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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - A year ago this week, the European Champions League breathlessly discovered its semi-finalists.
Tottenham Hotspur reached their historic landmark via rollercoaster, overcoming Manchester City thanks to away goals and the kindness of VAR. Liverpool strolled past Porto. Their great comeback, from 3-0 down to Barcelona, was still to come.
Once Tottenham and Liverpool reached the final, both would reflect on how a single piece of business helped them there.
Spurs had spread their biggest ever windfall, the €100m (Dh401.6m) from the sale of Gareth Bale to Real Madrid in 2013, across a number of signings. Not all of them were successes, but Christian Eriksen certainly was.
Liverpool, meanwhile, had spent heavily to upgrade their defence, notably on Alisson Becker and Virgil Van Dijk.
The costs of those two totems had been offset by the sale of one attacking midfielder, Philippe Coutinho, in early 2018, to Barcelona for a fee that, with add-ons, was worth €160m.
Viewed from a confusing, alarming mid-April 2020, Bale and Coutinho look like relics – from an inflationary era now firmly in the past.
When professional sport retakes the stage after the Covid-19 crisis, the €100m-plus transfer fee will no longer be guaranteed feature of almost every transfer window, as it has been since Coutinho joined Bale and Eden Hazard on the long list of Premier League stars who regard moving Madrid or Barcelona as the next step up.
Right now, Madrid and Barca are busy trying to persuade clubs in England, where the top division enjoys relatively stable wealth, to take Bale and Coutinho away and off their wage bills.
Bale is used to it. Madrid have been pushing him to go for the best part of two years. While acknowledging that he was often a brilliant contributor to the club’s run of four Champions League titles between 2014 and 2018, the contract extension he signed in 2016, committing his employers to a salary of almost €30m a year until 2022, has become a uncomfortable drain on resources.
His club form since he electrified the European Cup win over Liverpool in Kiev two years ago has dropped startlingly. In his last 60 matches, Bale has scored 17 goals and set up 10; in his 189 appearances to the end of 2017/18 he had 88 goals and 58 assists.
Coutinho’s story at Barcelona has no rise and fall to it. Things went downhill fast.
The Brazilian, 27, was being booed by sections of the crowd at Camp Nou well before the first anniversary of his signing; his goal against Liverpool in last season’s see-saw Champions League semi-final last turned out to be his last of an unhappy 18 months in a Barcelona jersey.
Gareth Bale's best moments for Real Madrid
He joined Bayern Munich on loan last summer, Barcelona relieved his wages – around €24m a year – would be covered by the German club, and hopeful the €8.5m loan fee might become the deposit on a permanent transfer.
Little chance of that. Coutinho has had a few dazzling moments at Bayern, but he is not in their long-term plans. And in nobody’s judgement is he a €150m footballer.
With a recession ahead, and sport counting the hundreds of millions in lost revenue during the closedown, a €150m footballer may no longer exist anywhere.
As Karl-Heiz Rummenigge, Bayern’s executive president, told El Pais: “Even those clubs that have money in the bank are not thinking about going shopping. Every one of them is concentrating on how to survive in these mad times, not pushing the limits with big investments.
"I am convinced that the transfer record that Paris Saint-Germain set buying Neymar [for €222m] will not be overtaken for a very very long time.”
Until the lockdown, Barcelona were presenting themselves as candidates to buy Neymar back.
Within two weeks of the pandemic striking Spain, the club were cutting players salaries by 70 per cent, using a Spanish emergency law designed for companies to stave off bankruptcy.
Barca urgently need to sell, with Coutinho top of the 'availables' list. Chelsea are being courted as possible buyers, but Barcelona know that if they can get even half of what they paid Liverpool for him they will be bucking the trend in the next, very lean transfer window, whenever it eventually opens.
As for Bale, Madrid know that any fee they get for him would be almost nominal. He will be 31 in July.
He has stubbornly resisted a transfer, accepting a substitute’s role in the squad, ignoring the advice of his manager, Zinedine Zidane, that he should leave.
The player knows all the leading clubs in England, outside the top two of Liverpool and City, would put a fit Bale straight into their starting XIs.
He also knows none are ready to match his current salary, at least not for the two years he has left on his Madrid deal.
Updated: April 13, 2020 11:08 AM
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