It was Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger who suggested that hanging around Real Madrid's stadium to pick up its castoffs was a good idea. But it is his rival from down the Seven Sisters' road who actually did it: Tottenham Hotspur manager and chirpy cockney 'Appy 'Arry, Harry Redknapp. He's scampered back into the dark with his prize. A t'rrific prize. Rafael van der Vaart forjust $12 million.
Redknapp is entitled to feel a little excited. If history repeats itself, he is entitled to be very, very excited indeed. Wenger wasn't suggesting a night-time vigil at the Bernabéu just for the sake of it.
Real Madrid's transfer policy has so often been to buy that season's Balón d'Or winner, as if France Football was doing its scouting; Real's strategy has been to buy the season's outstanding player, the World Cup's greatest star. This summer it couldn't -- and it couldn't because it'd just sold them. Because Europe's outstanding players over the last 12 months have probably been Wesley Sneijder and Arjen Robben.
The same Wesley Sneijder and Arjen Robben whom Madrid ditched last summer. The same Sneijder and Robben who won domestic doubles with their new clubs. Correction: led their new clubs to domestic doubles. The same Sneijder and Robben who reached the World Cup final with Holland. The same Sneijder and Robben who faced each other in the Champions League final. While Real Madrid won nothing.
It's easy to be smart after the event. The Spanish talk about a toro pasado: It's easy when once the bull has gone past; it's rather more difficult while it's standing there in front of you snorting. Few observers seriously expected Robben and Sneijder to have such a colossal impact last season. They certainly wouldn't have bet on the two players reaching the World and European Cup finals, and there were some logical reasons for off-loading them, too.
Sneijder hadn't had a great season (although he had been arguably Madrid's best outfield player the season before). Robben is injury-prone (but not as injury-prone as was made out: "only" eight teammates played more minutes than him -- a lot but not quite the "he's always injured" of lore). And they had to raise cash after returning president Florentino Pérez spent $330 million on new players. Given a straight choice between Kaká and Cristiano Ronaldo or Robben and Sneijder, most would have gone for the former.
But they might not have gone for the former if you'd told them that to do so would cost $152 million (the $203 million it cost to sign Ronaldo and Kaká minus the $51 million recouped on Robben and Sneijder). The "what a mistake it was to sell Robben and Sneijder" discourse is not just a case of historic revisionism, or toropasado-ism. It's not purely opportunistic or entirely facile. Much as the sports daily Marca screamed "Bien vendido" -- well sold -- across its cover, most didn't agree even then. And that most included the coach at the time, Manuel Pellegrini.
He publicly insisted that he did not want to lose either player. But he did. Their seasons could barely have gone better. Meanwhile, Madrid was eliminated from the Champions League at the first knockout phase for the sixth consecutive year. And lost the league to Barcelona. That was not all it lost. It lost money, too.
Sneijder arrived for $35 million and left for $19 million. Robben cost $47 million and left for $32 million. Now Van der Vaart has gone to Spurs for $12 million. He was signed for $16 million. That's a $35 million loss on the three. Redknapp claimed that he had balked at the price he was originally quoted: the $27 million that Bayern Munich was supposedly going to pay. Then, suddenly at the last minute, Madrid said he could take Van der Vaart for $12 million. For a World Cup finalist. For a man who, if the precedents are right, could have a huge impact. No wonder they were laughing on Tottenham High Road.
No wonder they were laughing in Barcelona, too. Because there is nothing they love more in Barcelona than to laugh at Madrid -- and vice versa. Thing is, they shouldn't. All the talk of Robben and Sneijder over the last 12 months has served to disguise that last summer Barcelona sold Samuel Eto'o, the best goal scorer it has ever had and the man who had led its attack as it won a unique treble. A year later and he, like his Inter Milan teammate Sneijder, had won another one.
Eto'o had cost Barcelona, too. Officially valued at $25 million (having cost $32 million and surely only increased his market value since), Eto'o was included in the deal to sign Zlatan Ibrahimovic. So was a $13 million penalty clause because Alexandr Hleb didn't eventually join Inter, plus $57 million in cash. Adding those figures together, in total, Ibrahimovic cost Barcelona $95 million. And now, 12 months later, Ibrahimovic has departed on loan, with AC Milan obliged to buy him next summer for $30 million. In other words, a $65 million loss.
And can anyone guarantee that Ibrahimovic, who has won seven successive league titles, won't embarrass Barcelona like Eto'o did? Like Sneijder and Robben embarrassed Madrid?
There are losses and losses. Barcelona claimed that it actually gained money with Ibrahimovic's departure. In announcing the Swede's departure to Milan, the club said it saved more than $77 million on wages. Last year, a similar argument was made -- with rather more credibility -- over the huge cost of renewing Eto'o's contract. Moving him made economic sense, as well as fulfilling a footballing need.
In Madrid, there is the claim that the club has sold well, resolving a problem that it inherited from the previous regime -- that it has made the best of a bad situation. It is a classic case of a new government blaming problems on the former administration. Selling players the previous president bought is easy -- if, as Robben and Sneijder proved, risky. Ramón Calderón bought Robben, Sneijder and Van der Vaart; Pérez can't be blamed for their cost. (If Kaká departs, they will require a whole new alibi.) New Barcelona president Sandro Rosell is disseminating much the same message: It's not his fault that Joan Laporta wasted so much money on Ibrahimovic. And, hey, we're going to go and replace him with David Villa, anyway. Just as Madrid has signed Sergio Canales and Mesut Ozil.
And that's the point. Despite their huge debts, Madrid and Barcelona can do it. They can buy players and then bin them. When the transfer window closed on Tuesday, only six teams in Spain had spent more than $13 million. Look closely and that figure is even more striking: Of those, Valencia actually has a net gain of more than $64 million; it has been a selling club, not a buying one. Sevilla's net spend is just $4 million. Valencia and Sevilla were Spain's third- and fourth-best team's last year. Atlético was forced to sell Jose Manuel Jurado for $14 million. And Malaga has a new owner, a Sheik prepared to splash the cash. It is a unique case.
Madrid and Barcelona have spent more than $89 million each. Together, they have spent more than the rest of the league combined. All of which means more imbalance. More stockpiling and, so often, more off-loading. The best the rest can hope for is to live off their scraps. The good news is that these are luxury scraps; the bad news is that for the rest of Spain, even the scraps are too expensive. For the rest of Europe, though, they can provide the most nourishing of meals. If Van der Vaart is even half as successful as Sneijder or Robben, and if Ibrahimovic is as good as Eto'o, it won't just be Redknapp and Wenger hanging around outside the Bernabéu and the Camp Nou, waiting for a world-class player to be slung out the back door with the rest of the rubbish.
It will be everyone else, too.