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The End of the Transfer Fee

In soccer, though, a star of Alaba’s caliber running a contract down has always been — if not quite a unicorn — the exception, rather than the rule.

Quite why that pattern has held is open to interpretation. Players tend to sign long-term contracts, and clubs tend to want them to do so. It gives both sides security, after all. The player knows that their earning power is not dependent on a poorly-timed, lightning-strike injury. The club does not have to worry, every couple of years, about being held over a barrel by an agent.

But that is not the only reason. Contract negotiations are rarely, despite appearances, about money; or, rather, they are always about money, just not about money as an end in itself. They are, invariably, about status. A player’s salary is a measure of how much they are appreciated by their club in relation to their teammates, and their peers. The same logic can be applied to the length of their contract. The longer the team will pay you, the more you must mean to it.

The corollary to all of that is, of course, that teams tend not to want players to reach the end of their contracts. As a rule, should a valuable player enter the last 18 months — or two years, in some cases — of a deal and prove reluctant to commit to a new contract, the club will seek to sell. Put crudely, allowing a player to run down their contract is, in effect, ceding the economic initiative to the asset, rather than the investor.

And yet, increasingly, across European soccer, that is precisely what is happening. Alaba, it seems, may have opened the floodgates. At P.S.G., Kylian Mbappé, the standard-bearer for the sport’s first post-Messi, post-Ronaldo generation, has made it so clear that he wants to leave for Real Madrid on a free transfer in six months that he has even written a comic book on the subject. Reports flutter around Europe every few weeks that a deal has even been agreed.

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