Friday, 13 July 2012

Zlatan and Thiago Silva – What does it mean?

Every so often a transfer comes along which changes the landscape of football fundamentally. Johan Cruyff’s 1973 move to Barcelona, Diego Maradona’s switch to Napoli, and Luis Figo’s world record transfer to Real Madrid all represented a paradigm shift in football’s history. They marked either a clear break in an existing dynasty or the commencement of a new one. The proposed sale of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva from Milan to Paris Saint-Germain may just be another example.

On the face of it the transfer doesn’t appear to be in the league of those three. For starters, all were for world record transfer fees at the time, while the Milan duo seem set to move for €65m (roughly £52m), a sum dwarfed by not only Cristiano Ronaldo’s switch to Real Madrid but also Zinedine Zidane’s departure from Juventus to join the same club. In addition Milan’s recent performance, while demonstrating a consistency in the league that was sorely lacking under Carlo Ancelotti, have hardly looked like one of the game’s great teams. PSG are themselves facing an altogether greater challenge in seeking to join Europe’s top table.

For Milan the transfer represents a quite bizarre piece of business. The club were all set to sell Thiago Silva alone to PSG for €47m just weeks ago, before a dramatic U-turn saw the Brazilian centre-back sign an improved  long term deal. To now add Ibrahimovic into the bargain for just €18m seems to represent a fire-sale. The Swede joined the rossoneri for a knock-down price of €24m just two years ago, and has only enhanced his reputation following a difficult first season at Barcelona. To now accept a loss of €6m on a player who led Serie A in scoring this season would be nonsensical.

The club are of course already undergoing a dramatic overhaul with Alessandro Nesta, Clarence Seedorf, Gennaro Gattuso, Filippo  Inzaghi and Mark Van Bommel among those who have left the San Siro. While those five all had their best years behind them Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva are the heart and soul of the current team. Both players were outstanding in the last two seasons and proved instrumental in carrying Milan’s Scudetto challenge. The club have presented the transfers as a simple cost cutting exercise, but how costly would it be for Milan to miss out on the Champions League next season?

Replacements have been touted such as the vastly talented Dede of Vasco da Gama for Thiago Silva, and Carlos Tevez or Edin Dzeko for Ibrahimovic, but these should surely be signings to improve the existing play staff, rather than expecting them to fill in the gaps. The club pushed Juventus all the way last year, but would have been well off the pace without their two stars. With the Old Lady already having recruited Kwadwo Asamoah and Mauricio Isla from Udinese,  and speculation ongoing about the potential acquisition of Robin Van Persie, Milan are playing catch up.

Of course the transfer also has clear meaning for Serie A as a whole. The league which largely enjoyed a strangle hold over European football from the return of the stranieri in 1980 to the end of the 1990s risks being left behind. Already relegated to fourth in the UEFA coefficients, the sale of the league’s two leading foreign stars to France surely risks seeing Italian football fall still further behind that of England and Spain. Of course, this isn’t the first time a major star has decamped from Serie A. In 2001 Zinedine Zidane moved from Juventus to Real Madrid, but it was counter balanced by the arrival of Valencia’s Gaizka Mendieta at Lazio, and was part of an unprecedented transfer merry go round which saw the bianconeri acquire Gianluigi Buffon, Pavel Nedved and Lilian Thuram.

Now the league faces a drain of talent as it seeks to rectify the parlous state of club finances. Inter allowed Samuel Eto’o to depart last year in order to avoid his stratospheric wages and now talk abounds of a move for Wesley Sneijder from Russia’s free spending Anzhi. Italian clubs have struggled in recent years to attract the very top tier of international talent, but if they allow the existing stars to leave it may be impossible to replace them in the future.

Yet while the sale may be grounds for despair in Italy, it doesn’t necessarily mean that fans of French football should be jumping for joy. No club in France has acquired genuinely top class foreign talent since Marseille under Bernard Tapie in the late 1980s and early 1990s. That era saw the arrival of Chris Waddle, Dragan Stoijkovic and Rudi Voller, but it also saw the league lose its competitive edge with L’OM finishing top on five consecutive occasions. Indeed, French football has historically veered between periods of sustained dominance (St Etienne in the 60s and 70s, Marseille in the 90s and Lyon in the 2000s) and remarkable competition in a way that few other leagues have emulated.

The last five seasons have seen five different champions, yet it now seems difficult to imagine anyone stopping PSG. Champions Montpellier have already lost talismanic striker Oliver Giroud to Arsenal, though there is encouraging news over the future of playmaker Younes Behanda and left-back Henri Bedimo. The sale of Eden Hazard by Lille was largely inevitable though they have recruited well with Marvin Martin and Salomon Kalou arriving to witness a new era at the magnificent Grand Stade Lille Metropole. Marseille have already seen coach Didier Deschamps move on to manage the national team and Lyon, previously French football’s great powerhouse, are prepared to let Hugo Lloris go if the right price is achieved. In short, no side looks better placed to resist the Parisian challenge than last year.

For PSG the transfer looks likely to set in stone their domestic dominance, but surely this season’s real test will come in the Champions League. With Ezequiel Lavezzi already added to an impressive squad that includes the likes of Javier Pastore, Nene and Jeremy Menez, the club do not look likely to struggle in attack. Marseille’s 1993 success remains the only time a French club have lifted Europe’s premier trophy, and even that was achieved under the cloud of match fixing allegations which saw that season’s Ligue 1 title stripped from L’OM. If the club can now secure the capture of the game’s finest (along with Mats Hummels) centre-back and a genius such as Ibrahimovic the sky surely is the limit.

Powered by the Qatari royal family’s petrodollars Paris Saint-Germain stand on the brink of history. No French side has ever established itself as an enduring European force, yet with a manager who has already won two Champions League titles and a squad packed with some of the game’s finest talents they have the tools to mount a serious assault on football’s greatest prizes. The addition of Thiago Silva and Zlatan Ibrahimovic would certainly catapult PSG to a new level, the longer term question is what it might do to the domestic game in France.  

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