“Everyone's got to be concerned about the way fees are growing to astronomical proportions. My own opinion is that it will continue for some time yet but that, like the stock market and property market, it will eventually regulate itself.”
So said Liverpool chief executive Peter Robinson in 1995 after signing Stan Collymore for a then British record of £8.5m. More than two decades later and football is still waiting for the bigger-than-ever-bubble to burst as Manchester United prepare to break the world record for £100m-rated Juventus midfielder Paul Pogba.
If transfer fees were astronomical in 1995, when Italy international Gianluigi Lentini was the world’s most expensive player, having joining Milan from Torino for £13m three years earlier, they have long since entered a new dimension altogether.
United’s pending purchase of Pogba would mark the first time any sportsman has commanded a nine-figure sum in sterling and would obliterate the existing record of €100m (£86m) paid by Real Madrid for Gareth Bale.
Yet despite the eye-popping numbers, record fees are not rising at an exponential rate. A £100m purchase of a player this summer would represent a 117.4 per cent increase on the world record 10 years ago, the £46m Real Madrid paid for Zinedine Zidane in 2001.
The Zidane fee itself was a 248.5 percent increase on the record 10 years before that, the £13.2m Ronaldo commanded when moving from PSV Eindhoven to Barcelona.
Furthermore, Ronaldo’s fee represented a 164 per cent increase on the world record £5m that made Napoli’s Diego Maradona the world’s most expensive player in 1986.
Should Jose Mourinho and Ed Woodward land their man, United will also become the first English club in 20 years to own football’s expensive star.
Since Newcastle paid £15m to bring Alan Shearer home in 1996, no Premier League club has broken the world transfer record. Before Newcastle, it was Sheffield Wednesday who, in 1951, spent £34,000 — less than what Wayne Rooney currently earns in a day — to buy Notts County’s Jackie Sewell, a prolific goalscorer capped internationally for England and Zambia where he lived at the end of his career.
In recent years, English clubs have been the beneficiary of unprecedented transfer fees, in particular from Real Madrid who paid Manchester United £80m for Cristiano Ronaldo in 2009 and Tottenham Hotspur £86m for Bale in 2013. Real Madrid have broken their own record four times since signing Luis Figo from Barcelona for £37m in 2013.
Should Manchester United pip them to Pogba, it would mark only the second time since the turn of the millennium that a club other than Los Blancos has held the record.
Yet a world record fee may not guarantee success. Jean-Pierre Papin, who AC Milan made the first £10m player in 1992, struggled to nail down a first team position at the San Siro and left after just two years.
Lentini never reached the heights expected of him at Milan, Brazil winger Denilson’s career nosedived after joining Real Betis for a world record £21.5m in 1998 while Kaka proved that even Galacticos can go rusty after flopping at Real Madrid where he was briefly the world’s most expensive player at £56m in 2009 before Ronaldo joined later that same summer.