Friday January 15th, 2016

The January transfer window just before a major tournament tends to be quieter than usual. Big players don't want to risk losing their national team places by moving clubs, who invariably are in the hunt for trophies anyway. So the likeliest movers are always those on the fringes of the international set-up, hoping that regular minutes may earn them a summer call-up.

The normal rules might have gone out of the window (literally) this month, following the FIFA announcement Thursday that Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid will be under transfer embargo for two consecutive windows (summer 2016 and January 2017) for contravening regulations relating to importing players under the age of 18.

The ripple effects could be decisive, with the future of players like Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale, Eden Hazard, Paul Pogba, David de Gea, Robert Lewandowski and Antoine Griezmann all affected; and beyond them, a tier of players whose future moves may hit the buffers if none of the big boys switch clubs.

The most significant individual affected will be Atletico coach Diego Simeone. He is reported to be wanted by Chelsea next season, but this decision could go one of two ways: seeing his club in the mire might convince Simeone to stay to help get it out; or it could be the perfect excuse to say his goodbyes (particularly if he ends this season with another unlikely title win).

It’s hardly the ideal start to life as Madrid coach for Zinedine Zidane, who has two of his four sons mentioned in the FIFA report.

“That shows how absurd the situation is,” said Real Madrid director general Jose Angel Sanchez.

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But he did not confirm if the Zidanes were among the eight players whose transfers were deemed ineligible and therefore responsible for the ban. Those eight players have to end their association with the club in question.

The French coach will have to make quick judgments on his squad in case summer deals are possible. It is no secret in France that Pogba is his top target: the pair had dinner together last May, when Zidane thought that he might replace Carlo Ancelotti in the summer.

Both clubs have vowed to appeal the penalty and the appeal process, which could go all the way to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, can be a long-winded one. This process allowed Barcelona to have one "extra" window in which to recruit players: it signed Ivan Rakitic and Luis Suarez and ended up winning the treble.

The Madrid sides already appear to have been preparing for this moment: Real Madrid has recently bought Martin Odegaard, 16 and Marco Asensio, 19, with the future in mind. This month, Atletico signed Mattias Kranevitter and Augusto Fernandez, and has renewed the contracts of key players Jose Gimenez and Angel Correa.

Atletico is a master at replacing stars, and, like the best succession planners, often does so while the existing ones are still in situ. Griezmann played alongside Diego Costa for a year before the center forward joined Chelsea; in the same way, Correa, Luciano Vietto and Yannick Carrasco-Ferreira have spent this season playing with Griezmann, and will be ready to step in if Atletico wants to cash in on the Frenchman this summer (before that it must renew his contract this month and increase his buy-out to over €100 million).

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The current make-up of Atletico’s squad actually makes the club more suited to a summer 2016-January 2017 embargo. Only five outfield players are over 30: the contracts of Fernando Torres and Tiago Mendes are the only ones up this summer. The Rojiblancos also have 12 players out on loan, who can be recalled at any time: these include Leo Baptistao (Villarreal) and Borja Gonzalez (Eibar), both of whom have been watched by Premier League clubs this season.

Rafael Borre, a 20-year-old Colombian forward, has already signed and been loaned back to Deportivo Cali, while youth products like Saul Niguez, who has been one of the breakouts of the season, as well as Oliver Torres and Thomas Partey, will be staying. Simeone has a squad of 24 players, more than his usual 20-22.

One thing neither team can do is sign someone now and then loan them back for six months before taking them in the summer. So if Real Madrid wanted to sign Robert Lewandowski, for example–and with the future of Karim Benzema up in the air, why not?–he would have to move to Madrid straightaway, or sign him in the summer if an appeals process allows it.

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This sanction is the latest in a long line of embarrassments for Florentino Perez, after he failed to sign De Gea last August, Rafa Benitez was sacked last week and Madrid was eliminated from the Copa del Rey for fielding an ineligible player.

The press in Madrid actually believe there could be a silver lining. What risk would it be, asked Juanma Trueba in AS, if Madrid couldn't sign anyone?

This is a club that can’t give playing time to the likes of Isco, Casemiro, Jese, James Rodriguez and Lucas Vazquez, so why does it always need more, more, more?

“Let’s be clear here: the inability to sign players for a year will have a greater impact on the marketing department and adjoining offices than on the field of play,” writes Trueba. “The president, with a greater need for support than ever, would not be able to regain the faith of the supporters with another new face, customary practice in every transfer window. There would be no lavish presentations, no bombastic speeches… and the media would be stripped of summer transfer speculation. That’s all… There’s something slightly childish about always wanting to sign stars, some sort of privileged whim that is only satiated with the latest Ferrari.”

The rest of Europe’s top clubs will have to adjust their recruitment plans in the meantime. PSG might need another alternative to Ronaldo, who was its first-choice Zlatan Ibrahimovic replacement in the summer. Manchester United could turn its attention away from Bale, but could be relieved that De Gea may stay an extra year. Manchester City may have lost a potential rival in the race for Pogba. The dominoes have not fallen just yet, but FIFA has definitely changed the landscape ahead of the summer market. 

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