In Good Conscience

Loyalty and honour fade as stars chase pot of gold

Just before the darned window closed on the trade in talent that is the football transfer system, a wave of nausea came over me.

In England alone, the English Premier League (EPL) clubs spent £1.4 billion (S$2.4 billion) on moving players around. This crossed religious faiths, it crossed scores of national boundaries, and Singaporeans have a small stake in it, as does every country that subscribes to the £5.136 billion television contract that spurs this mammoth spending.

That is the deal for the EPL alone over three seasons.

Every other country has its own league, and its own TV deal.

But as England's window shut on Thursday night, plenty of players who had been involved in it, or were disappointed not to be involved, were performing for their national teams.

Neymar, the man whose €222 million (S$359 million) transfer from Barcelona to Paris Saint-Germain moved the goalposts to a new stratosphere of spending, was on duty with Brazil against Ecuador.

He didn't score. But Paulinho, the Brazilian midfielder whose £35 million move from the Chinese club Guangzhou Evergrande to Barcelona took everyone by surprise, did open accounts.

Neymar, as well as Coutinho, reneged on a fresh five-year obligation when the bigwigs of Paris St-Germain made him the highest-paid individual in the team game that there ever has been, or maybe ever will be.

And then on came Philippe Coutinho, the player who was supposed to have a back injury. The Liverpool man put the game to bed by scoring very quickly into his first game for over a month.

I like watching him. He has been the Reds' inspiration over recent seasons, and his quick movement and even quicker instinct make him one of very few players capable of replacing Andres Iniesta as Barcelona's playmaker.

That, as you know, was Barca's thinking as well. Half the €222 million from the enforced Neymar deal went on Ousmane Dembele, the barely 20-year-old French winger from Dortmund.

The other half, and added funds, have been for chasing Coutinho. And they are still chasing him beyond the closure of the EPL window because, ludicrously like so many things about the "window", Spain gives itself 24 hours after all the rest to do business.

Liverpool, while spending hundreds of millions of their own, put their foot down on Coutinho. John W. Henry, principal investor of the Boston group that owns the club, was adamant that no player was going to hold them to ransom.

Behind the scenes, he may have been agreeable to Coutinho leaving next summer. But not this. The player had signed a five-year improved contract only last January, and inside Anfield (and Boston) this was seen as a demonstration that the club, not the player, hold ultimate power.

Coutinho went into a deep sulk. Yes, his heart was aching because the invitation to orchestrate Barca is a lifetime opportunity.

But it wasn't the heart that he used as an excuse not to play. It was, we were told, backache.

Back pain is notoriously difficult to put a medical finger upon. But in Coutinho's case it mysteriously disappeared the moment his country, rather than his club, called.

After the long flight to Brazil, Coutinho stopped over in Rio de Janeiro to visit an old friend, a doctor who had treated him in his youth. Michael Simoni said he did not physically examine Coutinho but he did call the Brazil camp and inform them that the back pains were explained by the player suffering anxiety.

Coutinho was in a summer-long limbo, partly of his own making. He came off the bench to score, and celebrated by arching his back and pointing to the heavens.

Neymar then spoke up for his mate at the post-game media conference.

"Unfortunately," he said, "instead of being a happy time for him, for his family, it's a moment of anguish, disappointment and sadness. I like to see him happy because he is a team-mate and a friend that I've had for a long time.

"He was rewarded with a goal today, for his and our joy."

Why must we suspect that the one person who has deprived Coutinho of joy this past month has been himself? Oh, and his suffering back?

Why might Neymar not be the best spokesman on behalf of a player who wisely let his feet do the talking on transfer deadline night?

And what right has any of us to feel envy or alienation about the whole mess of transferring football stars around as if they owe no loyalty to the contracts they sign up for?

Neymar, as well as Coutinho, reneged on a fresh five-year obligation when the bigwigs of Paris St-Germain made him the highest-paid individual in the team game that there ever has been, or maybe ever will be.

To put it into context, the Qatar Sports Investments company, owned by the Gulf state's royal family, will insist that it is not in breach of the Uefa Financial Fair Play rule that no club should spend more than its income from football-related activity.

PSG acquired not only Neymar in this window but also Kylian Mbappe, the most sought-after teenager in the sport. The acquisition of the Frenchman from Monaco is, to get around Uefa's rule, was deemed to be a loan.

PSG will turn it into a €180 million permanent deal next year, once this summer's books are closed.

I have this dark feeling that the Qataris behind PSG and the Abu Dhabi royals backing Manchester City are in a Gulf state race of their own. First one to the Champions League and then, whatever Uefa throws at them by way of a penalty for massively exceeding fiscal rules, they will either pay the fine or walk away.

Neymar, meanwhile, is said to receive €45 million per year - or €865,000 per week over and above taxes.

According to International Labour Organisation statistics, the median annual salary in Singapore is S$58,700. It takes Neymar less than 10 minutes to bank what you work for in a week.

His talent is not in dispute. The pay disparity might be.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 02, 2017, with the headline 'Loyalty and honour fade as stars chase pot of gold'. Print Edition | Subscribe