Nerazzurri go to the front line in war on player power
Background photo: Oscar Federico Bodini, CC BY-SA 2.0
When Neymar forced a transfer from Barcelona to Paris Saint-Germain in August 2017, player power came to the fore in football. Despite claiming €222 million through the sale, the Blaugrana remain bitter about losing the supposed heir to Lionel Messi. The notion of rich athletes dictating terms to even richer chairmen rubs just about everyone the wrong way.
While the Neymar transaction consecrated player power as a legitimate force, a beachhead had already been established in January when West Ham talisman Dmitri Payet's insurrection at the Boleyn Ground culminated in his return to Olympique de Marseille. In that battle, Payet emerged the clear winner. OM paid the Hammers €29.3 million for the winger, not even 15% of Barca's Neymar haul, but West Ham tumbled down the table following Payet's departure, ultimately costing manager Slaven Bilic his job. The club is showing signs of recovery under Manuel Pellegrini, having risen to tenth in the Premier League following the holiday fixtures. Nevertheless, losing the Frenchman cost them two years of progress.
As 2019 begins, many clubs still struggle to control top stars.
After feuding with so many players in his Manchester United squad that an appointment book became necessary, Jose Mourinho took his enmity with Paul Pogba too far. When he left the French star on the bench throughout United's lacklustre defeat to Liverpool, he was sacked. Caretaker manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer reinstated the midfielder to the starting XI. Pogba celebrated his victory in the war of wills with Mourinho by contributing eight goals and five assists in the Portuguese's wake.
Clubs and managers don't always lose these confrontations, however.
Arsenal midfielder Mesut Ozil is a consistent benchwarmer under new Gunners boss Unai Emery. Nor has the player spoken out in the press to protest the situation. Despite undergoing a backroom restructuring with CEO Ivan Gazidis and transfer guru Sven Mislintat both resigning, the Emirates outfit keeps a tight lid on the conflict.
Real Madrid playmaker Isco has gone from being the up-and-coming sensation under Zinedine Zidane at the Santiago Bernabeu to persona non grata in new boss Santiago Solari's squad. Another Real Madrid property, James Rodriguez endures similar treatment from Niko Kovac at Bayern Munich. The Colombian's career comes to a crossroads when his two-year loan concludes in June.
Now the battlefront switches to Serie A. Internazionale suspended their new defensive midfielder for missing training earlier in the season. Belgian Radja Nainggolan enjoys a party and smoke too much for their taste. But Inter's player relations issues rose to a new level this past week when the club stripped striker Mauro Icardi of the captaincy then journeyed to Austria for their Europa League Round of 32 first leg against Rapid Wien without the Argentine.
It hasn't been a happy new year for Icardi who has gone goalless in his last eight matches. The dip in form inconveniences his contract renegotiations as the player eyes moving to a bigger club. Real Madrid is said to be especially interested in the 25-year-old who has developed into a reliable 20-goal scorer in Serie A. His current contract contains a €122 million release clause. Despite Inter's alleged interest in selling the player, removing the clause somehow developed into a sticking point. Talks recently reached an impasse.
Then Icardi's agent told an interviewer that the player wasn't receiving sufficient support from the club or teammates, specifically singling out winger Ivan Perisic. If one player can forgive another's representative angling for a better deal, matters become more complicated when said representative is also her player's wife. Things become hopelessly entangled when Wanda Nara is an outspoken television personality in her own right and the ex-wife of another player whom she dumped shortly after Icardi spent time as their houseguest. Testosterone being what it is in football, Perisic reportedly confronted Icardi. The club sided with the Croatian, took the armband from Icardi, then announced the player made himself unavailable for the match against Rapid Wien.
Unfortunately for Icardi, Inter deal from a position of strength. First, they hold a six-digit release clause on the Argentine that few clubs can afford to meet. He's not going anywhere without their blessing. Second, as long as it appears that Icardi removed himself from the lineup, clubs like Real Madrid who can afford to punch his ticket may have second thoughts about his potential effect on their squad's chemistry. Third, he can't just resolve the entire mess by switching agents. Not unless he's dating a good divorce lawyer on the side. Finally, the club has no shortage of prolific Argentine strikers.
With Icardi not in the squad, manager Luciano Spalletti turned to Lautaro Martinez. Inter signed the 21-year-old from Racing Club de Avallaneda in Argentina this summer. The forward contributed four goals in Serie A and two more in the Coppa d'Italia before netting the lone goal against Rapid Wien to give the Nerazzurri a healthy advantage in the return leg at the Giuseppe de Meazza next week.
If Wanda Nara was searching for a way to spend Valentine's Day with her husband, endangering his career and curtailing his earning power wasn't the way to go about it.
Inter are not entirely free and clear in this mess either. After clashing with Nainggolan, who likened his move to Milan from Rome on Twitter as a descent into hell, and now their [former] captain and talisman, Spalletti and technical director Beppe Marotta may find it difficult to attract top players in future transfer markets. On the one hand, it's inevitable that players and clubs will find themselves with incompatible goals now and then. On the other, when it becomes a pattern for either party, word gets out and people begin to steer clear.