The irrelevance of 2009 Cristiano Ronaldo to Gareth Bale’s potential Real Madrid move

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If Gareth Bale moves to Real Madrid, and that’s still a huge if, he’ll crush the world transfer record. But that doesn’t mean he’s the best player in the world, as some’s confounding of the story has depicted. It doesn’t even necessarily mean he’s among the best players in the world. All it means is there’s a rich club that really wants him, and they want him because they think he’d one of the world’s best.

You would think this discussion is unnecessary, yet amid the slacken jaws that have met rumors of Gareth Bale’s fee extending above $123 million (far above, in some reports), a few people have confused that steep price as being a reflection on his best player in the world credentials. I suppose it’s a reasonable assumption considering the last three record-breaking purchases have been for Zinedine Zidane, Kaká, and Cristiano Ronaldo, all Balon d’ Or winners when their transfers set new standards. Zidane moved to Real Madrid from Juventus for just £53 million in 2001. Kaka moved to the Bernabeu from Milan for £56 million in 2009, and later that summer Cristiano Ronaldo joined Los Blancos from Manchester United for £80 million (roughly $122 million).

But beyond the basic economics (supply, demand, inflation, what have you), two things about those purchases should caution against drawing any “world’s best” conclusions from a transfer fee. First, if Kaká was the world’s best in 2009, why did his record fail to last an entire summer, before another game was played? Did Real Madrid re-evaluate Kaká and Ronaldo mid-summer? Secondly, all of these records are set by Real Madrid. Go back to Luis Figo in 2000, and the Merengues have set the world transfer record the last four times it’s been broken. Maybe this record’s as much about Real Madrid’s purchasing as it is a player’s relative value.

But beyond Real Madrid’s behaviors, this is about the market. There’s been a huge influx of money into European soccer since Ronaldo and Kaká moved four years ago, yet there’ve been few transfer targets that have the combination of elite skill, young age, locked in contract and current team’s wherewithal to drive up the price. Add in the negotiating practices of the notorious Mr. Levy (see Carrick, Keane, Berbatov, Modric) and you have a formula to not only break the transfer record but destroy it.

This entire argument has constructed a bit of a strawman, though, as it does seem like a mere incredulous minority feel the world’s best player is the only one who can garner a record fee. Most people are smart enough to grasp basic economic forces. They’re smart enough to have a picture of the market. Still, there’s still a huge undercurrent in this conversation that logically thinks a players fee should directly reflect his value on the field. To them, Bale is just not a world record-breaking player.

In truth, the record-breaker label is meaningless when you’re trying to assess Bale’s value. Instead of using a four-year old reference to a player who wasn’t game’s best when he set the current standard, instead ask what that standard would be if a player like Lionel Messi were put up for sale. Or better yet, if Cristiano Ronaldo were allowed to move. Would the old record be relevant to their prices, given the state of the European market? If you most look a Bale in terms of relative value (instead of the various economic and competitive benefits he’d bring to Real Madrid), you have to develop a hypothesis about Messi and Ronaldo’s corresponding value.

The world transfer record is no more relevant to Bale’s current price than it would be Ronaldo’s. All of these records are set because one team, independent of where some antiquated standard sits, is willing to pay a price for a player. Real Madrid would pay more for Messi, if they had a chance, and they’d probably pay more to acquire Ronaldo, were he playing elsewhere. But just because Bale’s value comes in under those two’s doesn’t mean it couldn’t also come in above standards set in 2009.