In a recent interview with Fox Sports, Juventus striker Gonzalo Higuain was asked about the possibility of closing the circle on his career by moving back to River Plate this summer.
He was rather dismissive of such romantic inclinations: “I don’t miss it [the Argentine league], but I like watching it.
“I started young and many players hesitate to come back, especially for the future of their families. The USA, China or Saudi Arabia are preferred.”
Reports from Italy suggest Juve are finding it increasingly difficult to shift Higuain on this summer, just as they did last. Ever since Cristiano Ronaldo landed on Piedmont tarmac in July 2018, the club has desperately tried to rid themselves of the Argentine striker.
Initially they succeeded, sending him on loan to Milan, and later to Chelsea. But both decided he wasn’t worth keeping, and so was returned to sender a year ago. Higuain now seems resolute to stick it out in Turin and leave as a free agent in 12 months despite what Andrea Pirlo may hope.
The main sticking point for any potential interested party is his current €7.5m per season wages, which no team will realistically match for a 32-year-old striker with next-to-little resale value. Higuain, fully realising that he will never get another contract this lucrative, is understandably wanting to stay put, even if his playing time will likely diminish under new coach Andrea Pirlo.
Higuain’s reluctance to leave is impeding on Juve’s summer transfer business, and fans of the club aren’t especially enamoured by this, who somehow believe the player should do the honourable thing by the club and move on to fresher pastures in order to free up funds. Yet this Mexican standoff is entirely of the club’s own making.
Cast your mind back to the summer of 2016. Juve, about to sell Paul Pogba to Manchester United for a world record €105m, wanted to get deals finalised beforehand and so splashed their forthcoming Pogba money on signing Miralem Pjanic and Higuain. Whilst the Pjanic deal at €32m was shrewd considering he was at the peak of his powers and only 26, the move for Higuain was entirely illogical - by a club that at the time didn’t operate in the illogical - and only gets worse with the passing of time.
Higuain had just come off his greatest-ever season as a professional for Napoli, scoring 36 Serie A goals and equalling an 87-year record held by Torino’s Gino Rossetti for the most league goals in a single season. Higuain’s stock couldn’t have been any higher, and so Juve threw down €90m and triggered his buyout clause.
The club somehow convinced themselves that Higuain - months away from turning 29 and a player with a reputation for having a brittle mentality in the biggest games - would be the man to lead them to European glory. If history had taught us anything about Higuain, it was that this was a dubious gamble. And so indeed it bore out: a meagre five goals in 13 knockout games in the Champions League hardly justified the exorbitant outlay. Every one of Higuain’s 66 goals has cost Juve €1.8m, as per a recent report from La Gazzetta dello Sport.
Juventus are hardly the only European heavyweight saddled with ageing, unwanted high-earners in their squad. The Real Madrid-Gareth Bale saga looks set to rumble on for another season, with Bale’s staggering £610,000 per week wages eating a sizeable chuck into the club’s revenue. But again, like Juve, Real’s situation with their most expensive signing is entirely of their own making.
Last summer, Bale was set on a move to CSL side Jiangsu Suning, and was reportedly enticed by the idea of becoming China’s equivalent to David Beckham in America.
It was suggested the Welshman was due to earn an estimated £1m per week for turning his considerable talent eastward. Yet the deal collapsed when the Real Madrid board realised they weren’t getting a transfer fee for a player who still had plenty of value and three years remaining on his contract, and vetoed the deal.
The abrupt about-face left everyone unhappy: Bale was left at a club he no longer wanted to be at, coach Zinedine Zidane was left with a player he didn’t want, and Madrid still had a player on a massive salary that they now couldn’t shift. Bale seems determined to see out the remainder of his two years in the Spanish capital playing golf and pretending to fall asleep during matches, with Los Blancos’ short-sightedness costing them around €30m in basic wages alone.
In February 2018, Arsenal midfielder Mesut Ozil, then 29, signed a bumper new three-year extension with the Gunners, with his wages rising to £350,000 per week, or around £18m per season.
The German international’s form since inking his extension has been nothing short of abysmal: six assists in the Premier League is his telling contribution. For a player who specialises in creating chances for others, it’s not a great return on Arsenal’s investment. Ozil scantly played for Arsenal last season, as he succumbed to injuries and subsequently lost his place in Mikael Arteta’s side, with the probability that he might never win it back.
Arsenal’s decision to keep Ozil at the club was ill conceived, long before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. However it’s only been exacerbated ten-told when viewed through the prism of 2020, especially when one considers their recent decision to lay off 55 members of staff as a cost-cutting measure (as does the decision to sign free agent Willian on £220,000 per week, but that’s for another time). “ I’ll decide when I go, not others,” Ozil declared recently when asked about his future.
The cases of Higuain, Ozil and Bale are similarly being played out across a multitude of clubs at the highest echelons of the game, and it’s telling that their attitudes are comparable: hunker down and entrench your position. There is a realisation that given the COVID-induced difficulties many clubs are now facing, the days of eye-watering salaries are over for all but a rare few. The majority of players that have slipped into the early 30s age bracket can no longer hope for a bumper contract extension, or a lucrative free transfer to China or the MLS.
This is especially true of the CSL, who imposed a salary cap of $3.3m at the beginning of the year for foreign signings, thus ending the years of obscene decadence by Chinese clubs. The Chinese government, recognising that paying extravagant amounts to players such as Graziano Pelle, Hulk and Oscar wasn’t having the desired effect on the Chinese national side, aptly curtailed the gold rush, thus closing another bargaining chip for players. This has left the Middle East as the only potential destination for past-their-prime players looking for one last payday.
Much like the global economy, football – that for years seemed to operate in its own impenetrable bubble - will take years to recover from the pandemic. In a recent interview with Spanish newspaper Mundo Deportivo, Barcelona President Josep Bartomeu highlighted the issues affecting every club: “We haven’t received a single euro since March 14. We’ve missed out on €200m, €200m!” Perhaps there is no better chance than now to hit the reset button, for the game as a whole to reflect on the volatile financial model that props the sport up, and the hyper inflated wages that strangle even the biggest clubs.
Higuain, Bale and Ozil are perhaps the embodiment of that hyperinflation, that largesse. It must also be noted that as much as we can pour scorn on the trio’s refusal to switch clubs in a bid for more playing time, the clubs are ultimately where the problems start and finish: nobody forced them into their current predicaments.
In the present COVID-influenced landscape, the gold-plated gravy train in which footballers are sitting in is careering around the final corner of its journey. And when they disembark and survey their surroundings, they’ll recognise that they never had it so good.