The battle was as bitter and passionate as any Cup final. After a flurry of promises, denials and backroom deals, Spanish football club Real Madrid recently snatched star Portuguese player Luis Filipe Madeira-better known to soccer fans as plain Figo-from its archrival Barcelona, releasing a torrent of wrath from the Barca faithful. Newly elected Barca president Joan Gaspart thundered that the deal was "immoral." But if the accusations of treason and the veiled threats of revenge that followed Figo's defection seemed excessive, they were trifling compared to the price Real Madrid paid for him: a world record $56 million.
In an increasingly commercialized game, it is not only player salaries that are soaring. In Europe's wealthier leagues, particularly in Spain, Italy and England, fees for transfers are also soaring, fueled by clubs flush with broadcasting fees and other revenues. Since 1999, 11 players have moved between clubs for price tags of $23 million or more. Just two weeks before Figo flew the Barca coop, Italian club Lazio forked out $55 million to sister Italian side Parma for Argentine striker Hernan Crespo. AC Milan's reported $60 million offer for Manchester United's David Beckham earlier this month may have been turned down, but two weeks ago the Italian side managed to snap up Real Madrid midfielder Fernando Redondo for $20 million. And Barca-its coffers full from the Figo transfer-paid $32 million in total for Arsenal's Emmanuel Petit and Marc Overmars.
How can such prices be justified?
"A lot of it is what somebody else is willing to pay," says Jason Zillwood, a senior manager at accountants Deloitte & Touche, which publish financial analyses of the English and European leagues. "When you get into the realms of Figo and Crespo you think of a number and multiply by 10." Performance is vital, of course, but players may also be sought for their ability to generate revenue by boosting ticketsales and TV audiences. But paying players high fees doesn't guarantee their loyalty: included in Figo's six-year, $4 million-a-year contract is a $165 million buyout clause-a price calculated to keep most suitors at bay.
Buying proven talent can seem easier than growing it at home. In 1998-1999, English Premier League clubs spent $410 million in player trading, half of it on players from abroad. Such statistics have helped spur the U.K. government into launching a $243 million plan to boost grassroots football.
Still, while locally cultivated talent is cheaper in theory, not everybody gets the equation right all the time. French club Paris Saint-Germain sold home-grown striker Nicolas Anelka to English side Arsenal for about $700,000 three years ago. Now, PSG has brought Anelka home-for $34 million. Getting your own back might be nice, but it can sure be expensive.
-With reporting by Bruce Crumley/Paris, Jane Walker/Madrid and other bureaus