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 By Simon Kuper

Why World Cups are the worst time to buy a player

ESPN FC's Gab Marcotti shares the latest on Cristiano Ronaldo's links to Juventus, including his motives for wanting to leave Madrid.
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MOSCOW -- A great soccer tradition is dying: the tournament transfer.

The way it worked for decades, some obscure player would transfix the world with an unforgettable goal or a few brilliant dribbles at a World Cup or European Championship. Some big club, treating the tournament as a scouting opportunity, would buy him. The signing of a "World Cup star" would delight fans and media. But usually everyone came to regret it.

Take Arsenal's purchase of Danish midfielder John Jensen in July 1992. The month before, he scored a cracking, long-range goal as Denmark upset Germany in the European Championship final. Arsenal's then manager, George Graham, told the media that Jensen was a goal-scoring midfielder.

Except he wasn't. The goal against Germany had been a one-off. Jensen would go years without scoring for Arsenal. His failing eventually turned him into a cult hero: whenever he got the ball, even in his own penalty area, the crowd at Highbury would joyously shout, "Shoot!" By the time Jensen left Arsenal in 1996, he had scored one goal in four years. (Arsenal fans printed T-shirts saying, "I was there when John Jensen scored.")

Graham had foolishly extrapolated from that one famous goal against Germany. A tournament is a tiny sample of games and moments, but because it feels so important, clubs have tended to read too much into it.


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Even Sir Alex Ferguson fell into the trap. He wrote after retiring: "I was always wary of buying players on the back of good tournament performances. I did it at the 1996 European Championship, which prompted me to move for Jordi Cruyff and Karel Poborsky. Both had excellent runs in that tournament but I didn't receive the kind of value their countries did that summer ... sometimes players get themselves motivated and prepared for World Cups and European Championships and after that there can be a levelling off."

Hirving Lozano of Mexico did plenty to boost his reputation at the World Cup.

In fact, the worst time to buy a player is immediately after he has done well at a big tournament. All clubs have seen how good he is, so he is probably overpriced, but also exhausted and quite likely sated with success.

And a tournament is a tiny sample of matches on which to base such an expensive decision. If you watched only this World Cup, you would conclude that Colombia's Juan Cuadrado was better than Lionel Messi. Context also matters. Nacer Chadli shone against Brazil, as part of an excellent Belgian team that he knows intimately. He has rarely looked world-class for Spurs or West Bromwich Albion, though.

Perhaps a World Cup can reveal what a player is capable of. But that fact is not so interesting. What matters is a player's normal performance, week in and week out. A brief tournament in unrepeatable circumstances does not show that. In 2010, after Asamoah Gyan's good World Cup with Ghana, Sunderland paid a club record of £13 million for him. A year later, they let him go to the United Arab Emirates.

Gyan is one of those players -- like Cuadrado, or James Rodriguez, bought by Real Madrid after his excellent World Cup in 2014 -- who plays better for his national team than for clubs. Some men (Romania's great Gheorghe Hagi was a case in point) simply aren't that interested in the daily grind of top-class club soccer.

A player as good as Axel Witsel has avoided it almost entirely. He has never played for a giant club, and moved to the Chinese league aged 27, but has always remained an essential player for Belgium -- the "first name on the team sheet," according to the Red Devils' former manager Marc Wilmots.

Real Madrid president Florentino Perez, left, signed Colombia's James Rodriguez, right, after the 2014 World Cup.
Real Madrid president Florentino Perez, left, signed Colombia's James Rodriguez, right, after the 2014 World Cup.

Yet as recently as four years ago, the tournament transfer was still a phenomenon. Going into the Brazilian World Cup, nobody wanted the Mexican goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa. He had just finished bottom of the French league with Ajaccio. He then played poorly for Mexico in pre-World Cup warm-up games. In a poll by a Mexican newspaper, respondents overwhelmingly wanted his rival Jesus Corona in goal for the World Cup.

But Ochoa played and had four excellent games. He earned a fat contract with Malaga, where he barely played for two years. Loaned out to Granada later, he set a record for the Spanish top division by conceding 82 goals (absolutely not all his fault) and was relegated again. Now he's in the Belgian league, with Standard Liege. He apparently remains Mexico's best goalkeeper, but by now we know his ceiling in club soccer.

Of course, buying a player after a good tournament can sometimes make sense provided his longer-term performances justify it. The Costa Rican keeper Keylor Navas had the best shots-to-saves ratio at the 2014 World Cup. Yet probably more significant was his enduring performance with little Levante in the previous season, when he had the third-best shots-to-saves ratio in Europe's five biggest leagues.

Let's give Real Madrid the benefit of the doubt and assume that they bought him for what he'd done at Levante. Whatever the reason, the transfer paid off.

More dubiously, Costa Rica's run to within a penalty shootout of the semifinal that year seems to have made all players with Costa Rican passports fashionable on the transfer market. The total value of fees for transfers involving Costa Rican players moving internationally rose from $922,000 in 2013 to almost $10 million in 2014, reported FIFA's Transfer Matching System (TMS), the department that oversees international transfers.

Yet the smartest tournament transfers are when a club tries the opposite of the usual approach: Buy a player after a tournament has deflated his price. After the 2014 World Cup, Barcelona paid Liverpool a knockdown fee of £65 million for Luis Suarez, who was suspended for reminding the world of his biting habit. The club was thinking like the famed investor Warren Buffett: Be fearful when others are greedy and greedy when others are fearful.

Four years on, the tournament is having barely any effect on the transfer market. Sure, players who have excelled here in Russia -- France's Benjamin Pavard, Russia's Aleksandr Golovin, or Mexico's Hirving Lozano, to name three -- are sought after by big clubs. But they would probably have been equally in demand without the World Cup.


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Bayern is now chasing Pavard, not because of the World Cup but because of his excellent Bundesliga season with Stuttgart. The German soccer magazine Kicker reports that "everything was arranged" between the clubs after the last league game of the season, which Stuttgart won 4-1 at Bayern.

Because the German transfer window opened only on July 1, just when all players still in the World Cup were not thinking of transfers, the club will have to wait until after the tournament to try to seal the deal. But the Frenchman's unforgettable outside-of-the-foot goal against Argentina is emphatically not why Bayern want him. He would play for the Bavarians (probably only from 2019) in his club position of central defender, not as right-back, where he has been playing for France.

Tournament transfers are dying out because the scouting departments of big clubs keep getting more professional. Clubs have full-time scouts watching even small-time leagues, and software programs crunching new player data every day.

The Argentinian soccer agent Horacio Patanian explains that clubs "know beforehand all the information about players and their abilities, skills, weakness, price in the market, contractual status." Some transfers will still fail, but the risk is now lower. Clubs no longer sign players based on a tournament, just as they no longer sign someone they happened to notice after he had a good game against them for another club.

True, there are still dilettantes. The rich 20-something owner of a lower-division club, watching a World Cup game from his VIP box the other day, pointed at a player and said, "I want to sign him."

"You can't," an adviser replied, "he's talking to Juventus."

That's the point: If you spotted a player at this World Cup, you're too late. Very slowly, soccer is becoming more rational.

Simon Kuper is a contributor to ESPN FC and co-author, with Stefan Szymanski, of Soccernomics.

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