Shopping – the Roman style


By ROB HUGHES

Shopping – the Roman style LONDON: The big Roman clubs, Lazio and Roma, are mired in debt and offering themselves to a Russian buyer, but negotiations are suspended while the Italian fraud investigators pore over football. 

The deployment of 1,000 police officers to raid clubs last week might prove to be another piece of judicial window dressing, after which the teams carry on living beyond their means. 

Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi owns AC Milan, and he described the raids as a step toward a “police state.” Yet, Deputy Prime Minister Gianfranco Fini said on Tuesday: “Football has been sick for sometime. Everyone knows that; and verifying the cleanliness of Italian football is positive, above all for those who are honest.” 

The politicians play on opposite flanks, but the timing hurts because the Italians are temporarily out of the running for foreign talents. 

FIFA, the world governing body, have closed transfer trading until the summer sales. But Chelsea, the club that really does have a Russian backer, has gone through the back door so that he can keep on shopping. 

The London club with a mountain of rubles, sealed on Tuesday the purchase of Arjen Robben, the coveted Dutch left winger, by paying his current club E10mil, or US$12.4mil, up front as part of a E20mil fee. 

Robben is a fine prospect who has scored 17 times for PSV since joining from Groningen for a lot less than E20mil in 2002. He scored the only goal when the Netherlands beat the United States in Amsterdam last month. 

He may not wear Chelsea blue until July, but he passed his medical in London on Monday and agreed terms that will net him E18mil in wages and bonuses over five years. It is not bad business for PSV or for a 20-year-old whose international career has barely begun, and who, barely a month ago, was betrothed to another suitor. 

“My son will not go to Chelsea,” Hans Robben, who is both Arjen's father and agent, was quoted as saying on Jan 25. “Over my dead body will he go there.” 

Robben senior said Abramovich “has no philosophy or structure at the club.” 

“Chelsea just buy expensive players all over Europe and think it will make them a great team,” he added. 

Father and son had been to see Manchester United's training complex. Alex Ferguson, the United manager showed them round and told Robben he would play 40 games for United next season. 

What changed between late January and early March? Winter turned to spring, and the young Robben's fancy turned from Manchester red to Chelsea blue. Money made the difference, not just to the Robben family, but to Harry van Raaij, the PSV president. 

Van Raaij had twice been forced to sell players to Manchester United – and voiced his displeasure at the way his best defender Jaap Staam and finest attacker Ruud van Nistelrooy – were courted by Ferguson before PSV knew anything about it. 

Another apparently crucial change has taken place since January: Peter Kenyon, the chief executive of Manchester United, quit last year to join Abramovich at Chelsea. 

Kenyon's defection was put on hold while he officially served so-called “gardening leave.” He was barred from negotiating for Chelsea until his broken contract from United was legally severed. 

The period ended a month ago, and 30 days later Chelsea signed the player Kenyon's former club scouted and courted. That, as they say, is business. 

Yet there is more. While van Raaij said the switch to Chelsea was a matter of hard currency – Chelsea effectively doubted the United offer – the persuasion came with an altogether more powerful incentive. 

Chelsea is playing the international market at a time when money is drained from the customary wealth pots. Rome's clubs are not alone in admitting that players – and agents – have sucked their coffers dry, but Abramovich, football's new money, is less worried than his rivals about how high the price goes or how safe the returns may prove. 

Abramovich is going to spend, spend, spend until the Champions League crown – and more – is his. 

The first statement Kenyon made when the Manchester gag was removed was that Abramovich is a very ambitious man, and a season without a trophy would be failure. 

The club coach, Claudio Ranieri, as close as it gets to a gentleman in this business, smiled and said this proclamation did not increase the pressure on him.  

But nobody rushed to confirm that Ranieri will still be the coach next season even though, with 15 players brought in from all parts of the globe in the summer, the Roman has done remarkable well to reach second place in the English Premier League and the knock-out round of the Champions League. 

It takes time for so many new stars to gel, and with a squad exceeding 40 it takes an especially pleasant, experienced and maybe even ruthless man-manager to keep them all reasonably content. 

You could be cynical and say Abramovich is paying the bulk of them for idling, but the talk is of a cull in the summer, an off-loading at reduced price of the stars deemed superfluous. 

But the coup that deprived Alex Ferguson of a player he coveted, and showed that Manchester United is no longer the most powerful force in British footballl, has another strand to it. 

While Chelsea kept knocking on van Raaij's door, PSV was among a queue of admirers of the Brazilian starlet Alex. His club, Santos, was asking around E10mil, and Eindhoven can now afford that – subject to Alex passing a medical examination because he has had knee surgery – by passing on the advance payment on Robben. 

So two major transfers take place through the closed trading window of the world game. The clubs say these are deals for next season. PSV dismiss speculation that Alex will be matured in its team for two seasons, and then follow Robben to Chelsea. 

Van Raaij has said that his club, which is sponsored by Philips and challenges Ajax and Feyenoord for Dutch supremacy, is not becoming a nursery or a satellite club for Chelsea. 

Maybe it is, maybe it isn't, but such an arrangement would not be illegal. After all, Kenyon set up a similar arrangement for United with Antwerp in the Belgian league among others. Kenyon is now using what he was taught at United for Chelsea.  

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