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The build-up to the summer transfer window has already started, with clubs from around the world plotting their moves.

Spending from the ‘Big Five’ leagues in England, Spain, Italy, Germany and France exceeded £5billion ($6.4bn) in 2023-24’s two windows, but the football transfer ecosystem stretches way beyond that.

The Athletic spoke to club representatives and agents from North and South America, Asia, Europe and Africa to build a picture of the transfer priorities and evolving trends around the world.

Interviews took place in Rome at a summit organised by TransferRoom — an online transfer networking platform — which brought together sporting directors and recruitment staff from around 300 clubs. Some subjects requested anonymity as they did not want to damage their industry relationships.

Premier League clubs will keep spending but are scared of PSR

Premier League clubs spent £2.5bn ($3.1bn) on transfers this season — more than anyone else — and will probably be at the top of the tree again.

But points deductions for Everton and Nottingham Forest for breaching profit and sustainability rules (PSR) mean they are also being cautious. As one sporting director put it: “Everyone is scared of PSR.”

It means getting value for money and dodging nasty surprises — such as an injury complication or, as in the case of Newcastle and Sandro Tonali, an off-field issue.

“The biggest thing when you’re recruiting a player is the character side of it,” said a representative of one of the Premier League’s wealthiest clubs, who holds a key recruitment role. “Really going into depth, understanding the individual and what motivates them. What are their qualities? What’s their background? It’s about understanding what they’re going to bring and how they’re going to fit into the culture.

“A lot of it is research online. Then it’s speaking to loads of different people, such ex-coaches, medical people or their own physical team outside of the football club. That can be their own nutritionist, chef, sports scientist, their own analyst, because lots are going down that route.

“You’re never going to know them inside out because you’re not meeting them face to face, but at least you’re trying to create that picture, including areas they can improve and we need to be wary of.”

Another representative from a rich Premier League club acknowledged that recruitment staff have to sometimes be like private detectives.

“The big thing for us is how many different sources we can get to. We can go down the agency route and get an idea of a player’s family, background and journey so far,” he says. “But you have to know the person and be quite selective. So our thoughts are normally around former players that we know and they’ve played with and international coaches because they’re often unbiased.

“Lots of people will tell you how good they are, but we want to know why they haven’t been playing at different periods of their career. Who are they close to and why? We want to find that key angle or insight.”

Data is key in recruitment, but character analysis — on the whole — is difficult to quantify.

“I’m not sure anyone’s cracked the code in saying we can do it with data,” the second representative says. “But it’s the element of having no surprises when they come in. If we can put the character data and the scouting together, then we have the full picture.”

Kane to Germany will be the exception, not the rule

Harry Kane’s £86.4m move to Bayern Munich from Tottenham may have been one of the marquee deals of last summer, but do not expect it to become a trend.

“There are two sides to the Bundesliga in terms of attracting talent,” explains one leading German agent. “There’s the infrastructural side of clubs, which is a very strong pull factor but, in terms of salary, it is difficult to compete with the other top five leagues.”

The 50-plus-one rule in the Bundesliga — which reserves majority shareholdings for club members rather than private investors — is the main factor in this.

“You will always need resale value, which you don’t have with Kane,” he says. “Clubs are limited in their possibilities to gain money and what the Bundesliga is lacking is internationalisation. Only Bayern Munich can spend €50m or €60m on a player, while many English clubs are doing it.”

Competing with wages paid in England is also an issue.

“I had one ‘small’ (non-first team) player I helped briefly at Crystal Palace and he was earning £5,000 a week and this can be normal for some lower teams in Bundesliga,” he says. “Young English talent is still regarded so highly here. When the financial situation fits, everyone will try to take top talent from Arsenal or Man City because the experience with Jadon Sancho and Jude Bellingham (who both excelled at Borussia Dortmund) was outstanding.”

Italy’s tax change could be a disruptor

The ‘Decreto Crescita’ — growth decree — means players or coaches who haven’t worked in Italy for the two previous years only have to pay tax on 50 per cent of their earnings. It’s been in place since 2019 but won’t be in force this transfer window unless some Italian clubs get their way.

Around 30 per cent of Serie A players (198 out of 653) take advantage of it and the benefit to clubs is estimated to be around £128million. Its advocates say it has helped Italian clubs attract top players and managers and the league secure more lucrative TV rights deals; critics argue it stifles the chances of young Italian talent.

Axing the tax break would have a “huge impact for us because it has increased the level of our football”, says the Udinese sporting director Federico Balzaretti. “It’s helped us bring foreign players and the league is a very high level.”

“We are fighting for the decree. The discussions are still going (and it is) not 100 per cent (that it will go completely).”

Meanwhile, in Brazil, law tweaks will help…

In 2021, a new law allowed Brazilian clubs to seek outside investment. It led to 777 Partners — who want to buy Everton — taking control of Vasco da Gama, City Football Group buying Bahia, and Eagle Football Holdings (EFH) adding Botafogo to their group that includes Crystal Palace, Lyon (France), Molenbeek (Belgium) and FC Florida (U.S.).

This influx of capital has led to a spike in what clubs can afford when it comes to transfer deals.

“Brazilian clubs are really strong right now in terms of player acquisition and also salaries of around £800,000 to £1.1m net, which is something you wouldn’t have imagined a few years ago,” explains Eduardo Iglesias, EFH’s player trading manager. “Brazil will always sell, but right now they are buying players and competing against strong markets like MLS and Mexico.”

It means snaring the best Brazilian talent — such as Real Madrid’s capture of Endrick — is happening earlier. “The younger the better,” Iglesias says. “It challenges clubs (as) they need to develop young talents and play them before they are able to sell. Just look at what Chelsea have done recently (with Deivid Washington from Santos, aged 18) or Nottingham Forest (with Murillo, aged 21).”

The World Cup will shape Mexico, U.S. and Canada’s markets

Co-hosting the World Cup in two years has prompted a redoubling of efforts in Mexico to make Liga MX as strong as possible.

“In Mexico, football is the most important thing,” says Hector Ivan Lara Lopez, CF Monterrey Sporting Director. “It’s important to have a strong national team and the aim is to reach at least the quarter-finals, so we need Liga MX to be a really healthy business.”

Lopez says Liga MX rivals MLS audiences in the U.S. due to ex-pat communities but also the quality it attracts. But striking the right balance is important.

“We have a rule for nine foreign players of which seven can be on the field, so it’s less opportunity for Mexican players, but it’s important to have the level of the league high,” he says. “The kind of player we need is AAA (ranked) from South America, MLS and also players from Europe, especially if they can speak Spanish.”

The same applies in the U.S. and Canada, albeit in both countries soccer is scrapping for attention with bigger, more established sports.

“Both countries really need to push the sport,” says Pat Onstad, capped 60 times by Canada, now Houston Dynamo general manager. “Competing with NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL, especially in Canada, means we’ve always had to, but we’ve definitely got our foot in the door and now we’re considered a major league in both countries.

“Leading up to this World Cup, we want to become front and centre and the next year and a half is vital. It’s a huge opportunity for us to become really relevant in our market.”

The MLS season — which runs from February to December — being out of kilter with Europe doesn’t help. “The challenge we have is that our primary window when you want to bring a player for the start of the season is January,” he says. “England never really got going (this year), which usually has a trickle-down effect and that made it difficult for us.

“We’ve still got a long way to go, but it’s about investment and being strategic. Recruitment is really important and we’ve implemented analytics into our scouting.”

At Charlotte FC, coached by former Aston Villa manager Dean Smith, they’re targeting younger talent, especially in forward positions. “That’s something the league incentivises in roster construction,” says Lisandro Isei, Charlotte FC’s head of analytics and technical scouting. “If you go younger, you hit the cap less. Also, it makes it possible to get those guys in, let them play for a season or two, develop them and then sell them, hopefully for big money.”

AFCON and Club World Cup 2025 will have an impact

The impact of success at an international tournament is already being felt in the African market.

South Africa’s third-placed finish at AFCON has raised the profile of some of their players ahead of this transfer window, especially the 10 players from Mamelodi Sundowns, including goalkeeper and captain Ronwen Williams, midfielder Teboho Mokoena and right-back Khuliso Mudau.

“There’s interest in all of them, that’s what AFCON does,” says Flemming Berg, the club’s technical director. “But when European clubs come to South Africa, they think it’s very cheap and can buy them for £500,000. It’s not like that at all. We will be asking up to £8million because that’s the value they have to us.”

That is particularly true when the 2025 Club World Cup — which is being expanded from seven to 32 teams and staged in the U.S. — is a big motivation. “We will most likely be playing in it and we have to be able to compete there,” Berg adds. “We don’t want to sell our players, but if the offers are so big and the player wants to go, we have to look at it.”

Buying talent is part of the equation, including from European academies. Midfielder Tashreeq Matthews, 23, was the perfect combination, having been born in Cape Town and schooled at Ajax and Borussia Dortmund.

“We brought him back because we want to compete domestically and on the world stage,” says Berg. “We also have the five foreigner rule, so they have to be the best players, not an old player coming back from Europe. We have a responsibility to the future of South African football, not just Mamelodi Sundowns.”

Asia is blooming — but won’t be cheap

Another burgeoning market is Asia, and Japan in particular.

“The Japanese market is very interesting for European clubs because football education is getting better and the level of the J-League is high,” says Masaki Morass, technical director of Austria’s St Polten. “For European clubs, it is very important to scout this market and have a good network to go to the clubs, high school and university football.”

The success of Brighton’s Kaoru Mitoma, Liverpool’s Wataru Endo and Arsenal’s Takehiro Tomiyasu has ensured more eyes on Japan. There are now 20 Japanese players in the big five leagues, the most of any Asian nation. “It is not that easy to get a very good Japanese player for a low price to a European club,” says Morass. “The self-confidence of the Japanese clubs is getting better and better. They know their talents are more valued.”

South Korea is represented by eight players in the big five leagues, with Tottenham captain Son-Heung min and international team-mate Kim Min-jae of Bayern making it another “very interesting market”, according to Morass.

But where next? “I’m 100 per cent sure Thai football will come,” Morass says. “So many children want to play football and clubs want to invest in youth academies and facilities.”

Turkey is changing

For years, fading superstars joining Turkey’s biggest clubs was a familiar sight. The trend continued last season, with Edin Dzeko (Fenerbahce) and Mauro Icardi (Galatasaray) joining the Super Lig but, according to leading Turkish agent Utku Cenikli, things are changing.

“We’re now looking at big clubs wanting to develop and sell for large amounts,” he says. “We’ve seen Sacha Boey (Galatasaray) and Kim Min-jae (Fenerbahce) both sold to Bayern Munich. We also saw Besiktas take Ernest Muci from Legia Warsaw. We haven’t seen Turkish clubs do deals like this. They are looking for the future.”

Real Madrid’s acquisition of Arda Guler from Fenerbahce last summer showed big clubs are looking for homegrown talent, too. “Turkey has a really good generation coming,” says Cenikli.”There’s Kenan Yildiz at Juventus, Can Uzun at Nuremberg and Bertug Yildirim at Rennes. This generation is adapting to European football more effectively.”

Scandinavia will seek young creators 

Finding the next Erling Haaland (Norway) or Rasmus Hojlund (Denmark) is the target in Scandinavia.

The latter had an accelerated path from Copenhagen to Manchester United, via Sturm Graz and Atalanta, in the space of 18 months. Selling directly to a big Premier League club isn’t always an option, but maximising profit early for young players is the aim.

“We’re in a particular eco-system,” says Jaime Segura, Malmo technical director. “We’re an elite club, the best in Sweden and one of the leading in Scandinavia, but we have to be creative and clubs in the region see more value in young or undervalued players.”

Sarpsborg sold attacker Christopher Bonsu Baah, 18, to Genk for £4.4million just months after snapping him up from Ghana last year. Malmo’s most recent success was the record sale of Hugo Larsson to Eintracht Frankfurt for £7.6m. “In Denmark and Norway, they have been fantastic at this,” Segura says. “These things are happening more often.”

Poland will prioritise youth

There is the potential for a new rule to have an impact on those looking to buy players from Poland.

Currently, teams are fined if they don’t give enough minutes to under-21 players, but the league is considering changing that into an incentive instead. The aim is to help drive down the average age of the league and promote youth development.

“The Polish talent pool is very limited and very pricey and a lot of players go to Italy or other countries abroad before they hit 18,” says Samuel Cardenas, RKS Rakow technical director. “The clubs know if this young guy plays in my first team, they can sell him for £5m.”

Cardenas, at 28, is one of Europe’s youngest technical directors and is all for promoting youth at RKS Rakow. “We’re overhauling the squad. We’re making the team younger because Poland generally is a league of old teams. This is the big shift for us. We’re going to look to have more sellable players, to win the title (again) and to play in Europe every year.”

Ligue 1 will think laterally

Away from the Qatar-driven dominance of PSG, Ligue 1 clubs have to be more creative with recruitment.

“Our priority is to find an interesting player, not famous, give them an opportunity, then sell,” explains Roland Itoua, Lorient’s senior international scout. “We are a family club, that’s our mark, our USP.”

Lorient, like many clubs in Ligue 1, have strong links with African clubs. Although he didn’t come directly from Ivory Coast, Mohamed Bamba is a player the club hopes will bring a benefit both in their fight against relegation and the bottom line.

“He was playing in Austria (with Wolfsberg) and now people say, ‘Who is this player?’,” says Itoua after Bamba scored six in his first nine appearances. “There is a long history with France and Africa and it’s our job to chase (players there).”

(Top photos: Harry Kane, Kaoru Mitoma, Endrick; by Getty Images)



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