Every football transfer season in Europe is an exercise in the irrational – Just ask Gareth Bale – and so pervasive is a herd mindset that it is no place to be looking for economic logic. Sure, player valuations are *supposed* to follow basic theory in terms of how much a team wants to pay for a particular player and which offer a player wishes to take up. But more often than not, football managers, agents and players simply don’t care about them.
One of this summer’s
biggest most irritating sagas has been the selling of Luis Suarez. Numerous rounds of ‘will he, won’t he’ later we are still no closer to figuring out if he’s staying at or leaving Liverpool. The gist of the Suarez deal has been this – the Uruguayan striker apparently had mentioned that he would reconsider staying at Liverpool if the club did not qualify for the Champions League this season. Liverpool didn’t make it to the Champions League and rumors started swirling about a possible move to Real Madrid and then more concrete news about Arsenal making a bid. Of course, during transfer season the line between a rumor and concrete news is as blurred as the Beijing skyline on a particularly smoggy day. Nonetheless Arsenal put in a couple of bids. None of them seemed quite serious because they seemed well below the reserve price Liverpool were willing to pay. Also, Arsenal suddenly wanting to buy a big ticket player like Suarez (who despite recent controversies still remains a top notch, and thus expensive, striking talent) had the same amount of plausibility as someone who walks around with inexpensive clutches suddenly walking into a Louis Vuitton showroom demanding to know the price of that classic handbag displayed by the window inside the humidity controlled chamber.
Predictably fuelled by a media frenzy, the entire saga played out like a soap opera queered further by the fact that Liverpool (actually, the Player’s Association) pointed out that Suarez can’t simply opt for a transfer without permission because his contract did not quite allow this. Clearly, Suarez and his agent’s understanding of Contract Law was at least as limited as the striker’s understanding of the ‘do not bite an opponent on the playing field’ law.
The upshot was and still remains a massive amount of uncertainty over the fate of Luis Suarez. Now, many believe, even if he stays at Anfield, it would be counterproductive for Liverpool because you shouldn’t start a disgruntled player as it wrecks the morale of the team. (Suarez was made to train alone for a while and there was even talk he might apologize to the fans; he hasn’t.)
A Liverpool supporter and Twitter friend Nirav Karani made an interesting point about busting this ‘disgruntled player’ myth. He tweeted: “I think the ‘not keeping unsettled players’ theory is flawed. Players have to perform to maintain their market value.” hashtagging Liverpool and Manchester United. Everyone knows the Wayne Rooney situation at United and has similar theories about whether David Moyes should bother keeping him in the squad.
Nirav’s point draws from the basic issue of ‘agency theory’ and the economics idea of rational players (football or otherwise) always looking to maximize their gains. Agency theory basically says that incentives allow agents (not the player’s agent but the player himself here) to act in the interest of their principals (teams, in this case) thus benefiting both.
So if a Suarez doesn’t get the transfer he wants (he should totally speak to a few IAS officers here in India to understand how *that* feels!) and ends up staying at LIverpool, playing anything less than his usual game would prove to be damaging to the value he can extract from a new contract, say next season, at another club. It is a fair point insofar as the conventional theories go. All players are professionals after all. But football is nothing if not a game that’s deeply embedded with the classic flaws of the human condition that would have made Willie Shakespeare proud. And therein, as the Bard himself would say, lies the rub.
Suarez is known more his petulance than professionalism. And his on field bite is mostly worse than his off field bark about transfers. Could we expect him or even a Wayne Rooney to make cold and calculated decisions about what would maximize their lifetime contract values? It is admittedly a bit difficult to fathom. But the interesting point is that would a manager be willing to stick his neck out, give a pep talk to the player in question in the exact same terms (‘Son, if you still want to be on the market at a fair price next time, do what is expected of you as a professional.’), and include him in the starting eleven? Marquee performers going rogue is nothing new. But, perhaps, as Nirav suggests, the time has come to look at the theory in new light, keeping aside Football’s foibles. If the fans choose to be just a tad less emotional and a tad more pragmatic it would probably result in what management consultants love – a win-win situation.
P.S. : Suarez perhaps has realized the point Nirav made and is meeting the Liverpool manager in the next two days. In that case, I would say ‘Your move, Brendan Rodgers.’