Winds of austerity whip through European football

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Winds of austerity whip through European football

PARIS - Anyone who doubts whether there are any lingering effects of the global economic downturn on the world’s top football teams need only cast a glance at the sleepy state of the current European transfer market.

The astronomical sums of last summer, when Real Madrid broke the world transfer record twice, have given way to caution and prudence as clubs contend with mounting debts and uncertain futures.

Barcelona, the world’s most fashionable club, is currently saddled with a record debt of 442 million euros ($576.8 million, 681.8 billion won) and announced in early July that it had taken out a loan of 155 million euros to ease its cash flow problems. The team began the summer by bringing in Spain striker David Villa from heavily indebted Valencia for around 40 million euros, but that purchase had to be offset by the sales of Yaya Toure and Dmitryo Chygrynskiy and the release of Thierry Henry.

An external audit by Deloitte revealed that the Spanish champions posted a loss of 77.1 million euros last season, its first in seven years, and left the club’s newly installed hierarchy struggling to placate worried supporters.

“The figures presented by the former board don’t reflect the reality,” said Barcelona’s vice president for economic affairs, Javier Faus. “There is a structural problem. The sporting excellence in the last few years has not been reflected in economic excellence.”

Barca’s rival Real appeared to be ushering in a new age of consumption when they brought a wealth of world-class stars including Kaka (65 million euros), Cristiano Ronaldo (93.5 million euros) and Karim Benzema (41 million euros) to the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu last summer. The rebuilding project failed to yield any championships in 2009-10, however, and spending under new coach Jose Mourinho this summer has been conservative by comparison.

In Italy, neither European champions Inter Milan nor neighbors AC Milan has made significant additions to their playing staff, with Juventus the only top Serie A team to have spent above 10 million euros on a player.

German heavyweights Bayern Munich have yet to sign anyone since last year’s double triumph, while the biggest transfer to date in France has been Marseille’s capture of Spanish right-back Cesar Azpilicueta from Osasuna for a fee of 9.5 million euros.

“It’s the economic reality, lots of clubs are suffering,” said Marseille coach Didier Deschamps.

The one team still readily able to flex its financial muscle is Manchester City, which is backed by the vast personal wealth of its owner, Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan.

Since taking over the club in August 2008, the Abu Dhabi royal has invested about 284 million pounds (339 million euros) into the development of the squad in transfer fees alone. The spending has continued in recent weeks, with World Cup stars Toure, Jerome Boateng, Aleksandar Kolarov and David Silva all arriving at Eastlands since the end of last season.

City’s financial might means asking prices for potential signings are liable to soar as soon as their interest becomes public, but coach Roberto Mancini believes their rivals have every reason to be fearful.

“Are they scared? I think so. At the moment only Manchester City is buying players,” he said.

“But that is normal because Manchester City wants to improve and the other teams are just big teams that would like a lot of people. I think all these teams over the years have spent a lot of money - Manchester United, Tottenham, Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool - but now City does.”

The rapid influx of high-profile players into the City squad, despite the team’s failure to qualify for the Champions League, is in stark contrast to the transfer dealings of the club’s competitors. Champions Chelsea has yet to strengthen its squad, while fans of cash-strapped giants Liverpool and United are still waiting for the big-money signing that is traditionally seen as a statement of a club’s intent. United have not spent big since breaking their transfer record to sign Bulgarian forward Dimitar Berbatov.

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