As the soccer world retreats into transfer rumors, does it really grasp the magnitude of what's going on?

Yahoo Sports

Squint and it’s as if there’s really nothing going on. Clubs are making wish-lists for the summer, transfer rumors go around, our fellow media covers them eagerly. It’s seems like business as usual.

It’s spring, and that means the summer transfer window is nearing. Reporters are attempting to suss out the big clubs’ targets. Names do the rounds in a swirling vortex of whispers and information and “sources.”

Barcelona wants to sign Inter Milan striker Lautaro Martinez, but who will go in the other direction to help offset the cost? Also, will there be money left to finally bring Neymar back from Paris Saint-Germain?

In Germany, Borussia Dortmund has two of the most coveted young players on the market, forwards Erling Haaland and Jadon Sancho. Manchester United is after both of them. But can it offload Paul Pogba to Real Madrid first? And can Real afford Pogba and PSG’s wunderkind Kylian Mbappe?

Sometimes it feels like soccer exists in an alternate universe where the realities of our world can’t touch it. Or it thinks it does anyway, and much of its media ecosystem plays along. 

It’s fairly tone-deaf to even consider nine-figure transfer fees when Barcelona furloughed all of its non-playing employees and didn’t bring them back until its squad took enormous, temporary pay cuts. When Juventus also pushed through pay cuts. When several English clubs had to be shamed into not participating in a taxpayer-funded scheme in England to protect jobs. 

Inter Milan's Lautaro Martinez is being pursued by Barcelona. Or so says the transfer rumor mill, which is being questionably and conspicuously revved up right now. (REUTERS/Alberto Lingria)
Inter Milan's Lautaro Martinez is being pursued by Barcelona. Or so says the transfer rumor mill, which is being questionably and conspicuously revved up right now. (REUTERS/Alberto Lingria)

If there’s no money for salaries, it rankles when the speculation about that pricey new winger continues unabated. It makes you wonder if the soccer world really understands what’s going on. Because an odd sense of normalcy has been superimposed on extremely abnormal times. It’s hard to tell if it stems from a desire to discuss anything other than the coronavirus pandemic in the absence of actual soccer, or an attempt to keep some of the attention on the clubs. Or if, unimaginably, it’s a genuine understanding of what’s really going on, a comprehensive untethering from the more consequential news. 

Absent any games, transfer speculation and coverage keeps the sport going, in a sense. The transfer market has always been a form of escapism and entertainment in its own right. And some fans will admit that they’re as interested in the transfers as the soccer itself – preferring to dream on players their team doesn’t yet have, rather than the ones it signed in the last window.

This impulse to latch onto the last element of soccer that’s still available, exactly because it’s ethereal and consists almost entirely of idle talk, is understandable. It’s the only soccer going on outside of Belarus.

Yet all of this ignores the incontrovertible reality that soccer faces something like a deep recession. No matter how much of the season is salvaged – and several leagues, including Ligue 1 in France, have shut down entirely already – the losses will be enormous. And they will continue to be, as the next season will probably be significantly affected as well, between fans hesitant to return to large public gatherings, a crashing economy and whatever residual effects linger. 

A negative effect on the transfer market is a given. A French politician has predicted that player values could be cut by as much as 80 percent. Managerial luminary Fabio Capello has predicted that “the market will be revolutionized. Absurd amounts of money were utilized for signings. We will return to a more reasonable level.”

It’s hard to say how big the impact will be, exactly, and how much appetite there will be to let star players go for a fraction of what they might have fetched just months ago. But you can safely predict that teams will have far greater worries than who they’re buying this summer, and for how much. 

The insistence on pretending everything is normal and that the transfer market is exactly as it was back when it opened the last time, in January, betrays a sense that the sport, and those who cover it, haven’t fully wrapped their heads around this new reality. It seems some haven’t reckoned with the notion that the sport faces an existential crisis, rather than just another transfer window.

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.

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