Global soccer stars sell to highest bidders

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Tottenham Hotspur's Gareth Bale reacts during their English FA Cup fifth round replay soccer match against Stevenage at White Hart Lane, London. Photograph by Sang Tan/AP Photo

Things are getting crazy in the final days of soccer's summer transfer window, the annual ritual that transforms the global game into a global marketplace.

With the start of the 2013-2014 season about a week away, the fates of two of the world's top players, Liverpool's Luis Suarez and Tottenham's Gareth Bale, are still up in the air. Suarez is an electric talent, a striker with a crazy knack for scoring goals. He is also seriously unstable, as he reminded us just this past spring, when he bit the arm of an opposing player (and not for the first time). Suarez is signed with Liverpool until 2016, but he has decided that he wants to leave ASAP.

Bale, the Premier League's reigning player of the year, has three years left on his deal with Tottenham, but is being pursued by Real Madrid and would like to go now, thank you very much.

For both players, the calculus is simple: They want to play for better clubs. In American sports, players typically only move teams when they become free agents or are traded. But it's routine for soccer clubs to buy the rights to players still under contract with the selling teams.

The problem in the case of Suarez and Bale is that their current teams don't want to let them go -- at least not at the prices they've been offered. Liverpool knows that Paris Saint-Germain paid $84 million for Suarez's Uruguayan countryman, Edinson Cavani, which is about 25 percent more than Arsenal has offered for Suarez. Cavani is no slouch; Suarez is better. (This just in: A British tabloid is reporting that Arsenal is going to raise its offer to about $80 million. We'll see if that changes Liverpool's mind.)

Meanwhile, Real Madrid has reportedly offered close to $150 million for Bale, a transfer-fee record. Tottenham's refusal to let their star go at that price is a bit hard to fathom. In a sport in which everyone is available for the right price -- and an individual can accomplish only so much -- that should be more than enough to offset the departure of just about any player, even one as spectacular as Bale.

What's been especially interesting to watch during all of this is the relationship between Suarez and Liverpool's fans. Suarez hasn't just been outspoken about his desire to leave, even trying to enlist the footballers' union to help him escape from his contract. He has basically called Liverpool a second-rate team. (Can you imagine a professional athlete in the U.S. doing this?) And yet Liverpool's fans continue to cheer him rapturously at the club's open practice sessions. He may be a nut-job, but he's their nut-job.

This is the tribal nature of professional sports in action. But it's also an acknowledgement of how the game is changing all around. Liverpool's supporters are clinging to Suarez -- despite his flaws -- because they know just how good he is. What are their chances of landing -- never mind keeping -- another star of his magnitude? Even if Suarez and Bale start the new season with their old teams, you can bet they won't play out their contracts there. The global marketplace of soccer works just like the rest of the business world: Talent flows to the biggest, richest employers.

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Jonathan Mahler
Jonathan Mahler is a Bloomberg View columnist

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