Publish date:

The Norm-Shattering Transfer Window, Where Nothing and Nobody Were Off the Table

The transfer window is finally shutting across Europe's top leagues, but not before what felt like the entire top tier of talent was in some way affected or involved.

If you're of a certain age, then you'll remember spending hours on Mad Libs, where stories and narratives are formed by filling in blanks with custom words, with only a certain directive—name, action, color, for instance—narrowing what words you could choose. Often it'd result in hilarious, nonsensical sentences, but that was the point. It was supposed to be outrageous.

After a norm-shattering transfer window, it only feels right to call that back. Take a generic sentence and throw some of the most extreme terms you can think of as you follow the directions. That sums up the last two months just about as well as anything else. For example:

[All-world superstar] leaves [superclub] to join [a new superclub] because [unique reasoning] to alter the landscape in [league or multiple league names].

Take it one step further. Likening transfer season to a TV series, there are some windows that take on the characteristics of a season finale, with the coda encompassing some significant maneuvers that tie up some loose ends but don't entirely or necessarily leave you breathless. Then there's this one, that took on the quality of a series finale. Everything has changed. Things you didn't even think could be possible suddenly came to light. Nothing was off the table for any character.

Consider the scope of who was involved with the serious potential of leaving and who wound up actually changing teams in a summer that was supposed to once again have clubs cagey about finances due to the pandemic's impact. 

In early August, Barcelona was gearing up for its annual Joan Gamper Trophy friendly, which this season was scheduled vs. Juventus. It was going to be billed as a Lionel Messi–Cristiano Ronaldo showdown, to bring some added eyeballs to an otherwise routine preseason ritual. Three days before that, the club revealed it couldn't afford to bring Messi, who was out of contract at the time, back (how it came to that conclusion so late in the game and wasn't fully and entirely aware of its financial ruin is another story entirely. That financial ruin surely contributed to the deadline-day move that sends Antoine Griezmann back to Atlético Madrid, too, to complete the summer of shame). A day before it, Messi gave an emotional, teary-eyed press conference to confirm his exit. Three days after that, he signed with PSG. Three weeks later, Ronaldo wound up back with Manchester United, joining a transfer class that already featured Jadon Sancho and Raphaël Varane. The two all-time greats have been inextricably linked for more than a decade, and it turns out one can't do something without being challenged, if not surpassed, by the other.

But they're just two of a group of elite talents off to new challenges, most of which were hoarded by PSG. In addition to Messi, the French power landed longtime Real Madrid captain Sergio Ramos, ex-Liverpool midfielder Georginio Wijnaldum and Italy's Euro 2020 goalkeeping hero Gianluigi Donnarumma, all via free transfers ("free" is doing a lot of the lifting there; their wages are all significant, and PSG hijacked Wijnaldum from Barcelona by offering a substantially higher salary). Achraf Hakimi, one of the most impactful right backs in the world and a vital cog in Inter Milan's Serie A–winning campaign last season, joined for roughly $70 million, while another budding star, Sporting CP's Nuno Mendes, was brought in the fold on deadline day on loan with an option to buy for $47 million.

PSG's summer signings

It was a shock, then, to see anyone actually want to actively leave PSG. Steph Curry didn't run for the hills when Kevin Durant joined the Golden State Warriors. He embraced the superteam they built and enjoyed the spoils of its success. But something about staying at PSG evidently isn't for Kylian Mbappé. The 22-year-old's longtime dream to play for Real Madrid wound up being deferred, but only after the club's sporting director, Leonardo, made it clear that the player has communicated his wish to leave instead of playing out the next couple of seasons, at least, with both Messi and Neymar. Instead, it'll be just this season before he becomes a free agent (and he can agree to a precontract as soon as four months from now). The mere thought of Mbappé leaving, naturally, forced things to spiral quickly into the Mad Libs Zone, and Borussia Dortmund's sporting director, Michael Zorc, was ready for it. Erling Haaland, the 21-year-old forward sensation who Dortmund has consistently said is not for sale this summer, was quickly tabbed in the rumor mill as Mbappé's immediate replacement. Surely, the thinking goes, PSG could just funnel the Mbappé windfall to Dortmund for its prized striker and wind up no worse off. A straight swap of sorts involving the two supposed heirs to the Messi-Ronaldo throne. Who says no?

Dortmund. Dortmund says no.

SI Recommends

“We are a football club, not a bank," Zorc said in response to additional questions about Haaland's immediate future. "Our position is very clear and did not change. I assume that we will now be confronted with wild rumors for another two days. Our position is clear; I don't need to play the parrot all the time."

Harry Kane is someone else whose position was clear—until he backtracked on it. Granted, Kane's situation was a bit unique, a player under contract for three more years and playing for a club that had no interest in selling to a rival trying to force his way to a rival. In the end, he either didn't have the fight in him or thought that, at this juncture, it wasn't worth fighting to the max and burning all his bridges at Tottenham. He'll stay with Spurs—who sit alone in first place in the Premier League after three games and have a win over Man City, Kane's unabashed suitor—until they potentially do the transfer dance again next summer.

Watch Premier League matches online all season long with fuboTV: Start with a 7-day free trial!

Regardless of where Kane is playing, he may no longer be the best center forward in the Premier League. Romelu Lukaku, 10 years removed from his first stint at Chelsea, is back at Stamford Bridge, a more complete and dynamic player than before and one who fits precisely with what the Blues needed. He also left one of the more traditional powers that finds itself strapped for cash in this new era, Inter, to join one of three clubs for which money is no object. Chelsea, PSG and Man City continue to be positioned better than any European powers due to the backing of ownership whose wealth is not tied directly to the revenues impacted by the pandemic or traditional match-day and business sources. 

Chelsea striker Romelu Lukaku

It's why City can throw an English-record £100 million at Aston Villa to add Jack Grealish, a pure luxury signing. It's why PSG, the original norm-shatterers after prying Neymar from Barcelona for a world-record €222 million four years ago, can offer higher wages than its competitors to lure free transfers (not to mention thumb its nose at $212 million for a player it's bound to lose for nothing). And it's why Chelsea can follow a $300 million summer in the thick of the pandemic with another nine-figure splurge months after winning the Champions League in an effort to get even better. (To Chelsea's credit, it has also sold off surplus parts to make the net spend this summer considerably more reasonable and downright average compared to Premier League counterparts.)

The thing about norms being shattered is that it opens the door for more lunacy to follow, yet not be met with the same level of shock. But be ready for it, even if the 2022 summer window does coincide with the run-up to the World Cup, a time when players might otherwise be hesitant to change their surroundings as a major tournament is on the horizon. It could be similarly seismic to this one, when Mbappé is available without a fee attached, when Haaland's well-documented and relative bargain of a release clause could be triggered, when Paul Pogba's contract expires and when the likes of Robert Lewandowski, N'Golo Kanté, Raheem Sterling and the entirety of Liverpool's front line (Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mané and Roberto Firmino) is entering the final year of their respective deals. Plenty can change between now and then, of course, but perhaps that's the ultimate lesson to take away from this summer. At this stage, anything can change for any club or player—fill in the blanks with terms of your choice—and it won't really be able to be seen as all that stunning anymore.

More Soccer Coverage:

Sports Illustrated may receive compensation for some links to products and services on this website.