“I don’t want Chelsea to do it before we go there,” said José Mourinho after his side’s midweek victory over Aston Villa. ‘It’, of course, referred to a third and decisive bid for Manchester United’s Wayne Rooney; ‘there’ being the deliciously-timed away trip to his current employers this Monday night. “Everybody in the club, in the board, they agree with me. They share that opinion – I think this period, by the ethical point of view, is a period where we’re going to be quiet.”
By insisting that focus be diverted away from Rooney’s potential transfer, Mourinho has sneakily ensured that all the more attention will be focused on Rooney’s potential transfer. There is no telling how events at Old Trafford may affect the course of the seven days and two hours that follow before the close of the transfer window – not least, because I am penning this column on Monday afternoon.
Perhaps, by the time you read this, Roman Abramovich’s henchmen will have schmoozed United’s inexperienced vice-chairman, Ed Woodward, into submission with a lifetime’s supply of vodka and caviar for the executive box. Perhaps Sir Bobby Charlton will have angrily intervened to boot them out the front door with all the forcefulness of his second goal against Portugal in the 1966 semi-final. Perhaps Rooney himself will have finally gone public, coming off the bench to beat David de Gea with a spectacular own goal, before sprinting over to the Chelsea fans and revealing that ‘Once a Blue, Always a Blue’ shirt he infamously displayed as an Everton player.
Obviously, I have just made all of this up. But then, that is the whole point. A year ago on these pages, I mused upon the whimsical, comedic, and even four-dimensional nature of this metaphysical window which, for its duration, serves to swallow up and define all narrative whether we like it or not. Sagas like Rooney’s – or Bale’s, or Suárez’s, or Fellaini’s – dominate the agenda regardless of concrete facts or developments to the extent that we forget about events on the pitch. It might all follow the principle of demand and supply – if it wasn’t fun, we wouldn’t talk about it – but the distraction has now become worryingly detrimental to footballing competition.
Speaking last Thursday ahead of the home draw with West Bromwich Albion, the recently-installed Everton manager Roberto Martínez was clearly exasperated about a situation that leaves him waiting, uncertainly, on an acceptable bid for Marouane Fellaini and/or Leighton Baines from his predecessor David Moyes, now at United:
“I’ve said it time after time. I think it’s time for the football authorities to look into the situation. I think the transfer window is getting out of hand and really, really affecting the value of the league. I think it’s affecting the human side of the players in a very, very unfair manner and it’s about time that we stopped... the official games in the middle of the window. It’s not for me to discuss how long the window needs to be open, and I’m the first one to understand that you need to have the window... but you cannot have the window open when you’ve got official games.”
Some clubs deal with the matter better than others. After bitter experience in the past losing Dimitar Berbatov and Luka Modrić too late in the day to sign a replacement – a move for João Moutinho 12 months ago missed the deadline by minutes – the hard-negotiating Tottenham Hotspur chairman Daniel Levy has wisely moved to spend the Gareth Bale money while the latter’s world record switch to Real Madrid was still being negotiated. His satisfaction at nabbing Willian from under the noses of Liverpool, however, was overturned when dealings within the Russian oligarchy convinced the Anzhi Makhachkala man to opt for Chelsea while he was actually undergoing a medical at White Hart Lane. Arsène Wenger, meanwhile, attracted further ridicule for triumphantly announcing after Arsenal’s win at Fenerbahçe last Wednesday that “the transfer market starts for me now” – and not three months previously, as the rest of us had been inclined to believe.
The agents – some of whose less scrupulous variety care little for which club or country their clients may end up at – undoubtedly feast in the rewards of their brinkmanship. But it is clearly madness that pre-season preparations are allowed to be undermined by the politics of a window that extends beyond the third or even fourth matchday. FIFA’s vague regulations leave everything to the whim of the national associations by prescribing two registration periods – one of up to 12 weeks after the old season has finished, plus a mid-season amnesty of a maximum four weeks. This does nothing to quell the problem and, by allowing for discrepancy – Russia’s summer window, for example, ends on 6 September – there even lies the possibility for further unwelcome shenanigans.
Take the following, entirely hypothetical scenario. Later this week, Everton announce that their financial situation has taken a downturn and, with reluctance, Fellaini will be available for sale. Manchester United and Arsenal seize upon their vulnerability with bids of £20 million, but Zenit St. Petersburg blow both out of the water by offering the Toffees £30 million. The Russians’ offer is accepted and the English deadline of next Monday passes. When the Belgian arrives for his medical on Tuesday, however, Zenit announce that a mystery ‘health problem’ has forced them to withdraw their offer, but they are willing to renegotiate for £10 million. With no other eligible suitors and urgent bills to pay, an angry Everton have no choice but to accept, and the ‘missing’ £20 million is quietly divvied up between Fellaini, his agent, and the Zenit representatives.
The only fair and logical solution to the problems of August and September is for FIFA to introduce a uniform and fixed global transfer window of 1 to 31 July in the northern hemisphere summer, and 1 to 31 January in the winter.
Reducing the main window to a month may seem excessively short, but this would not be the case in practice. Since the windows are, as already stated in the current FIFA regulations, no more than ‘registration periods’, clubs would still be free to conduct their business in May and June. Deals can be signed and even monies paid in the early part of the close season, just as long as the transfer of the player’s registration is post-dated to July. J. League clubs could similarly negotiate through December; the evenly-spaced intervals of equal length ensuring there is no advantage or disadvantage for countries whose leagues begin in February and March. In fact, most of this would differ little from the status quo – the changes serve purely to eliminate discrepancy and encroachment into the playing season.
Maybe then we could all concentrate on the actual football for a change.