- The Washington Times - Friday, June 12, 2009

Another reason to love European football: Owners who really wheel and deal.

Over here, people think Mark Cuban is a maverick and that the Yankees throw money around like sheiks. Over there, Cuban would be as controversial as lint, and some of the teams that throw around enough money to turn the Yankees green with envy really are owned by sheiks _ not to mention a Russian oligarch, an Indian steel czar and the serial headline-making prime minister of Italy.

Over here, big clubs develop some players, draft a few and trade for the rest. Over there, the players that don’t come up through their own system, they simply buy from somewhere else _ a billionaire’s fantasy league stretching around the globe.

So who looks like capitalists now?

“Here’s one way to think about it,” said John Binder, an economist and associate professor at Illinois-Chicago who studies the European game. “If you want a copy machine, you just buy it. You don’t offer somebody two desks and a box of pens for it.

“Unlike American owners, the people who own teams in Europe can buy players, and do.”

Do they ever.

On Thursday, with Spanish construction magnate Florentino Perez back in control of the team, Real Madrid agreed to pay English club Manchester United a record transfer fee of $131 million to bring Portuguese star Cristiano Ronaldo to Spain. Ronaldo, arguably the best player in the world, won’t see much of the fee. And all Real got for its money was the privilege of negotiating a contract with him, likely to be in the neighborhood of six years for upwards of $60 million.

Perez also set the previous record, just three days ago, by buying Brazilian star Kaka from AC Milan for $92 million. No word yet on what he’s likely to want, though reports say he rejected a deal earlier this year from two English clubs rumored to be between $150 million and $200 million.

Now consider that Perez, who doesn’t actually own the club so much as call the shots as its president, has been back in power for 10 days or so. And that Real, despite winning the league title in 2007-08 and finishing second to Barcelona this past year, is on its third coach since last December.

Given how impatient the fans are over there, you must be wondering why Scott Boras hasn’t relocated. The answer is that in Europe, it’s the top clubs who hold the power and make the really big bucks. No soccer player is making close to the $27.5 million salary annually raked in by Alex Rodriguez. But Real Madrid is one of at least a half-dozen European clubs with whom the Yankees would swap balance sheets in a heartbeat.

Perez perfected his shell game during his first stewardship of the club, from 2000-2006. He won election back then by promising to dazzle Real’s 60,000 members with the game’s biggest stars and delivered. He brought in the “galacticos” _ a group that included Zinedine Zidane, Luis Figo, David Beckham, Raul Gonzalez, Roberto Carlos and the other Ronaldo _ by setting record transfer fees one month and breaking them the next.

Perez promised to do it again this time, without naming names. His predecessor courted both Kaka and Ronaldo, and the failure to deliver cost him his job. None of Perez’s potential rivals were able to come up with the $81 million bank guarantee required to become president.

Of course, Perez didn’t use his own money to finance the first wave of “galacticos.” Real sold the real estate below its practice facility to the city of Madrid for a tidy sum to do that (and perhaps it was just coincidence that Perez’ construction company wound up doing some of the development work on the land).

How he plans to pay for this new wave of galacticos is anyone’s guess. One English business group, Weber Shandwick Sport, estimated that Kaka and Ronaldo would bring an additional $175 million a year in revenue, for starters. That suggests maybe U.S. team owners aren’t thinking big enough.

“When we talk about assembling a team of All-Stars, like people here think the Yankees do, we’re still talking about a sport that sells almost entirely to one country,” said Binder, the economist. “But if you’ve got an All-Star team in soccer, you can sell it everywhere around the world.

“That,” he added, “is a whole lot of cash.”


Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org

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