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May 6, 2009

The big money game

It is often said that talk is cheap; but with the end of the European football season in sight and the continent's biggest clubs jostling for position in the transfer market every utterance appears to be accompanied by a hefty price tag.

The current world record transfer fee of £44m, set in 2001 when Real Madrid signed Zinedine Zidane from Juventus, is expected to be smashed this summer and all eyes are on the major contenders to become the games' most expensive player.

Every comment from, or regarding, the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Franck Ribery, David Villa and Kaka have been dissected, interpreted and expanded upon with the start of the summer transfer merry-go-round in mind.

Reports this week made Ribery the favourite to become football's new record breaker as local rivals Manchester United and Manchester City went head to head to sign the Bayern Munich forward, whose recent comments intimated that life isn't all beer and bratwurst at the Bundesliga club.

Embarrassed by Bayern's 5-1 aggregate defeat to Barcelona in the quarter-finals of the Champions League and smarting at a lowly 16th place in the running for the 2008 Ballon d'Or, despite guiding the German club to a domestic double, Ribery started making noises that his talents might be appreciated more elsewhere.

Following Bayern's exit from the Champions League the France international declared that the club needed a "bigger squad" and as long as the team remained as it was then the Bavarians would "have a hard time competing with the best."

These comments were followed last week by claims that Ribery, who is contracted to Bayern until 2011, would only stay with the club if they qualified for next season's Champions League. "It would be surely difficult for me to remain, if this goal is not achieved," Ribery told L'Equipe.

Only Germany's top two teams are guaranteed places in the Champions League and while Bayern, who replaced manager Jurgen Klinsmann with former coach Jupp Heynckes in April, are currently second in the Bundesliga their place in next year's competition is far from assured.

In any case, Bayern's General manager Uli Hoeness has softened his stance on the sale of his prized asset and although earlier in the year he claimed he might "perhaps start to consider selling him at a sum like €150 million" the former Die Roten forward revealed on Monday that he was seeking replacements should Barcelona, City or United stump up enough cash.

Speaking about reports that his club were looking to sign Werder Bremen's Brazilian playmaker Diego as a contingency Hoeness said: "If Ribery departs, it is certainly Diego who we will look to sign." That little admission from the Bayern chief added credibility to the reports that United tabled a record bid of around €70m (£62.5m) to secure the services of Ribery, should Cristiano Ronaldo leave for Real Madrid this summer.

And there's the rub with this whole chain of sales. Somebody needs to be first to sell their assets to get things in motion and if one deal falls through they are all in danger.

Ronaldo has been a £70m-plus target for Real Madrid for at least the past two years but with his manager Alex Ferguson claiming he wouldn't "sell a virus to that mob" and the World Player of the Year himself declaring this week that "I'm no longer thinking of Madrid - that dream is dead" the whole Ronaldo-Ribery-Diego triumvirate is cast into doubt.

Into this market of uncertainty steps first time buyers Manchester City, who have almost limitless cash, do not rely on the sale of other players to fund their foray into the transfer market and seem hell-bent on breaking the world record transfer fee. However, the Citizens have their own troubles. With no established European reputation to trade on and no Champions League football to offer they must throw money at the problem.

A failed £100m bid for AC Milan's Kaka in January showed their intent but like the Brazilian playmaker not all players are in it simply to sign more and more lucrative contracts. Ribery does not appear to be moving for the money; he already earns £134,000 a week at the Allianz Arena and has refused to sign a number of improved deals at Bayern. He is unlikely to end up at Eastlands.

But a few setbacks has not stopped nouveau-riche City from launching more audacious bids, even if they are attempting to be bit more clandestine about their dealings. When Barcelona president Joan Laporta and City Chief Executive Garry Cook were recently pictured at a meeting in London it was to build "relationships" and certainly not to discuss the potential £40million transfer of Samuel Eto'o that had been dominating the headlines.

The Cameroon striker, whose club tried to offload him last summer, later committed to Barca telling Spanish television programme Hora Q: "My future is with Barca. If I wasn't happy here, I would already have told [Laporta]."

City's self-confessed pursuit of "ambitious targets" now looks focused on reviving a cut-price deal for £60 million Valencia striker David Villa. After a first meeting between the two clubs Los Che sporting director Fernando Gomez said: "The president (Vicente Soriano) asked for a significant amount and they didn't agree."

Since then cash strapped Valencia, whose ground is up for sale and reportedly had to use money raised by the fans to pay their players, have admitted that Villa and fellow Spanish international David Silva may have to be sold to balance the books. "The fans know that we will do all we can to keep them here, but we cannot rule anything out because of our financial situation," Gomez said.

To complicate matters galactico mastermind Florentino Perez has confirmed his candidacy for the Real Madrid presidency and has made signing Villa one of the cornerstones of his election campaign. The front page of Tuesday's Marca carried a picture of Villa under the headline "Florentino - sign me". With City and Real due to go head to head Valencia will be expecting a healthy transfer fee, probably a new record, for their Euro 2008 winner.

Perez has also promised to bring Cesc Fabregas and Ronaldo to the Bernabeu if he wins the presidency, as he is expected to do, he will raise the money to fund his transfer spree by selling Real's 'Dutch clan' for approximately €100m.

According to Spanish newspaper AS Arjen Robben, Ruud van Nistelrooy, Royston Drenthe, Rafael van der Vaart, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and Wesley Sneijder will all be shipped out.

Amidst all this posturing and manoeuvring it is difficult to predict what is truth and what are tactics but one thing seems certain: The world record will finally be broken.

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