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January transfer window: Money for nothing

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The January sales have begun. But unlike in the consumer world, where bargains abound at this time of year, soccer's silly season prompts a spate of fervent spending at inflated prices.

The transfer window system was implemented in the 2002-03 season to allow clubs 12 weeks in the summer and the month of January to replenish their rosters. It was billed as an ideal way to simplify the transfer process.

Instead, it has become a tangled mess and a frenzied free-for-all. And the only real winners are soccer agents, for many of whom January is like Christmas, Thanksgiving and winning the lottery all rolled into one.

A restricted period of time places pressure on clubs to act quickly, thereby handing the advantage to the agents looking to manipulate the system. The truly remarkable thing is that owners, managers and fans continue to put faith in this time of year as a way to revitalize their fortunes. However, reality, and history, tells us that a January signing rarely makes a season-changing impact on their new team.

In theory, the system should add some simplicity. In reality, it creates a current of underhanded dealings.

Many deals are effectively done by November, before being rubber-stamped once the window opens. That often creates inappropriate situations which sees players performing for teams that they know they will be soon leaving.

In many cases, transfers in this period are set up in desperation. Prices, and player-wage demands, go through the roof.

The current financial climate makes it more important than ever for clubs to remain in the top flight and grab a share of the lucrative television money. Hence, the transfer window is seen as an opportunity to buy salvation from relegation or to clinch a place in Europe's big tournaments or to add weight to a league title challenge. Fans work themselves into a frenzy dreaming of the big names who can magically transform a campaign.

But today, more than ever, paying a big price is no guarantee of quality. In fact, a study endorsed by a panel of European soccer experts, including former England head coach Graham Taylor, found that as little as 8 percent of January signings made a significant improvement to their new employer. (Middlesbrough chairman Steve Gibson must still have nightmares about the $18 million he spent on underwhelming Brazilian striker Afonso Alves 12 months ago.)

This year's English Premier League market is being propped up by Manchester City, whose free-spending Arabian owners have authorized $150 million of player investment for manager Mark Hughes. Chelsea's Wayne Bridge has already made his way north, while Roque Santa Cruz of Blackburn and Scott Parker of West Ham are also targets. Some of that cash may filter down, although the cash-strapped Hammers are far more likely to bank the money than reinvest it.

In Spain and Italy, the global economic downturn is biting somewhat, but the strength of the euro will potentially make it easier for investment in players who operate in markets with different currencies. Already there is increased interest in EPL players like Michael Owen and Jermaine Pennant from Italian teams.

Spanish giant Real Madrid has done what it does best – spend big – by splashing out heavily on Lassana Diarra from Portsmouth and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar from Ajax. But there is growing concern in Spain regarding the level of borrowing by clubs that is used to facilitate new purchases.

Unsurprisingly, according to a report in La Vanguardia newspaper, Real tops the borrowing list at more than $700 million. While a club with Real's international profile and reputation is always going to generate huge revenues to service the debt, the use of extreme credit is a dangerous game for many smaller clubs.

The teams with spending power can get things done quickly. Other deals will be dragged out for the entire month, as agents play a game of chicken with clubs keen to buy a bit of hope.

Transfers will always be a key element of soccer. But while the window system may have seemed like a good idea a few years ago, it has brought little of real value to the game.

So what's the solution? A market that remains open for most of the year. That would end the unproductive madness of January, which currently favors those with a focus on their own profits rather than the good of soccer.

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