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Ronaldo, Mbappe, Pogba could lead free-agent frenzy

It’s one of the byproducts of the COVID-induced cash crunch in football, and it has created an unprecedented situation across Europe. At no point in recent history have so many key players at big clubs found themselves in the final year of their contract, as is the case heading into the 2021-22 season.

You want forwards? How about Paulo Dybala, Alexandre Lacazette or Kylian Mbappe? And you can probably add Erling Haaland to that list: he’s not in the last year of his deal, but given his release clause that kicks in after next season — thought to be around €70m — is so much less than his market value, he may as well be.

And that’s just the big-name 30-and-under forward cohort. If you want guys who are slightly more seasoned — but still A-list contributors — how about Karim Benzema, Luis Suarez or, yep, even Cristiano Ronaldo? Gareth Bale too, if that’s your taste…

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Are midfielders more your thing? Consider Leon Goretzka, Franck Kessie, Thomas Delaney, Marcelo Brozovic, Sergi Roberto, Isco and Paul Pogba, all of whom are 30 and under. If you’re good with a bit of grey mixed in, you can extend it to Luka Modric, Axel Witsel or Angel Di Maria.

Are defenders your bag? How about Raphael Varane, Andreas Christensen, Antonio Rudiger, Nacho, Alessio Romagnoli, John Stones, Serge Aurier or Dani Carvajal?

You want keepers? We got those too… Andre Onana, Samir Handanovic and Hugo Lloris, to name a few.

There used to be a pretty simple rule of good squad management in football: Except for rare situations involving older or sub-standard players, you never allowed a star player to enter the final year of their contract. The thing to do was either extend the contract before it got to that point or move the player on, trying to get whatever you could.

The logic was straightforward. Once a player got near the final year of his contract, he had all the leverage in contract negotiations. He could hold out for the salary he wanted knowing that, if his club didn’t agree, free agency loomed. And free agents routinely get paid more when they join a new club because there’s no transfer fee to pay.

From a club’s perspective, a player with a year left on his contract generally isn’t worth very much on the open market. In order for such a transfer to happen, a player has to agree to it, and he’s not going to agree moving to a new club of his old club’s choice unless he gets the sort of deal he wants. Not when he can move anywhere if he just holds out another season.

Thus, players who move with a year left on their deals inevitably do so for lower fees because the new club has to offer them a substantial raise in salary. Which means there’s less left over because it all comes out of the same pot.

The COVID cash crunch is one of the main reasons we find ourselves in this situation. According to the European Clubs Association, club have missed out on more than €9 billion ($10.6 billion) over the past two seasons.

You can imagine the reasons why. Closed stadiums mean no gate money or match-day revenues. Many leagues also had to give broadcasters rebates on their contracts because of the total stop to football in March 2020. And, with the global economy taking a big hit, sponsors and commercial income also went flat and, in some cases, declined.

Most of all, the cash crunch created uncertainty, and that’s what any business hates most. When you know the hit you’re going to take, you can budget. In this particular case, clubs not only didn’t know (other than the hit is going to be huge) but they also didn’t know how long it would last. And, when that happens, you become conservative.

So clubs were wary of overpaying to extend contracts. But, equally, because everybody was suffering, they also felt they could get away with it.

Take Bayern’s Goretzka. He’s 26, he’s coming off a good season, well liked and, you’d imagine, the club would want to keep him. After all, other than Joshua Kimmich, he’s the only experienced credible central midfielder they have (unless you want to count the oft-injured Corentin Tolisso, who is also out of contract next summer. Yet not only is he less than a year from free agency, clubs aren’t exactly beating a path to his door.)

Or how about Pogba? He may divide opinion among some, but the fact is he’s more or less always been a regular under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and, if he goes, Manchester United will need to replace him. And if they wait, the 28-year-old can just leave as a free agent after signing for a whopping €105m in 2016. And yet nobody has been seriously linked with him.

Mbappe? Paris Saint-Germain sporting director Leonardo said three months ago that he was definitely getting a new deal. Great! Except he hasn’t yet. And the clock is ticking. And with each day that passes, the allure of running down his contract increases. Were this five years ago, his face would be filing the front pages of Spanish dailies like Marca and AS, maybe Manchester City or Chelsea might be making regular trips to Paris. Now? It’s not quite tumbleweed but close to it.

Then, there’s the granddaddy of them all: Ronaldo. Juventus reportedly want a minimum of €25 million ($29.6m) for him, his current deal pays him in excess of €60m ($75m) a season, and he’s 36 years old. Fine.

On the other hand, Juventus recently said they project losses of €300m ($355m) over two years, so they may well give you a discount. Plus, he scored 36 goals last year and won the Euro 2020 Golden Boot this month. And, as you probably know, commercially, Ronaldo packs a punch.

Yet he too is sitting tight, and all of this points to a summer transfer window unlike any other: one in which players hold all the power. Clubs may not overly mind waiting, but as June 30, 2022, approaches, they’ll get nervous.

Given how one big deal tends to set off a chain reaction, all this could change by the time the current window closes at the end of August. But don’t bet on it. Expect instead the mother of all transfer summers next year; not so much in terms of transfer fees, but in terms of wages.

Once the balance of power shifts, it’s hard to get it back.

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