The summer transfer window doesn't open for roughly two months, yet there's no shortage of posturing and positioning for what's expected to be the crown gem of the class.
Generational talents don't come around all that often—that's what make them reach the pantheon of generational talents—so when they do, the vultures circle quite quickly and quite loudly. Such is the cutthroat world of modern football. It isn't long before the big, reckless-spending clubs come knocking. It was apparent in January 2020, when Borussia Dortmund won the race to sign Erling Haaland from Salzburg, that the signing was both a coup for Dortmund on the field and on the balance sheet. The 20-year-old Haaland is special, and even in this pandemic-altered world of football finances, he's going to fetch a massive fee when he's sold on.
He is under no requirement to leave Dortmund right now, but the club's current table positioning sure makes it seem like an exit is in the offing and makes Dortmund's stance that it has no intention to sell seem like an empty one. After a 2-1 defeat to fourth-place Eintracht Frankfurt on Saturday—effectively a six-point swing in the race for a top-four berth in the Bundesliga—BVB sits in fifth place, seven points out of the Champions League places with seven matches to play. It's not an impossible task, but it's not a particularly feasible one, either. If the gap isn't overcome, that means that, barring a Dortmund win in the Champions League this season, it won't take part in Europe's premier competition next season and will miss out on the revenues that come with it. It's hard to imagine Haaland, whose recent on-field frustration has not been hidden at times, staying then.
As such, his unabashed agent, Mino Raiola, and father, former Nottingham Forest, Leeds United and Man City player Alf-Inge Haaland, have been going on a very public road show to openly flirt with other clubs.
Just last week it was back-to-back meetings with Barcelona and Real Madrid, with Raiola and the elder Haaland photographed in the open with their suitors. Then, it was reportedly off to England for more exploratory meetings for the in-demand striker, who has been likened to Brazilian great Ronaldo for the fear he strikes in opponents and has been tipped to be one half of the contingent to take the baton from Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo as their careers wane. This is a transfer saga that will be conducted for all to see (with Raiola already hitting back at what he calls false reports of the supposed commission structure of any transfer), and it has all the markings of one that will be exhausting.
THE PURPORTED SUITORS
There are only a couple handfuls of clubs who can afford Haaland in the best of times, and given how clubs have largely had to reel in the spending due to the pandemic's impact on finances, that number may not be as large as normal.
Manchester City, Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool, Barcelona and Real Madrid are the clubs most closely linked or widely reported to be in the mix for Haaland, and each has its own allure.
It may seem outrageous for Chelsea to be in the mix given that it spent $300 million last summer on a new fleet of attacking talent, but the immediate return has not been prolific, and owner Roman Abramovich is not exactly known for his patience to allow things to develop. Plus, the opportunity to build an attack around Haaland for years to come could turn Chelsea into a consistent power instead of one that fluctuates. The one thing holding the Blues back is what's currently plaguing the Black and Yellow: table position. Chelsea sits just two points clear of fifth in the Premier League, and unless it wins the Champions League, automatic entry into next season's UCL is not guaranteed.
Haaland has clear ties to the two Manchester clubs. He played for Man United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer at Molde in their native Norway, and his father is a Man City alum. With Sergio Agüero leaving the Etihad, there's an opening for a striker of the present and future. That Haaland is playing against Man City starting with this week's Champions League quarterfinal first leg will only add fuel to that fire.
Liverpool, while not guaranteed Champions League football next season, could also be in flux, with reports of Mohamed Salah's potential exit continuing to swirl. The draws of playing for either of the two Spanish giants, meanwhile, are quite clear, though there are obvious questions over whether they can afford him.
Barcelona has a massive debt situation to clear, and it's also focused on retaining Lionel Messi, who will not come cheaply. Real Madrid, meanwhile, hasn't made a significant transfer splash in three windows, still has a reliable center forward in the in-form Karim Benzema (though he is 33 and his contract runs for one more season) and could have its focus more centered on prying Kylian Mbappé from PSG. La Liga's president, Javier Tebas, has claimed that it would take a "magic trick" for either side to land talents like Haaland and Mbappé given the clubs' current financial situations.
HIS CURRENT CONTRACT
When Haaland signed with Dortmund, he agreed to a contract until June 2024, which would, in theory, give Dortmund all the leverage in this current situation—except for one pretty significant detail. It's been widely reported that there is an escape clause in his contract that kicks in after next season, at which point Haaland would be available for the bargain (relatively speaking) price of 75 million euros (approximately $88 million). That's half of what has been reported as Dortmund's current asking price. A club that's typically as shrewd as Dortmund, no matter what it's currently saying, isn't going to miss out on that windfall—especially if it's already going to be missing out on Champions League revenue.
WHAT THEY'RE ALL SAYING
Man City manager Pep Guardiola has spoken at length about Haaland, playing coy and making it seem as if City is not really in the race (though that's hard to accept as gospel):
“There is a lot of big chances that maybe we are not going to sign a striker for next season," Guardiola said recently. “We have enough players in the first team right now and we have interesting players in the academy.
“There is a big chance, with the situation in the world, the economic problems in world football, we are not going to sign any striker for next season.”
Separately, he said: “It’s not that spending on one player a lot of money gives you an advantage to win. Football is a team game. Everyone makes his contribution—the guys who don’t play, the backroom staff, everyone. This competition will not be won by one player, it is for absolutely everyone.
“So far, the club has decided to spend not close to 100 million (pounds) for a player. Maybe in the future it is going to happen if the club decides it is necessary to improve the team for the next 5-10 years, for many reasons. But so far, the club, the organization, the CEO, the sporting director, decides, ‘Don’t do it.’”
He also added on Monday: “At that age, to score this amount of goals is not easy to find in the past, honestly. The numbers, they speak for themselves. When that happens, it’s because he can score right, left, on the counterattack, in the box, when you dominate, when you make counterattacks, in the headers.
“He is a fantastic striker. Everybody knows it. A blind guy realizes he is a good striker. It’s not necessary to be a manager to realize (that) about him.”
Solskjaer, who has been clear that he remains in touch with Haaland (as a compatriot, former teammate of his father's and a former coach of his, that is not atypical), has kept it close to the vest out of respect to Dortmund.
"Even though I worked with Erling, it's not right for me as Man United manager to talk about him. I can talk about being an ex-coach of his, but he will make his own mind up," Solskjaer recently said.
"I think the way the world works at the moment, you'd like to do all your business on the quiet and all your talks on the quiet, but there are platforms everywhere, there's news, the media make that more difficult now.
"We conduct our recruitment, our scouting, and the players that we are interested in, we do it the right way I hope and feel. Who we're interested in, who we can go for and who we will go for, I'm not going to comment on that."
Chelsea manager Thomas Tuchel has been reserved as well, in deference to the club he used to coach.
“I will not answer that out of respect for the player and Borussia Dortmund," he recently said. "There is big news around him and his agent. It seems like they are creating a race for the player.
“I will fully accept this a player for Borussia Dortmund, a promising player of course. But he isn’t our player and is not in our squad. So we will not comment on anything else regarding Haaland.”
Haaland himself has weighed in briefly, stating while on international duty with Norway last month that, "I still have three years of contract [at Borussia Dortmund]. I am not worried about [transfer interest]."
Borussia Dortmund sporting director Michael Zorc, meanwhile, is the one at the controls and maintains that no sale will be happening at all. In a couple months, we'll have a better idea of whether his words from last Friday ("I spoke to Raiola yesterday. We made our intention clear.") and his statement in the fall ("We plan for the long term with Erling. [Rumors] do not have to be dealt with at all. I can see him with us for a long time.") were hollow or not.