Football ‘s Financial Landscape: Clubs’ Transfer Balances Examined

by | Sep 6, 2023 | Football

As transfer fees in football continue to rise, with deals exceeding €100 million becoming commonplace, the financial performance of clubs worldwide is under increasing scrutiny. The CIES Football Observatory has conducted a comprehensive study that sheds light on this matter.

The CIES report focuses on the 100 most active clubs over the past decade in terms of net transfer spending (incomings minus outgoings). Since 2014, Manchester United has stood out as the club with the highest negative balance, but they are not alone from the Premier League, as several others have also struggled to achieve a positive financial outcome.

While Europe, particularly England, has witnessed record-breaking transfer spending almost every year, there have been success stories, particularly among clubs from Portugal and France, who have made astute moves in the transfer market to bolster their financial positions.

It’s important to note that the CIES figures include full fixed transfer fees, add-ons (regardless of whether they’ve been paid), and fees associated with loan deals, including those with an “obligation to sign permanently” clause.

The figures represent estimates that closely reflect reality and are based on official data from FIFA TMS for international transfers, supplemented by research from the CIES Football Observatory. For transfers with undisclosed figures, the estimates have been extrapolated using a statistical model that calculates the value of professional football players.

Here’s an overview of the top performers and underperformers:

Manchester United’s Enormous Negative Balance:
Over the past decade, Manchester United has accumulated the largest negative transfer spending of any top club in world football, with a staggering balance of -€1.4 billion. This reflects the club’s tendency to sign players in high-profile, expensive deals without being able to recoup significant profits from their departures.

For instance, all 10 of United’s most expensive signings in history arrived since 2014, and of the three players who left Old Trafford during this period—Paul Pogba (€105m), Romelu Lukaku (€84m), and Ángel Di María (€75m)—none fetched anywhere near their original transfer fees in resale.

Besides Manchester United, big-spending clubs Chelsea and Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) are the only others in the world to amass net transfer losses exceeding €1 billion over the past decade.

Premier League Dominance:
The Premier League, known as the richest league globally, dominates the top 10 clubs with the biggest negative transfer balances, as per the CIES rankings since 2014.

Seven of the top 10 clubs in these rankings belong to the English Premier League. A significant portion of the 100 clubs on the list (27 in total) also comes from English football, including some Championship sides like Leeds, Leicester City, West Brom, Stoke, Middlesbrough, and Watford, among others.

Beyond the Premier League:
Among non-Premier League clubs featured prominently in the list of net transfer loss leaders, Barcelona ranks 7th (-€633m), significantly behind PSG. AC Milan is the only other non-English club in the top 10, occupying the 9th spot (-€545m).

In comparison, European giants Bayern Munich (18th, -€323m) and Real Madrid (19th, -€325m) fare better in the rankings, although they still fall within the top 20, just ahead of Nottingham Forest (20th, -€310m).

Notable Non-European Club:
Among the 100 clubs analyzed, there is a single non-European club: Saudi Pro League team Al Hilal (13th, -€457m). Most of their net loss (-€362m) was accrued in 2023, following significant deals for players like Neymar (€90m), Kalidou Koulibaly (€23m), Rúben Neves (€60m), and Sergej Milinkovic-Savic (€40m).

Finally, several Portuguese clubs have demonstrated financial efficiency in the transfer market since 2014. Benfica leads the way with a remarkable net spend return of +€764m, followed by Ajax (+€434m) and FC Salzburg (+€422m). Benfica’s success has been propelled by lucrative player departures, such as João Félix (€126m), Enzo Fernández (€121m), Darwin Núñez (€100m), and Rúben Dias (€71.6m).

Additionally, Sporting CP (+€376m) and FC Porto (+€352m) have also excelled in transfer dealings, highlighting the effectiveness of top Portuguese clubs in managing their finances through the transfer market.

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