The free transfer has begun its head-turning rebrand. Often seen as merely the journeyman's tool or a fading star's last shot at relevance with a lesser team, it has emerged anew, as a way for players and agents to recoup bargaining power and control the narrative of their careers. More recently, it has shown itself as another reminder of a perilous financial divide in pandemic-era soccer.
With Thursday's signing of Real Madrid legend Sergio Ramos on a two-year deal following the expiration of his contract in the Spanish capital, Paris Saint-Germain has made clear what's already been quite evident: This is the era of the super-rich.
After a disappointing season in which it finished second in Ligue 1 to Lille and dropped out of the Champions League in the semifinals, PSG isn't only making a splash on the hottest names with the biggest price tags in the conventional sense. Just because it can buy the most expensive players from other clubs for exorbitant fees doesn't mean it necessarily has to.
Rather, this summer PSG is wielding its financial clout, one that is importantly not tied to match-day and TV revenue, in a different way, focusing on a single metric that both is and isn't easy to quantify. How do you create a winning culture at a club without a winning tradition, at least from a global sense, ingrained in its DNA? PSG's answer is simple: You bring in winners.
In came Liverpool midfielder Georginio Wijnaldum, a Champions League and Premier League winner still in the prime of his career. In comes the ultimate champion in Ramos, a World Cup and two-time Euro winner with five La Liga titles and four Champions League trophies to his name. And in will come 22-year-old goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma, a Euro 2020 finalist who is the most coveted keeper in the world before he enters his prime. Each arrives, or will arrive, in Paris on a free transfer.
Far from "free" due to elevated player wages, bonuses and agent fees, free transfers can be a bit of a misnomer. They have become the usurped tool of the mega-rich because of the wages a team like PSG can offer an unattached player. Few can match them, not even a giant like Barcelona. In poaching Wijnaldum away from an expected deal with Barça, PSG's inflated wage package proved to be the difference. The Netherlands star admitted that he'll be making more in Paris before dubiously claiming that his "choice has nothing to do with the money."
By signing players like Wijnaldum, Ramos and Donnarumma on a free, PSG accomplishes two goals: Cultivate a winning culture and prevent your enemies from doing the same. Saddled by massive debt and desperate to level their books, Barcelona and Inter Milan's transfer prospects this summer are limited. It's why Barcelona has added three free transfers of its own, albeit on a lesser scale, in Memphis Depay, Sergio Agüero and Eric García.
From a more pragmatic perspective, PSG adds even more depth to a squad that is one of the deepest in Europe on paper. Donnarumma will compete with and then is expected to supplant veteran keeper Keylor Navas at a position where the slightest upgrade can prove to be the difference. Wijnaldum adds pedigree and a sublime intuition for a big goal to a crowded yet talented midfield that saw Danilo Pereira's loan become permanent this summer. And Ramos will now bring his expertise and championship know-how to an already formidable center back corps that already features Marquinhos and Presnel Kimpembe. Achraf Hakimi, the club's big nonfree-transfer splash this summer on a €60 million ($70.9 million) arrival from Serie A champion Inter Milan, plugs the void at right back.
But lastly, and most importantly to PSG's future, the signings display a commitment to two players in particular: Neymar and Kylian Mbappé, faces of the franchise who are constantly linked with moves to traditional European powers. The buzz around Neymar should subside after he signed a new deal through 2025, but Mbappé's plan, as of now, is reportedly to see out the final year of his deal to the point where he could technically become the world's most coveted free transfer. That is, unless PSG can prove to him that its environment and future are worthy of his loyalty. Winning Ligue 1 is not enough. It is the Champions League where legacies are made and where Qatar Sports Investments' energy is directed. That's always been clear at PSG and why a UCL semifinal exit to Manchester City last season stung more than losing the league to Lille. Mbappé, who at 22 already has a World Cup title and an exit-sealing moment at the Euros under his belt for France, knows it, and that's why the club's failure to clear that final hurdle is part of the reason for his uncertainty.
A move for a leader like Ramos and burgeoning talents like Hakimi and Donnarumma doubles down on that chase for an elusive Champions League trophy and proves a critical point: Where else in an age shaped by the fallout from reckless spending and the potential austerity of a pandemic are you going to find a club that continues to push for more while the vast majority are forced into retrenchment?
The options are few. And whether it's through luring free transfers, offering what's necessary to keep the likes of Mbappé and Neymar, or seeking more star power through the conventional transfer route, PSG continues to show that its sights are still set on the biggest prize.
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