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Football’s Circus: Transfer Deadline Day

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As the clock ticked toward 11 p.m. in London on Monday night, star football players scrambled to hospitals for late-night checkups. Others sat in private jets on the tarmac, waiting for negotiations to end and multi billion-dollar football teams closing multi million-dollar player deals relied on their fax machines.

Radamel Falcao (pictured above with Manchester Unite Assistant Coach Ryan Giggs) was one of those players, securing a last minute deal to the Red Devils from French Ligue 1 club AS Monaco.

This is the twice-a-year circus of transfer deadline day, the final hours of a two-month window when European football clubs can buy and sell as many players as they can afford.

Unlike in Australian sports like Aussie Rules or Rugby, where only a handful of top players hit the free-agent market each year, pretty much any football player is available for the right price—at least in theory—regardless of his contract situation. Once the window shuts, rosters are set until the season’s second window opens in January.

In other words, shopping on deadline day is like running around the toy store on Christmas Eve, except all of the toys have agents.

“You can’t give the impression that you’re as desperate as you actually are,” said Niall Quinn, an ex-player who spent five years as chairman of English club Sunderland.

The closest equivalent in other Australian sports would be trade deadlines or the AFL and NRL drafts, except football doesn’t do trades (stars are bought and sold for fees that can reach nine figures) and the drafts come with guaranteed, predictable news. Your team will definitely do something, for better or worse.

Deadline day makes none of those promises.

Fernando Torres gives the thumbs up as he joined AC Milan on a two-year loan deal.

Fernando Torres gives the thumbs up as he joined AC Milan on a two-year loan.

The transfer window system has been in effect in Europe since the 2002-03 season, when it was introduced to improve team stability. That coincided with an explosion in transfer fees that has continued pretty much unchecked since then. Clubs from Europe’s top five leagues have already spent more than AU$2.25 billion to sign new players this period, according to FIFA. The Premier League alone accounted for about AU$1.5 billion of that.

But before anyone can cash in, there are mountains of paperwork. Completing a single transfer requires more than 20 signatures from clubs, agents, players and lawyers before the stacks of forms can be submitted to the relevant governing bodies.

When Sunderland signed six players on deadline day in 2006, its transfer operation kicked into overdrive. The club rented four extra fax machines and female secretaries wore flat shoes to run between them. It sent cars and drivers to players’ homes before they signed to whisk them to their final medical checkups, Quinn said, although they had to wait a half-mile down the road to comply with interference regulations.

The club also lined up slots at private hospitals to conduct pre-signing checkups—without knowing whose names to give. “We’ll let you know his name when we know,” Quinn told them.

While the clubs scramble, the British sports media spend the day feeding fans’ appetite for transfer news. The day that “the last day of the summer transfer window” grew into the modern hype extravaganza came in 2008, according to Andy Cairns, executive editor at Sky Sports News, a 24-hour sports-news channel in the U.K. Manchester City delivered more drama than anyone thought possible, because the commodity changing hands wasn’t just a player: It was the whole club. A group backed by members of the royal family of Abu Dhabi bought City and pledged to turn it around. Then it blew some $50 million on Brazilian star Robinho.

Not every club enters the final 24 hours with that kind of intrigue. But because of the window’s timing, most European leagues have already kicked off—which gives teams time to start losing or suffer injuries and ratchet up the panic factor.

Arsenal new boy Danny Welbeck following his transfer from Manchester United.

Arsenal new boy Danny Welbeck following his transfer from Manchester United.

“In England, as soon as you have a problem, people want you to buy,” said Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger, who deflected questions about his own potential shopping.

And once you dip into the market, you can only hope the information you’re getting is accurate. For all you know, an agent might only be dangling a player to jack up the price.

“This isn’t a friendly trust,” Quinn said. “This is a horrible trust.”

That is when there is any trust to begin with. In January 2013, striker Peter Odemwingie made the two-hour drive down from Birmingham to London, thinking his deadline-day move from West Bromwich Albion to Queen’s Park Rangers was all but done. When he arrived, he even gave an interview out of his car window to convey his excitement. He referred to QPR as “we.”

But when the deadline came and went, no deal was in place. West Brom said it had no intention of selling him. Odemwingie drove back and had to face his own fans for the rest of the season.

Even without misunderstandings, sometimes the clock just runs out on you. Quinn remembered a time when Sunderland failed to get a deadline-day fax off in time because the telephone lines went down. It took an apologetic explanation from British Telecom, he said, to convince the league to approve the transfer.

The league has tried to simplify things with the introduction of a so-called Deal Sheet, a shorter document that clubs send to the league to confirm a done deal. It can only be used in the final two hours of the window, and clubs must still file the complete paperwork by 1 a.m.

The Premier League points out on its website that while the fax machine “is still there and it does come in very handy,” it now also accepts scans via email. Only once those scans and faxes go through does the whirlwind of speculation, rumor and half-truths around a deal die down—though just for a few days.

“I learned one thing in our job,” Wenger said. “You say nothing categorically.”

© 2014 Wall Street Journal | This article first appeared in the Wall Street Journal on 31 August 2014.

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