One of the reasons free agency in the NFL, NBA, and MLB is so unbearable — and why you, me, and your typical fan still can’t totally tune it out — is because it happens before the season, when there’s hope that things will be different for your favorite team. We follow and daydream about all the rumors because there is NOTHING ELSE TO DO. Hell, even if your team doesn’t sign anyone, it’s easy enough to talk yourself into the idea that “it’s all part of the plan” because you’re “clearing cap room” or “stockpiling assets.” (We are all, in the end, sheeple.)
But what if free agency happened during the season? You could follow along with it at your discretion, game-watching still making up the majority of your sports diet. You could take bites of free-agency news whenever you felt a need, instead of subsisting on rumors about the Jets’ interest in “kicking the tires” on a 49-year-old Randall Cunningham or the Yankees’ plan to purchase Central America. And, just for fun, let’s say that every player on every team was always available, because wouldn’t that be fucking insane? Yes, that would be fucking insane.
Well, this happens every January in European soccer’s transfer window, and what results is the greatest and most blatantly-on-psychedelics player-movement period in all of sports. It’s the NFL’s free agency and the MLB and NBA’s trade deadlines rolled into one kaleidoscopic neon space-tunnel and compressed into 31 days.
Most of the time in soccer, players switch teams by way of purchase: one team offers another team money for one of its players; if the player’s current team accepts the offer and the player is able to agree to a contract with the offering team, the deal is done. There are no real restrictions as far as transferring players between countries. Outside of purchase, there’s also free agency (known as “a Bosman transfer,” thanks to Jean-Marc Bosman), which includes pre-contracts that can be signed, publicly, while a player is still on a different team. Then there are loans, in which a good team allows a young player to go play for a worse team for a set period of time usually so that he can get playing experience when he’d otherwise be riding the bench, and player-swaps, which can be straight-up (trades, pretty much) or with cash and other small-potatoes stuff thrown in. For those who enjoy hypothesizing about moves their team might make, that’s a lot of angles to think about.
Since soccer doesn’t have salary caps and many soccer teams have more-than-humanly-conceivable amounts of money, it’s possible for any transfer to happen, as if the Shanghai Sharks could offer Heat owner Micky Arison $100 million cash for the right to negotiate with LeBron James even if he had five years left on his NBA contract. Couple that with the unscrupulous nature of the European press, which will report basically any half-cocked idea some bottom-level scout whispered in his girlfriend’s ear, and the transfer windows (besides January, players can move during the offseason as they would in the United States) turn into something like basketball or baseball free-agency on steroid-enhanced bath salts.
Originally, there were no transfer windows, and players could be moved all throughout the season. Some leagues across Europe began limiting in-season transfers to a winter window in the early 1990s, though, and in the first part of the 2000s UEFA, European soccer’s governing body, ruled that all leagues should have a uniform, one-month, in-season January transfer window. With everything compressed into a short timeframe, many teams feel pressure to make a move right now, super-inflating player prices in January. If a team thinks it needs to buy a player in the middle of the year, that team thinks it really needs to buy a player, and it usually needs to buy a player in the first place because it’s not a managerially-sound club. Well-run teams generally don’t do much buying in January. January is filled with bad teams talking themselves into big moves that don’t work out and middling teams that thought they’d be doing better making disastrous crater-signings in an attempt to live up to expectations.
The most-recent and most-obvious example of how terrible January decision making can be is the 2011 menage-a-transfer involving Fernando Torres and Andy Carroll. On the last day of the window, Chelsea bought Torres, the epitome of the flashy but flaky Euro striker, from Liverpool for $80 million, which Liverpool then used to purchase Carroll, who is little more than a battering ram of a head and left foot, from Newcastle for $56 million. The Torres deal broke the British transfer record, and the Carroll deal would’ve broken it, too, had it not been for Torres. (Remember that the teams also then had to sign each player to a contract, in addition to paying the transfer fee. Mucho $$$.) Fast-forward to today: the pair have scored a total of 21 goals in the two years since the move. (For reference, Robin Van Persie has scored 18 goals this season. Manchester United bought him for $31 million over the summer.) Torres appears to be on his way out at Chelsea, while Carroll isn’t even on Liverpool’s roster right now; he’s on loan at fellow Premier League club West Ham. Neither move was a sure bet at the time—Torres was clearly battling an injury, Carroll an unproven player — which just makes the enormous sums paid for both guys all the more January-esque.
Even though it pulled off the highway robbery that was that Carroll sale, Newcastle isn’t off the hook, either. A year removed from nearly finishing in the top four in England — which insures placement in the prestigious and lucrative UEFA Champions League — they’ve fallen to 16th place, and their January response has been to buy every B-level French player in the world (is your name Jean-Luc or Moussa? Do you have feet? Expect a call), to the tune of $23 million for five (at best) fringe guys. Elsewhere: Tottenham bought a German player who they’ve already signed and who would have been arriving in the summer anyway, basically paying $2.4 million so he could play the last 15 games of this season; Galatasaray of Turkey signed Dutch attacking-midfielder Wesley Sneijder for $10 million, and he hasn’t played soccer since the end of September; and QPR, who are in last place in the EPL, spent a club-record $12.5-million on a 26-year-old French striker who’d scored two goals this season. (Meanwhile, one of their starting centerbacks is the head coach of an MLS team in Canada and plans to leave the team in February. Yes, really.)
Player-movement intrigue is a nice way to pass the time, but in American free agency — and during the summer soccer window — the sideshow is our only lifeline to the game. At those points all the rumor-mongering in the world is never satisfying. In January, however, the season goes on and any transfer nonsense can be tuned out or feasted upon at your discretion. Sometimes, you can cackle knowingly as your team takes advantage of some desperate swap partner. And during those dark stretches, when it’s your team scrambling to sign an aged David Beckham? Then you can grit your teeth, try and talk yourself into it, and, when that fails, just go and watch a game.