This is a stark shift in soccer’s landscape. For decades, the working assumption has been that Real Madrid and Barcelona represent the apex of the sport’s hierarchy: They were its alphas, its final destinations, its mega-predators. That no longer holds true. Real Madrid and Barcelona, for now and for some time to come, no longer sit at the top of the food chain.
That soccer’s whirling rumor industry has not noticed this does not matter, particularly. It is, by its very nature, slightly fantastical. That is part of the fun. Should a whisper ricocheting between click-hungry websites across Europe prove to be grounded in nothing but smoke and air then it does not, really, do any harm*. There may be disappointment at the end — when you expect Mohamed Salah but get Luuk de Jong — but in the meantime, readers enjoy the flight of fancy. The advertisers get eyeballs. The websites get paid.
[*Other than to further undermine trust in the news ecosystem in general, and therefore permit the rise of the deliberately, cynically unreliable and the perniciously fake.]
What is significant, though, is that players — or, more accurately, agents — do not yet seem to have caught on to that fact. The game’s altered tectonics mean that, for a player like Salah, flirting with Marca and AS is no longer much of a bargaining chip. Real Madrid is not an immediate threat to Liverpool, not any more.
That is an important change, and not necessarily a positive one. Players at the Premier League’s top six teams — more or less — are effectively trapped. They will not sell to each other, not easily, as Tottenham proved in refusing Manchester City’s advances for Harry Kane last summer. The only club that can afford to extricate them is, most likely, P.S.G.
Liverpool, Manchester City, Chelsea and Manchester United, in particular, are no longer proving grounds for Real Madrid and Barcelona. In those interviews, Salah twice said that his future was in his club’s hands. It was taken, at the time, as a challenge to Liverpool: to offer him a contract that fulfilled his true value, or else.