Free Transfers And £100m Signing On Fees: Player Power Has Never Been Higher

In 2023, Messi, Ronaldo and Lewandowski will all be available on free transfers
15:35, 26 May 2022

There has been a seismic shift in football. The super-clubs, even those backed by entire states, no longer have the power. Instead, it's placed at the feet of those players on the pitch, who have taken control of their contracts and no longer need the security of long-term deals. 

After the Kylian Mbappe saga, which saw the 23-year-old become the highest paid player in the world at PSG following his flirtation with Real Madrid, the balance has perhaps permanently shifted. The numbers in that deal are astronomical, but it is his reported signing on bonus of £100m that is earth-shattering. 

PSG have essentially had to pay a huge transfer fee to the player himself to convince him to stay, and it's clear other superstars in the game will have watched how this panned out. Liverpool fans were relieved to hear that Mo Salah will be playing for them next season, but in the final year of his contract, they could find themselves in the same position - losing their best player on a free. 

Liverpool will not bend and break their wage structure to accommodate Salah’s demands as he will be nearly 31 when his contract expires, but one of Europe’s other big boys could increase his salary. It’s the perfect scenario for the Egyptian, but he isn’t alone. 

As it stands, in the summer of 2023, Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, Robert Lewandowski, Karim Benzema, Sadio Mane and Salah will all be at the end of their current contracts. It’s almost comparable to the NFL draft, where teams trade players or draft picks, rather than paying transfer fees. 

In 12 months time, six of the best ten players in the world are available for absolutely nothing. Except, as we have seen with Mbappe, these players will benefit hugely financially from any signing on fee. It’s only their clubs that are missing out. 

Previously, investing in a player and tying them down to a long-term contract meant that you could recoup a large transfer fee if sold. Now, players are wary of signing those deals, given it means they are tied down to a club and further away from having the freedom to be ‘up for auction’ if you will. Just look at Harry Kane’s situation at Tottenham Hotspur. His long-term contract meant Daniel Levy could keep him at the club, even when he stated his desire to leave and Manchester City were interested. 

Harry Kane remains a Tottenham player, despite wanting to leave in 2021
Harry Kane remains a Tottenham player, despite wanting to leave in 2021

Now City have signed Erling Haaland and Spurs have qualified for the Champions League, it looks increasingly likely that he will remain in North London. Even Mbappe’s new deal at PSG, backed by the financial might of Qatar, is only three years long. By the time he is 26, he could be in the same situation, which is baffling to even consider. 

This summer the likes of Paulo Dybala, Christian Eriksen, Paul Pogba and Ousmane Dembele are out of contract but those players are not quite on the same level as the ones available next year. Even so, you can expect them to receive healthy financial rewards from whichever club avoids spending a transfer fee to secure their signature. 

So where does this leave clubs? Signing your star players onto long-term contracts is more difficult than ever, and if they get down to their final 18 months, it's a nightmare scenario. You can either bend over backwards to keep them at the club to keep the likes of PSG at bay, or you can accept that they are going to leave on a free - and that’s just the way it is. 

But this cycle isn’t limitless. There are only a handful of clubs that can afford these wages and only Manchester City and PSG are realistically able to compete with one another. Real Madrid want to get back amongst it, Manchester United are no longer a European force and the Bundesliga’s fan-owned culture means that Bayern Munich aren’t in the conversation. 

Just look at Barcelona’s financial collapse this time last year. So this small group of clubs can only sign a certain number of players. PSG went on a free transfer ‘spending spree’ in 2021 as Sergio Ramos, Gini Wijnaldum, Gianluigi Donnarumma and Messi joined the club, and with a wage bill higher than the Eiffel Tower, surely their power in the transfer market is dwindling. 

Player power and their wages are at an all-time high, but this doesn’t mean all of the world’s greatest will end up at one club. Instead, at the elite level, transfer fees have been replaced by signing on fees and long-term contracts could be a thing of the past. Given this shift, it’s feasible that Neymar’s world record transfer fee will remain for the next ten years. 

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