upside to van Nistelrooy staying is clearly big enough to put up with his discontent.
There's a second, less important reason for saying no: Real Madrid conducted the negotiations extremely clumsily. At first, they offered no fee at all, believing that Hamburg should simply release the player from his contract, just as they had done 12 months ago. Hoffmann felt bullied and saw fit to send a message. For once, they would hold firm. Plenty of high-profile outward-transfers (Nigel de Jong, Vincent Kompany, Khalid Boulahrouz) had given them a "selling-club" image.
In stark contrast, Bayern has prided itself on keeping their best players, which makes van Bommel's midseason departure to the San Siro all the more remarkable. What's more, Milan didn't even have to pay a fee to get the midfielder. "I'm grateful that the club didn't put any obstacles in my path", van Bommel told Bild on Tuesday.
Initially, he didn't want to leave. "But then sporting things changed," he added. When it was put to him that a fallout with van Gaal had driven him out, van Bommel didn't deny it: "Everybody knows what's going on," he said.
That's not the whole story. Relations between the captain and the coach had become slightly fraught, to be sure, but van Bommel did keep both his place in the starting lineup and his armband in the two league matches since the restart. In the long run, however, the combative midfielder had reason to believe that his time at the Allianz-Arena was up. Van Gaal prefers the more cultured Toni Kroos, who is currently injured, and can also call upon the services of newly-signed Luiz Gustavo. "Van Bommel didn't want to end up a lame duck," wrote Süddeutsche Zeitung. Both the board and the manager were in rare agreement: he was no longer needed.
Letting him leave in January for one last big contract - he wouldn't have been offered a new deal in the summer -- can be seen as a generous gesture in recognition of his good work over four and a half years. But it's a type of generosity that comes with a significant risk. For all his technical limitations, van Bommel's toughness and leadership qualities might well be missed when Bayern meet Inter in the last 16 round of the Champions League next month. "There's a danger we might win the fair play award without him," a source at the club commented sarcastically.