Everything starts with the interviews. Mohamed Salah granted the first, to the Spanish newspaper AS, last December. He talked about his career, his ambitions for the season. He demurred when asked if he would finish his career with Liverpool. He offered a couple of placatory bromides about the continuing virility of Real Madrid and Barcelona.
A few months later, not long before Liverpool faced Real Madrid in the Champions League, he did the same with Marca. The interview had a copy-paste quality: Salah talked about his career, his ambitions for the season. He demurred when asked whether he would finish his career with Liverpool. He offered a couple of placatory bromides about the continuing virility of Real Madrid. (Marca did not ask about Barcelona.)
The interviews were not, it is fair to say, significant because Salah said nothing especially revelatory or surprising or explosive. Their meaning lay entirely in their existence. The fact that Salah, not typically given to inviting newspapers into his home, had broken the trend for Real Madrid’s twin courtiers said all that needed to be said.
Appearing in the pages of AS and Marca, after all, is part of a long-established ritual, the first step in a familiar dance. It is — or has been, for a long time — a way for a player to flutter their eyelashes in the direction of either of Spain’s giants (though Real Madrid, most often). It is a sign that they would be interested, should an offer for their services arrive. In general, it is also a signal that Real Madrid, in particular, reciprocates the affection. And it is a whispered warning to that player’s current club that only a new contract, an improved salary, might stave off the inevitable.
It is no surprise, then, that the last few months have seen a steady drip-feed of thinly-sourced transfer rumors suggesting that this might be Salah’s final season at Liverpool, that one or the other of Spain’s repelling poles might be at his shoulder, in his ear, coaxing him away.
Currently, the favorite is Barcelona. Quite how that has happened is not entirely clear. In the English-speaking news media, the story has been credited to El Nacional, a Catalan newspaper that is, currently, of the view that Liverpool is about to sell not only Salah but also, apparently, its captain, Jordan Henderson, and its record signing, Virgil van Dijk.
But El Nacional does not claim to be the original source: It attributes the rumor to a website called Fichajes. That is, of course, responsible journalism — always credit your sources, kids — but it does not clear anything up, because Fichajes’ original claim was that Real Madrid wanted to sign Salah. Its first mention of Barcelona came three weeks after El Nacional ran the story.
Quite what prompted the change is anyone’s guess. Much has been made of a quote from Xavi Hernández, the club’s new coach, a couple of years ago describing Salah as a “top” player. That he said it in a sentence that also referred to Sadio Mané and Roberto Firmino is not mentioned. Nor is the fact that it is hardly a staggering admission. Salah is a top player. That is objectively true.
What is omitted entirely from this wildfire of speculation, of course, is that Barcelona does not have anything like the money needed to sign Mohamed Salah. This is a club, remember, that has racked up $1 billion or so in debt. It is operating under strict salary controls instigated by La Liga. It has, by a generous estimate, about $10 million to spend on its squad in January.
It is projecting yet another loss in this financial year. Its debt restructuring deal with Goldman Sachs means it has to cut back its operating costs drastically by 2025 or grant its lenders control of the television revenue that acts as the club’s primary source of funding. “A sword of Damocles,” as the International Finance Review described it. Barcelona also has a new stadium to build.
It cannot afford to pay Liverpool the nine-figure fee it would demand for Salah. It might struggle to meet the $400,000-a-week in salary the player would want, even on a free transfer in 18 months’ time. (It also absolutely should not be thinking about deals like that for aging players: that is, after all, what got Barcelona into this mess in the first place.)
Real Madrid’s financial situation is better — though it, too, has an expensive stadium refurbishment to consider, as well as the biting impact of the coronavirus pandemic — but it is significant that when it tried to sign Kylian Mbappé last summer, his current club, Paris St.-Germain, believed it to be nothing more than posturing; Real Madrid could not, the French team concluded, genuinely afford to pay any club $200 million for a single player.
There is a reason that Real Madrid waited until the contract of David Alaba, the versatile Austrian master-of-all-trades, expired before signing him from Bayern Munich. There is a reason it is hoping Mbappé’s deal in Paris will be allowed to run out. There is a reason it is considering the likes of Antonio Rüdiger, the Chelsea defender, and Paul Pogba, the Manchester United midfielder, to revamp its team.
Real Madrid knows it does not possess the financial heft to persuade Premier League teams to sell these players if they do not want to, because English soccer’s television revenues mean those teams almost certainly never need to sell. It knows, too, that paying a transfer fee and the stellar salaries top players command is beyond its reach. It has to cut its costs, and cloth, accordingly.
This is a stark shift in soccer’s landscape. For decades, the working assumption has been that Real Madrid and Barcelona represent the apex of the sport’s hierarchy: They were its alphas, its final destinations, its mega-predators. That no longer holds true. Real Madrid and Barcelona, for now and for some time to come, no longer sit at the top of the food chain.
That soccer’s whirling rumor industry has not noticed this does not matter, particularly. It is, by its very nature, slightly fantastical. That is part of the fun. Should a whisper ricocheting between click-hungry websites across Europe prove to be grounded in nothing but smoke and air then it does not, really, do any harm*. There may be disappointment at the end — when you expect Mohamed Salah but get Luuk de Jong — but in the meantime, readers enjoy the flight of fancy. The advertisers get eyeballs. The websites get paid.[*Other than to further undermine trust in the news ecosystem in general, and therefore permit the rise of the deliberately, cynically unreliable and the perniciously fake.]
What is significant, though, is that players — or, more accurately, agents — do not yet seem to have caught on to that fact. The game’s altered tectonics mean that, for a player like Salah, flirting with Marca and AS is no longer much of a bargaining chip. Real Madrid is not an immediate threat to Liverpool, not any more.
That is an important change, and not necessarily a positive one. Players at the Premier League’s top six teams — more or less — are effectively trapped. They will not sell to each other, not easily, as Tottenham proved in refusing Manchester City’s advances for Harry Kane last summer. The only club that can afford to extricate them is, most likely, P.S.G.
Liverpool, Manchester City, Chelsea and Manchester United, in particular, are no longer proving grounds for Real Madrid and Barcelona. In those interviews, Salah twice said that his future was in his club’s hands. It was taken, at the time, as a challenge to Liverpool: to offer him a contract that fulfilled his true value, or else.
But perhaps it was simply a recognition of the truth. Liverpool, like the rest of the Premier League’s elite, is in control of what happens to its star players, of how long the dance lasts, of when the song ends.
Getting the Numbers Right
At roughly the same time as England was running in its 10th goal of the evening against San Marino, Italy was running out of ideas. The Italians, the European champions, had a relatively simple task in their final qualifying game, a road trip to Belfast to face a Northern Ireland team with nothing at stake but pride: Italy had to win to seal its place in Qatar next winter, and hope that Switzerland, its rival, did not rout Bulgaria at the same time.
With 10 minutes to go, though, it was getting desperate. The score was mounting in Lucerne — two-nil, three-nil, four — but remained unmoving at Windsor Park. Italy could not pick its way through Northern Ireland. It could not play around Northern Ireland. And so, eventually, desperately, it tried to go over, launching a series of hopeful, hopeless, long balls into the penalty area. It did not work. The final whistle blew. The crowd roared.
And so, not quite six months after it conquered a continent, Italy faces the prospect of navigating a hazardous playoff round simply to make it to Qatar. The idea brings back unhappy memories: It is only four years, after all, since Italy lost at the same stage to Sweden — a potential opponent, this time around — and missed out on Russia 2018 altogether.
Those two results are worth considering in tandem. England’s 10-0 demolition of the tiny city-state prompted a reprise of the old, loaded discussion about whether UEFA needs to introduce prequalifying to weed out some of the weaker teams in its field. Italy’s 0-0 stalemate convinced Derek Rae, the respected ESPN commentator, to suggest that perhaps Europe merited more spaces at the World Cup.
Neither of these ideas is quite as charged as they seem to be (warning: there is no fulmination about to happen). Only two federations — Europe and South America — do not filter the pool of teams before the final stage of qualifying. It happens in Africa, Asia and North America. It is not anti-competitive. It is not the equivalent of the European Super League. It is simply changing the structure of how teams qualify for the World Cup.
Likewise, the concept of expanding Europe’s footprint is not without merit. The presence of not only Italy but Portugal — the last two European champions — in the playoff round indicates Europe’s strength in depth.
There is a good chance that 50 percent of all the teams in South America will be in Qatar, as opposed to a quarter of Europe’s, and just 10 percent of Africa’s. Africa, certainly, is underrepresented. But that is not to say that Europe is overrepresented: According to the (flawed) FIFA rankings, 18 of the best 32 teams in the world are in Europe. It has 13 slots for the World Cup.
At the heart of both of these arguments is what you think the World Cup should do, and should be. If it is there to gather the world’s best teams, then Europe should have more slots and there should, probably, be prequalifying. If it has another mission, to function as an inclusive carnival, to help countries around the world aspire to something, then it should not.
Of course, at least one of these arguments has been rendered moot by FIFA: This will, after all, be the last 32-team World Cup. Starting in 2026, 16 European teams will qualify (and nine from Africa), but the competition’s aspirational quality will not have been diminished. It is easy to rail against the expansion of the World Cup. In some lights, though, it has the faintest glow of logic behind it.
Yes, Yes, Canada, We Know
As many of you will have noticed, Canada now sits proudly atop the Octagon that will determine North and Central America’s entrants for next year’s World Cup, thanks in no small part to an impressive 2-1 win against a stalling Mexico in what appeared to be the actual North Pole.
We receive reasonably regular correspondence demanding we cover — in this newsletter, for some reason, rather than anywhere else — Canada’s sudden emergence as a global superpower. And we will (because it’s a fascinating story, not because of mob rule), as qualification draws closer. But for now, please make do with this video of a man jumping into a snowdrift in celebration.
Cashing In on Maradona
The majority of speculative emails that I receive, these days, are related to soccer’s nascent romance with the world of NFTs. It is, after all, a natural fit: a nihilistic, self-regarding world where value has been completely detached from inherent worth and, well, cryptocurrency.
It is a subject that makes me feel deeply uneasy. Soccer is only just starting to reckon with its unhealthy relationship with gambling, and it seems to be using NFTs — which, as far as I can tell, follow much the same dynamic — to plug the gap. The sport should, I feel, be a little more careful about where it takes its money, and precisely what its partners do. The sport does not feel the same way.
But the sheer volume of those emails is, all of a sudden, being challenged by an upstart: correspondence alerting me to some project or other about Diego Maradona. There is an Amazon Prime series about his life, one which seems to borrow its dramatic aesthetic from a telenovela and its soccer scenes from When Saturday Comes. There is a reissue of Jimmy Burns’s biography. There is a Spotify podcast about his final few days, hosted by the renowned investigative journalist Thierry Henry.
This is all harmless, of course: much more harmless, potentially, than NFTs. And yet there is a faint feeling of exploitation here, too, that Maradona’s story has already been packaged as content, his legacy used as script fodder, his myth portioned into rights and sold off. It is only a year since his death. It feels too soon, somehow, to start setting in stone how we should think about his life.
Plenty of feedback on alternative cards this week. “The punishment has to be extremely unpalatable to both the players themselves and the managers, while not destroying the contest,” wrote Timothy Ogden. He suggests that the player receiving an orange card would still have to serve a subsequent, one-game suspension, and that a team must have a designated replacement, a player who cannot be used as a regular substitute.
Alex McMillan and Carson Stanwood are both in favor of simple sin bins for tactical foulers: 5 or 10 minutes out of the game, with no further punishment. But there was a bit of outside-the-box — literally, as you will see — thinking from David Simpson, too. For a tactical foul, he wrote, “the offended team should be allowed to place the ball anywhere outside the penalty area for a direct free kick.” That’s a really good idea.