It may have taken a while, but European champions Barcelona have finally responded to the gauntlet thrown down to them by rivals Real Madrid.
While Los Blancos have added Kaka, Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and others for exorbitant transfer fees this summer, Barca have finally responded with the signing of Inter Milan’s mercurial striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic, as Samuel Eto’o leaves for the San Siro as part of the deal.
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With Barca reported to be paying around $62 million on top of Eto’o for Ibrahimovic’s services, many eyebrows have been raised about the sums involved. But, when the deal is examined closely, it quickly becomes clear that the deal makes absolute sense for all the teams, managers, and players involved.
Until the season kicks off in earnest, everyone will be happy with their end of what is a blockbuster deal.
Ibrahimovic, despite concerns about his temperament on the biggest stage, is undoubtedly one of the finest strikers in world soccer. As powerful in the air as he is imposing on the deck, the Swedish international has struck fear into Serie A defenses since he arrived in Italy with Juventus in 2004.
Since joining Inter in 2006, the former Ajax player has scored 57 goals in 88 league games for the club — an impressive record.
Considering Real’s inflation of the transfer market, Ibrahimovic could reasonably be valued just shy of the $92.5 million that AC Milan demanded from Real for Kaka. Inter seem to believe this, as they were prepared to make their talisman Serie A’s highest paid player (at $15.6 million a year).
While keen on the player, Barcelona couldn’t rationally sanction such a high transfer and wage fee for a player who, at 27 years of age, might hold little resale value.
With Eto’o as a bargaining chip, however, the balance shifted slightly. The Cameroonian international is another of football’s premier hitmen, but at 28 and with only a year left on his contract, was a source of concern for the Barca hierarchy.
Once Manchester City failed in their bid to sign the former Real Madrid player, the Blaugrana board knew that they would have to sell Eto’o this summer, rather than see him leave on a free next summer. Considering his age and contract status, however, his market value could not realistically be considered to be above $14 million.
But by involving Eto’o in the Ibrahimovic deal, Barcelona have effectively managed to knock off around $28.5 million from the transfer fee for a player that might only fetch $14 million on the open market. Not only that, but if Florentino Perez believes that Kaka and Ronaldo’s signings will eventually pay for themselves through higher revenues, then Barcelona can expect a similar boost in shirt sales and advertising fees by signing one of Europe’s most recognizable names.
If, as many outlets are reporting, Alex Hleb’s loan is also part of the deal (conflicting reports suggest the midfielder was actually part of an earlier deal between the two clubs that saw Maxwell head to Spain) then Barca will also be happy to reduce the wage bill slightly, and free up a space in the squad for one of their talented youth products to impress.
The Catalan giants will feel that while they have spent a vast amount of money, they have received great value in return.
Ibrahimovic’s relationship with the powers-that-be at Inter had become increasingly strained over the past season, and with the board becoming more and more frustrated with the club’s inability to make a real impact on the Champions League, president Massimo Moratti was becoming more open to selling a mercurial player who had — much to the Nerazzurri’s anger — developed a habit of going missing in Europe’s biggest games.
When Barcelona came calling, the chance to add Eto’o — a player who, if nothing else, frequently excels when the occasion most demands it — was not something they would pass up easily. Memories of his 36 goals in all competitions last season (including the opener in Rome’s Champions League final), will have been hard to ignore.
Taking Eto’o’s contract situation out of the equation, the 28-year-old would have a transfer value of around $43 million. Believing they have effectively sold Ibrahimovic for nearly $107 million, and signed a player that might have eluded them on the open market, Inter will be delighted.
Getting Alex Hleb on loan as part of the deal is a no-lose situation for the club. The Belarussian has a reputation as a creative force, and the club might be hoping he links up with Eto’o to provide the chances for his illustrious teammate to put away.
If such a plan doesn’t work out, however, then they have lost little and the player can return to a club that no longer wants him. As the Italian club are only paying 30% of the player’s wages for the duration of the loan, it is an inexpensive gamble.
For a net profit of $62 million then, they have lost a proven Serie A performer that has so far failed at the level Inter are most desperate to impress, but managed to acquire a lethal finisher who knows how to win European football’s biggest prize.
With the compensation more than covering their ‘loss,’ Inter will be extremely happy.
The Barcelona manager will be privately relieved to offload what he perceived as a disruptive dressing room presence, even if the incoming player carries a similar reputation.
“I fully understand that people ask why [he wants Eto’o to be sold]. He is a wonderful player. Everyone knows there are no ‘football’ reasons. So why? It is a question of feeling,” Guardiola told a news conference earlier this summer. “I feel that it is the best for the team, for the club. I am very grateful to Samuel, not for this year but for the five years he has spent here.”
Guardiola will be confident that Ibrahimovic will comfortably slot in to Eto’o’s old position as the focal point of Barca’s three-pronged attack, and will be excited to see how the Swede’s impressive attributes — a sublime touch, creative brain, shooting threat from in and outside the box — might add extra dimensions to his team’s 4-3-3 formation.
While the proof will only come once the season kicks off, Guardiola will believe the transfer immediately makes his first team considerably better.
Not involved in the financial side of the club’s operations, the 38-year-old will see this piece of business as the belated culmination of last season’s operation to remove the club’s undesirable influences (Ronaldinho, Deco, now Eto’o), and a timely improvement to a squad already proven to be among Europe’s very best.
The ‘Special One’ might well be delighted at the conclusion of a transfer that not only will swell his transfer budget, but also sees him get a clinical striker as an immediate replacement for a quality player he did not always see eye-to-eye with.
“Only a stupid coach would not be happy to have Samuel Eto’o and only a stupid coach would be happy to lose Ibrahimovic. I am very happy to have Eto’o,” Mourinho told La Gazzetta Dello Sport this week. “For me this is a $142 million deal. Eto’o is worth as much as Ibrahimovic.”
Despite what he might say in public, the Portuguese manager will not be devastated to see Ibrahimovic go, a player with whom he had more than a few run-ins with over the last year. This included a final day on-pitch drama last season, where the striker was forced to play the full 90 minutes despite demanding to be substituted soon after halftime.
Apparently the Swede, along with other members of the squad, had overdone the title celebrations the previous night, but Mourinho felt it necessary to put in his place a player who was increasingly getting too big for his boots.
The former Chelsea manager might be concerned that the team will suffer without Ibra’s presence in domestic games, but will be pretty confident that Eto’o and other summer signing Diego Milito (who had a fine Serie A goalscoring record with Genoa, and scored twice in a pre-season friendly against rivals AC Milan) will more than pick up the slack.
If the money is wisely invested elsewhere — Mourinho has a decent track record of handling large budgets — then he and the rest of the club will undoubtedly feel that the transfer allows the club to go into the new season stronger than they have ever been.
The striker always knew his relationship with the Barcelona management was an uneasy one, and as disappointing as that situation was for him he must have understood that he would leave the club, either this season or at the end of his contract in 2010.
Testing the market as a 29-year-old next summer might have made it difficult for Eto’o to attract an offer from the sort of club he feels fits his ability, especially if he did not have as great a season as in 2008-09.
By moving this summer, even if as a makeweight for another player, he at least finds himself at a club capable of helping him to continue adding trophies to his cabinet. Financially, a raise from his $182,000-a-week wages to a reported $271,000 deal — and the security a five-year deal brings — will also bring a smile.
“I’m very happy to finally have arrived in Milan,” Eto’o said in his first public statement since arriving in Italy. “For me this is a new adventure and I really want to make the very most of everything. My first aim will be to win the Champions League.”
The club might still be a little distance from such a challenge, but having won everything the game has to offer at the Nou Camp and, rightly or wrongly, received very little affection for it, Eto’o might will see this move as the chance for him to not only win further trophies, but also the adoration and praise that he feels he richly deserves.
Never lacking for confidence, Ibrahimovic will be delighted to join the best side in Europe, and arrive on a stage that he feels is befitting of his talent.
“It’s difficult to explain my feelings,” the Swede, who will inherit Eto’o’s No. 9 shirt, said on Monday. “Every player wants to come to Barca, but not everybody can. When I saw Barca were interested in me, I told my manager to sort it out and he’s done a great job. I think any player would want to represent what is the best club in Europe and maybe the world. The best players have to be at Barca and I hope to be one of them.”
Ibrahimovic enjoyed his time at Inter, but as his departure from Juventus after the Calciopoli scandal shows, the Swede has no time for sentiment. Just as he saw Inter’s offer as a chance to keep playing at Italy’s highest level, now he sees Barcelona’s offer as the opportunity to show himself to be the very best in Europe.
While his wage — around $299,000-a-week in Milan — will not rise significantly, Ibrahimovic’s ego will be more than fed by the move itself.
Barcelona is among the handful of clubs that signify the absolute pinnacle of a player’s career, and at only 27, Ibrahimovic has plenty of time to make sure his time in Spain is a very successful one.
An awkward third wheel to the headline-grabbing protagonists, this transfer saga only shows how far Hleb’s star has fallen since Barcelona paid $19 million for his services only last summer.
But after a torrid time at the Nou Camp, the former Arsenal man will be delighted to get the opportunity to resurrect his career with a manager familiar with his ability, in a league that might ultimately suit him slightly better than La Liga.
For now, then, both clubs will be happy with a deal that suits their respective ambitions and needs. But the kick-off to the new season, barely three weeks away, will begin to reveal which side should really be most satisfied with a transfer that looks like to have massive implications for the destination of next season’s Spanish, Italian, and European titles.
Alex Dimond is a columnist forBleacher Report, the open source sports network.