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An Article By A Fan: Transfer Fees In The SPL

An Article By Bob Wong

Singapore Premier League’s 2021 edition was always going to be a different league, taking into account the widespread impact of Covid-19.

Looking at the other countries where we saw big clubs’ revenues drop drastically due to the lack of fans, many expected this year’s campaign to be a prudent one where clubs would aim to be at least financially sustainable till normalcy resumes.

However, the privately-owned Lion City Sailors made a big splash across the transfer window, spending just over 1.8million euros ($2.9m SGD) for midfielder Diego Lopes from Portugese top-flight Rio Ave.

This news came as a surprise for a couple of reasons, first it was highly unusual to hear a football club spending so much for a player especially in a tough time with covid-19 having an impact on revenue across clubs around the world. Secondly, it was also surprising to see a footballer move from playing in Portugal’s top league to our Singapore Premier League which is quite a drop in standards when you compare the gulf in quality looking at both leagues. Additionally, this move smashed the previous transfer record of $50,000 back in 2018 for local striker Fazrul Nawaz.

All in all, one would conclude that this move by Lion City Sailors was highly unusual when one takes into account the current situation of football and how big the fee was.

Some may think of this move as a positive one considering how LCS was able to attract a player of such high calibre but personally, i can’t help but feel that this move will be a mistake that both LCS and Diego Lopes will come to regret. Here are the reasons why:

First of all, let’s consider why a club would spend so much money on a single player:

  1. Return on investment

Investing in a player with such a huge sum of money, the club naturally would want to see a return on investment from its player. A return on investment could mean two things: a) the said player could propel the club to winning titles and receive prize money back which could cover the investment cost or b) the player performs well enough for another club to come and swoop for the player in which the selling club would demand a higher transfer fee to make a profit.

Titles & Prize money

The first question we must ask ourselves is: Is Diego Lopes good enough to carry LCS?

Winning titles is dependent on the whole team being able to work together and grind results over the course of a full season. LCS appears to be betting on Diego Lopes to be the finishing touch on a team that is well-stacked across all areas to push for all available titles to them.

But will Diego Lopes be enough? Aurelio Vidmar is starting his second season with LCS, his previous season with LCS saw them finish 3rd behind Albriex and Tampines respectively despite having a strong team featuring established internationals like Gabriel Quak, Shahdan Sulaiman and Hassan Sunny. How confident are LCS in believing that an extra attacker with brazilian flair would be enough to break Albirex’s stronghold on the title?

Having watched LCS play thrice so far in this 2021 season, i would say that the issue with LCS is not with their attack but rather their defence, a 3-3 draw with Tampines Rovers and a shock 1-3 loss to Hougang does not spark any confidence in LCS being able to make a strong title push. As Sir Alex Ferguson once said, “Attack wins you matches, Defence wins you titles”, i would thus conclude that Diego Lopes is not the boost that LCS needs to win titles

Selling for Profit

One would be able to argue that for a club to spend so much for a player, the club might also be keeping an eye out for the future whereby the player is able to perform well enough to warrant a higher transfer fee from another club.

Should Diego Lopes perform exceedingly well at LCS, LCS would look to make a profit off him should a richer club come calling. But the question is, how many clubs are there in SEA that would be able to afford a fee higher than the 1.8m euros ($2.9m SGD) that LCS spent on Diego Lopes?

Looking at our closest neighbours around us in Southeast Asia, Johor Darul Ta’zim (Malaysia) and Buriram United (Thailand) are the only clubs that have come close to matching the fee that LCS have paid for Lopes. JDT paid 1.37m euros for striker Diogo back in 2016 while Buriram paid 1.5m euros for striker Maicon recently in 2020. This goes to show that only a handful of clubs are able to pay over 1m euros for players in SEA and that any chance of LCS making a profit off Diego Lopes from a club around SEA is even slimmer.

For LCS to bet on making a profit off Lopes, they are betting that Lopes performs at the highest standard consistently and is the catalyst in sparking strong runs in both League and Cup competitions. Is Lopes capable of doing this over an entire season? He may have looked promising in his first run out for LCS but lets not forget that Jermaine Pennant also had the same promising impact when he first started playing for Tampines before peetering out at the end of the season.

There is that every chance that Lopes does not have the desired impact that LCS hopes he can make which would lead to the worst scenario that Lopes leaves on a free upon the expiry of his contract, meaning that LCS effectively wrote off 1.8m euros from their books for nothing.

To sum it up, the return on investment for LCS on the exorbitant amount of money they have spent on Lopes requires alot of effort and pressure on Lopes to perform exceedingly well for them. Can Diego Lopes do it? Only time will tell.

  1. To create an unfair advantage over the rest of the clubs

LCS is the only privately owned club in the SPL now, with the rest of the clubs relying on FAS to support its operations. Being the only privately owned club now, LCS is able to rely on their investors pumping in money to strengthen its team at a more consistent rate than others.

With the ability to now match transfer fee valuations, they are also in a position to match wages at levels that the other SPL clubs are simply not able to compete at. This thus creates an advantage in terms of players’ ability for LCS, not only does LCS boast an exceedingly high number of active international players, they are also able to attract top-tier foreign talent in both Lopes and defender Jorge Fellipe.

Moving forward, I expect LCS to not stagnate its growth in becoming a local powerhouse, i predict that they will accelerate their rate of growth within the league by becoming bolder in the market. Assuming that their investors are willing to pump in more money to secure LCS’ long term status as a local football powerhouse, Diego Lopes will not be the only big-money signing that we will see come out of LCS. In the near future, we can expect to see LCS spend more on transfer fees to attract better players and strength its team even further.

With this thought comes the next question: Is LCS’ advantage of being privately-owned being an exceedingly unfair advantage over the other clubs? Having discussed on how LCS’ increased financial strength has an advantage over the fees and wages being offered, does this mean that in the coming future, we will see better players from other clubs move to LCS on the basis that LCS is simply able to offer more?

If LCS adopts a strategy of being able to buy better foreign players and combine it with the strategy of picking off the better players from the other clubs, this would create a situation whereby only LCS is strengthening itself while the other clubs are progressively getting weaker.

Therefore, i would conclude this point by saying that this big transfer move from LCS is only the start for them. Regardless of the whatever impact Lopes is able to make at the club, this big money move is a starting statement for LCS to embark on its journey to being a football powerhouse by simply being richer than the rest.

My Thoughts

Having discussed about the possible risks and benefits that this move would have on the LCS, I have come to conclude that LCS would eventually come to regret a move of this magnitude.

Earlier in this article, i have concluded that the only way that Lopes turns out to be a good signing for LCS is that Lopes is able to a) propel them to titles and prize money or b) perform well enough to warrant a bigger transfer fee from another club. Which leads me to my next question

Is the Singapore Premier League the correct environment to pull off such a move?

My opinion is that when you compare the standard that our SPL is playing at right now with the long term planning that LCS is trying to make, it just isn’t what both the SPL and LCS needs right now.

For big money signings to be worth the investment, a) the player needs to be in a competitive league where he is able to perform well and be noticed by foreigh clubs and b) he needs to be in a club that is able to make deep impressions in international tournaments.

For starters, i am of the opinion that our SPL is simply not good enough  for other foreign clubs to use as a barometer if the player is good enough for a higher level of football. If Lopes fails to perform consistently well, other clubs looking to buy him will be thinking ‘This player drops from the Portugese top league to Singapore Premier League and is not the best player there, i doubt he can make it in another league better than Singapore’s one.’ Quite simply put, Lopes will have to be cream of the crop if he wishes to eventually move to a league more competitive than Singapore’s current league.

Additionally, my other point pertaining to international tournaments such as AFC Cup. Another way for players to get noticed is to perform well at regional competitions where clubs of different countries go head to head to be crowned the best team in the region. For Lopes to be noticed, he has to be in a team that can compete against foreign clubs and perform well. To date, Singapore has failed to make a name for itself at these regional tournament with the most notable being Home United making it to the AFC Cup Inter-zonal Semi Finals back in 2018 while most local clubs fail to make it past the group stage.

LCS are participating in this year’s edition of the AFC Champions Cup, we have yet to see if Vidmar is able to put together a deep run in the cup with the squad he has. And if Vidmar is able to do so, is Lopes capable of standing tall against his foreign opponents and bringing LCS to a deep cup run? For a club to spend so much money on a player, i would say that there is considerable pressure to do so.

Conclusion

Let me just start off by saying that i was duly impressed by LCS being able to attract such a high profile signing. It is a testament to LCS’ new look and financial power to be able to make such signings when you think about how our last notable signing was a washed up Jermaine Pennant to Tampines Rovers.

Taking into account the financial impact of Covid-19 has across the leagues around the whole world, it would be unwise to spend such a large sum over a player when it can be argued that clubs should look to financially stabilise itself instead of splurging over marquee signings. LCS is making a bold move in this precarious financial climate and i sincerely hope that their investment will pay off great returns for both the club and the league in terms of achievements and proposal.

And while i am of the opinion that Lopes is not a good signing for the LCS when one thinks about the long term implications of this signings, i feel that this is a positive step for SPL when it comes to exposure to better talent and also signals optimism for other investors to dip their toes into SPL should LCS perform well.

While it is simple to just write Diego Lopes off as a marquee signing to kickstart its journey to being a top club in Singapore Football, i daresay that there is a lot of implications directly related to this multi million dollar signing. With the money attached to his name, all eyes will be on Lopes’ be it from his own teammates and manager or people around the League. He needs to be able to perform well enough to justify his money or LCS will have to eventually write off this massive 1.8m euros sum as money wasted on a marquee signing that couldn’t bring the club to the heights they aimed for.

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