When River Plate signed the larger-than-life center forward Bernabe Ferreyra from Tigre for £23,000 in 1932, it set a world transfer record that would endure until 1949. That's when Derby County picked up Johnny Morris from Manchester United for £24,000 after the inside forward had fallen out with Matt Busby. As the economic structures of football collapse, with players across Europe asked to take pay cuts and non-playing staff furloughed, the £198 million fee that sent Neymar from Barcelona to Paris Saint-Germain in 2017 looks increasingly outrageous. Could that record also last 17 years?
Ferreyra moved a year after Argentinian football had turned professional. The sport was thriving, and the worst impact of the Depression had yet to reach the Cona Sur. River got its money’s worth. Ferreyra was a physical monster, charismatic, technically gifted and blessed with a ferocious shot. He scored 187 goals in 185 games for the club, becoming the first real celebrity in the Argentinian game. The revenues he raised for the club, it’s said, effectively paid for the construction of the Estadio Monumental.
But nobody followed River’s lead. As the Depression took hold globally, nobody had the resources to take that kind of risk. It was only the great boom in attendances in English football after the Second World War that allowed the record to be broken. It would be broken four more times in the four years that followed (although, if you adjust for inflation, it was only the last of those, as Milan signed Juan Schiaffino from Peñarol, when the fee was greater than that paid for Ferreyra).
It doesn’t tell the full story, of course, but the list of record transfers is a useful snapshot of the game’s wealth. Ferreyra’s move was the first time the record had gone outside of Britain. (Only Real Madrid and Juventus have broken the record more often than Sunderland, but it’s been 70 years since it last did so). For all but five years between 1952 and 2000, the record was held by an Italian club. Real Madrid then held it for 13 years with five signings (Luis Figo, Zinedine Zidane, Kaka, Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale), after which came Manchester United’s signing of Paul Pogba then PSG’s of Neymar.
All of those recent records were to an extent statements, the record-breaking club making a point of breaking the record, the fee a sign of their power. Even if clubs feel economically secure enough to do that now–and it’s notable that Madrid has made clear its players will not be asked to take a pay cut–when will it next seem a positive PR move to splash an extraordinary amount of cash? How could a club justify cutting wages or taking government help and then spending tens of millions of pounds in the transfer market?
Much of the transfer speculation that still rumbles on in the background feels both slightly distasteful and oddly fanciful. Who knows when the transfer market will even reopen? Who knows which clubs will have survived without going into administration? Who knows what budgets will look like after television broadcast deals have been renegotiated to account for a hiatus that could go on for several months yet? And when football does return, what will the economic environment look like? With hundreds of millions of people across the world having lost jobs or seen their income reduced during the crisis, how many people will still be willing to afford cable or satellite subscriptions? What will advertising and sponsorship spends look like? The truth is nobody really knows, but the situation is clearly going to be a lot worse than it is now.
The Neymar deal always looked like an outlier. It increased the previous record fee by 125%. Only twice before has a world record transfer more than doubled the previous record: when Small Heath signed Ben Green from Barnsley for £500 in 1903 (obliterating the previous record of £100 paid by Aston Villa to land Willie Groves from West Brom, which had stood for a decade) and the Ferreyra deal.
The expectation had been that Kylian Mbappe, who became the second-most expensive player in history when he joined PSG from Monaco for £116 million in 2018, might be the one to take the record, particularly given Real Madrid’s interest in him. He’s 21 and an evidently brilliant forward.
But the economics of football have changed. Perhaps Neymar’s record will not last 17 years, but the likelihood is that that deal will stand for a long time yet as a reminder of how things were when times were good, of the way the superclubs once spent money simply to make a point.