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Landmark transfers that changed the sporting landscape

Tuesday 25th July 2017
Neymar to Paris Saint-Germain could see Ligue 1 atop the UEFA food chain. Down the years, other landmark transfers have changed their games' sporting landscape.

Late Friday, you were sitting in the office. Maybe you were on the train home. Either way, you couldn't help sneaking peeks at transfer market activity on your smart phone. The rumour mill was dominated by Neymar to PSG gossip. What a laugh. As if any club was going to fork over €200 million for one player. Okay, Lionel Messi. Maybe. Yet, even if a club was willing, how would it circumvent Financial Fair Play? No player worth that much was going anywhere he couldn't compete in the Champions League or for a Ballon d'Or. The whole notion was just ridiculous. The Brazilian to Les-Rouge-et-Bleu was a pipe dream.

Then you woke up on Saturday morning and the ridiculous was threatening to become real. Like a bad trip.
The first order of business was to pinch yourself. You could still be asleep. But no, overnight your reality had completely changed. You began to consider the implications.

It should be immediately obvious all the pressure is on Paris Saint-Germain's ownership. They will be...


Pick your favourite metaphor

putting all their eggs in one basket

shoving all their chips into the pot

betting the farm on a single player

painting themselves into a corner

all of the above

Do Riddles

Barcelona, however, will be alright if the deal goes down. It will still have Messi and Luis Suarez. Oh, and €196 million or so. Barca could pry Paulo Dybala away from Juventus, treat everyone in town, including Espanyol fans, to a Big Mac, and still have around a €100,000 in the kitty. Josep Maria Bartomeu may shed a tear or two at the lost marketing opportunities, but the club will have someone new on their arm in no time. Don't worry about the Catalonians.

Neymar will be fine, too. He'll no longer be standing in Messi's shadow. Unless he completely loses the plot, a la Ronaldinho, he'll be the last person blamed should PSG not translate his acquisition into Champions League success. His teflon charm and talent will open other doors if the relationship doesn't pan out.
French football as a whole stands to benefit, too. In the current UEFA landscape, Paris Saint-Germain is Ligue 1's nucleus. It spends, filling its roster with powerful stars, casting a strong gravitational field. The other French sides are electrons spinning around PSG, recruiting, developing, then selling off young talent, all while trapped in the capital club's orbit. That dynamic could change. Should Les Parisiennes begin bagging Champions League crowns like Real Madrid and Barcelona, interest in Ligue 1 will increase. Revenue will follow. Clubs riding PSG's coattails will gain new resources, allowing them to purchase premium talent as well as develop it. They could become forces in their own right. Ligue 1 could be a truly elite competition.

Neymar signing with Paris Saint-Germain has the potential to significantly alter UEFA's landscape but it won't be the first such landmark deal. Others have occurred in football and other sports.  Here are the most significant:

Alfredo di Stefano > Millionaros

Much has been made over the years regarding how money has changed football. In fact, it has always been there. Only, for the longest time, the club system consolidated profits exclusively among owners.

Change was slow in coming. The Heysel disaster led to seating only at major stadia. It wasn't the first such collapse, however. Clubs had, for decades, resisted installing seats for fear of lost revenue. Then came the Bosman ruling, finally allowing players an appropriate share of the profits their play reaps.

Nearly half a century before those developments, a rebellion occurred in South American football that, for a time, changed its landscape. Tired of poor wages and working conditions, Argentine footballers went on strike in 1949. In Colombia, a professional league not affiliated with FIFA, Di Mayor, didn't require transfer fees, enabling it to pay higher salaries. Its profile exploded when Alfredo di Stefano abandoned River Plate to sign with Millionaros.

The future Real Madrid legend's numbers for the club vary according to who is doing the telling. Some have him making nearly 300 appearances in his four years in Bogota, others closer to 100.  What remains consistent is his roughly 0.9 goals per game with the club, no matter the source. His success also led to him representing Colombia internationally, despite having previously been capped six times by Argentina. Of course, Di Stefano would also feature for Spain, a trifecta no longer possible.

As an independent competition, Di Mayor rivaled top leagues in South America and Europe. In 1953, the club won a tournament at the Santiago Bernabeu celebrating Real Madrid's 50th anniversary. Di Stefano led the way but was then seduced by Los Blancos. Everyone knows he quickly established the Madridistas as Europe's most prolific club. Not so many remember Millionaros brief revolution.

Although their dominance was short, Millionaros and Di Mayor would inspire at least one other independent league to rise and challenge European authority. Di Stefano, meanwhile, was a primary motivation for FIFA to tighten its eligibility rules. As such, his move to Colombia arguably has as much impact on football's history as his eventual signing with Real Madrid.

Babe Ruth > New York Yankees

You know a player has made an unprecedented impact when his surname is forever attached to the ground in which he played. If the team who sold him endures an eight decade curse bearing one of his many nicknames, the deal could qualify as the worst ever made in any competition on any continent. The original Yankee Stadium was famously known as the House That Ruth Built. The Boston Red Sox's 86-year World Series drought was referred to as the Curse of the Bambino.  It all began, in a manner of speaking, over a woman.

In 1918, the Red Sox were World Series Champions with a roster filled with players looking for more money. Ruth was the best. His talent as a pitcher rivaled the game's greatest at the time. If the Cy Young award had existed back then, the Babe would have won it multiple times. Yet, his batting prowess represented infinitely greater value. Hitters play every day. Pitchers during that era appeared every fourth. Prior to George Herman Ruth, a player reaching double digits in home runs was a rarity. The game was about hitting into the gaps and running the bases. In his 16 years with the Yankees, the Sultan of Swat never hit less than 22 homers. Ruth hit more than 40 dingers eleven times. He led the American League 12 times, once in his last season with the Red Sox, as a pitcher.

Ruth's power irrevocably altered baseball. Home runs became, and remain, the currency on which it trades. That Bosox owner Harry Frazee sold him to the Yankees to finance a Broadway play, 'My Lady Friends', flipped the game's balance of power on its head.  The deal was for $100,000 outright, plus another $300,000 loaned against Frazee's deed on the Red Sox historic Fenway Park.

Prior to the transaction, the Red Sox had supplanted the Philadelphia (later Kansas City, now Oakland) Athletics as the American League's dominant club. Ruth's transfer diminished the Boston side and provided the foundation for the Yankees to become baseball's winningest club. The Bronx Bombers would claim seven pennants and four World Series during the Ruth era, then go on to expand those numbers to 40 and 27 respectively. When pitching finally began catching up to hitting in the 1960s, throttling run production like Gollum's fingers around an orc-brat's throat, baseball lowered pitching mounds to give sluggers new life. That is Ruth's legacy.

To add insult to injury, 'My Lady Friends' was a flop, closing after less than six months.

Wayne Gretzky > Los Angeles Kings

In statistical terms, what Babe Ruth did to baseball, Gretzky did to hockey. But, whereas Ruth's power was emulated, future talents nurtured, run-scoring encouraged, and offence heavily promoted, hockey reacted more perversely to the Great One's ability.

Gretzky was involved in nearly two goals per game on average over his 20-year professional career. Read that again, keeping in mind scoring in hockey is only marginally more frequent than in football.  He finished his NHL career with 894 goals, 1,963 assists, and 2,857 points in 1487 games. He surpassed 200 points in four different 82-game seasons. No one else ever has. Only two players have come within 1,000 points of his career total. He is largely responsible for the Edmonton Oilers Stanley Cup dynasty in the mid-to-late 1980s, even though he was gone when they won their fifth in 1990.

Like Harry Frazee, Oilers owner Peter Pocklington was experiencing financial problems. Before the 1988-89 season, then, he dealt Gretzky to the Los Angeles Kings for three players, three draft picks, and $15 million. The Oilers would remain an NHL power for two more seasons, then sink into mediocrity. The Kings would be contenders but make only one Stanley Cup Final, losing in five games to the Montreal Canadiens. After seven-and-a-half years in LA, Gretzky would be traded again to St Louis, where he would finish the 1995-96 season before skating for the New York Rangers in his last three campaigns.

Although he never won another Cup after leaving the Oilers, Gretzky's arrival in California expanded the NHL's market. There had been a short-lived franchise, the California Golden Seals, in the San Francisco Bay area from 1967-76 but the game had never caught on with Americans living in warmer climes. The expansion Atlanta Flames had moved north to Calgary in 1980, after eight years struggling in the sunny south. Gretzky's status as far and away the best player in the game was an instant draw in the league's second largest television market.

His popularity opened the game to new fans. Two years after he joined the Kings, the league awarded a franchise to San Jose. The year after, one was placed in Tampa. Capitalising on the new opportunity, Anaheim and Miami entered the league in the following campaign. Two existing clubs moved south in the '90s. The Minnesota North Stars became the Dallas Stars in 1993 and the Winnipeg Jets moved to Arizona for the 1996-97 season. In 1999, the league gave Atlanta a second chance with the Thrashers but the club eventually followed its predecessors to Canada, relocating to Winnipeg. Las Vegas will join the league in 2017-18. Southern expansion has met with mixed results for the NHL but the league is fully committed to the strategy.

On the other hand, it has thrown Gretzky's on-ice strategy to the lions. Defensive systems are easier to implement. Their requisite graft is more abundant than attacking talent in young prospects. Coaches responded to the Great One by devising stifling, negative tactics. Scoring plummeted during the 1990s. Since, the league has only paid lip service to pundits' cries for more creative play. Compared to the Great One's free-flowing, positive play, if a player or two reach 100 points in the modern era, fans consider themselves lucky.

Gretzky's move to LA created a conflicting legacy. He brought the NHL out into the sun but it ultimately chose to embrace the darkness. The league boldly invaded new territories, trading on the Great One's brilliance, only to build new fortresses and armies to repel his light.

Pele > New York Cosmos

Neymar's move, should it transpire, pales in comparison to his fellow Brazilian's landmark transfer from Santos, in the Campeonato Brasileiro, to the defunct North American Soccer League's flagship franchise. The money surrounding Neymar's alleged deal is astronomical, of course. Still, its impact can't possibly match what Pele did for soccer in the United States. Simply put, French football is already on the map.

Before Pele arrived, the NASL was essentially a semi-professional league. No one knew it existed. Not even Americans. Save for first and second generation immigrants, the game was a foreign novelty beyond their understanding and therefore not warranting their attention.

What Yanks do understand, though, is money. When Pele signed a $2.8 million deal with the club, he became the highest paid athlete in the world. That garnered immediate attention. Ten million people watched Pele's Cosmos debut on television. After providing support in the form of Giorgio Chinaglia, Carlos Alberto, and Franz Beckenbauer, the club began regularly setting attendance records for the sport. It was Millionaros and Di Mayor all over again.

In the end, the NASL flew too high too fast. Unable to attract a regular television deal, league spending far outpaced its income. Bankrupt, it folded in the early eighties. Nevertheless, it had piqued sufficient national interest in the sport that the United States lobbied for and won hosting rights to the 1994 World Cup, a decade later.

From there, Major League Soccer took flight. New franchises in the league are being sold for Neymar type money, International stars such as David Beckham, Andrea Pirlo, David Villa, Kaka, and Bastian Schweinsteiger have graced pitches in MLS. With Landon Donovan retired, Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley, and Tim Howard all approaching the end, new American stars are rising in Europe, including Christian Pulisic, DeAndre Yedlin, Geoff Cameron, and John Brooks.

Soccer is a permanent fixture in the United States, an evolution that would never have occurred had Pele not signed for an anonymous club in a completely unknown league in 1975. Let Neymar compete with that.
Martin Palazzotto

The former editor of World Football Columns, Martin contributes frequently to Stretty News and is the author of the short story collection strange bOUnce. He has appeared in several other blogs which, sadly, have ceased to exist. He is old and likes to bring out defunct. Although football is his primary passion, the geezer enjoys many sports and pop culture forms. Expect them to intrude upon his meanderings for It's Round and It's White.

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