When Bayern Munich signed Javi Martinez from Athletic Bilbao in the summer of 2012, it brought to an end one of the most complicated transfers in recent history. In the words of Bayern chairman Karl-Heinz Rummennigge at the time, Athletic ‘refused to cooperate from the very first day.’
The German club found that utilising a Spanish player’s buyout clause was fiendishly complicated and presented the club and the player with complex tax issues. The Basques refused to accept a fee equal to his buyout (there is no obligation to sell) and insisted that the player himself deposited the money, a unilateral act which in theory takes Bilbao out of the loop.
This had implications for the player, invoking a potential income tax liability, a far greater sum than the VAT that would have been payable had Bilbao accepted the buyout offer from the club. In the end, Martinez accepted a reduction in salary to cover much of that tax but even after the transfer was completed matters were not fully resolved.
A year later, FIFA ordered that Bayern should pay €6m to his former club Osasuna, the club where he was trained. In addition, Bilbao had threatened to sue the German club for the way in which the transfer was handled and the fact that Bayern had conducted a medical and negotiations with the player without authorisation. In summary, it was a mess but Bayern got their man.
Athletic Bilbao are so hostile for a very good reason. With their Basque only recruitment policy and healthy business model, there are no pressures to sell and recruitment of replacement players of a similar quality to one of their stars is almost impossible.
In addition, the club are extremely conscious of their need to be seen to be doing everything within their power to prevent those players leaving, as Fernando Llorente found to his cost after he tried to force a move six months before the expiry of his contract. His club dug their heals in and the Spanish international striker spent the remainder of the season being vilified by the club’s fans for going public with his desire to leave.
The transfer of Ander Herrera to Manchester United is following a similar pattern. Here is what we know.
The story broke in the Spanish press this week that Herrera was set to pay his buyout clause and make the move. It is interesting that it was reported spontaneously first in Spain, suggesting that Bilbao had leaked the information.
On Wednesday, Herrera, his agent and friends went to United’s training ground at Carrington for talks and to be shown around.
On Thursday, Bilbao released a statement saying that they had rejected an offer of €36m (the amount stipulated in the player’s buyout clause). Interestingly they suggested that the bid had been “this week” as opposed to today. This contradictory information has caused confusion and concern that the deal may be falling through. Such worries are understandable after United’s disastrous summer in 2013 and the late, botched attempt to buy Herrera that August.
However, reports from Spain have attempted to clarify the situation. It is thought that United did indeed make a €36m offer, probably early in the week and why not? What is there to lose? Approaching things this way also sends a message to Bilbao that United would rather do things in an open and gentlemanly way. The Basques, as they invariably do, rejected it.
This, and their announcement that the offer had been rejected, allows them to show that they are fighting to retain the player and puts the onus upon Herrera to drive the deal.
It is therefore up to the player to pay the money required to free himself from his contract. Obviously this money will or has come from United. Reports contradict themselves as to whether this has already happened. In doing so, Herrera will open himself up to a potential income tax liability but it has been suggested that he has agreed to forgo a portion of his wages to cover much of that obligation.
Some papers claim that the money has been deposited (and his visit to Manchester would suggest that to be the case) but that there are ‘technical problems’ preventing the Spanish federation from completing the transfer of his registration.
Early reports suggested that this was related to the obligation that the club at which he trained, Osasuna, receive a portion of any transfer fee. Bilbao will expect United to pay this as Bayern ultimately had to with Martinez.
However, Inigo Markinez, the Cadena Ser reporter who broke the original story, is now suggesting that the hold up is a legal technicality which should be resolved in due course.
What is certain is that if United Vice President Ed Woodward gets this incredibly complex deal over the line, he will deserve a lot of credit and much of the damage done to his reputation last summer will be repaired. If he fails, it would be hard to recover from another public humiliation.
For Bilbao, the priority is and has been to demonstrate that they were ultimately helpless as Herrera drives a transfer which they cannot not prevent but are making every effort possible to scupper. Having driven the press narrative from the moment the story broke, image is everything for Bilbao.
We may not like it and Woodward and Herrera may be pulling their hair out, but Athletic are doing what’s best for their club. This is hard to criticise. We would want our own club to do the same.
Herrera, ostracised for a period after his botched transfer last summer, has almost certainly burnt his bridges in Spain now. Ultimately, it is now in the interests of all parties to bring this to a conclusion and as fans we hope that will be as swift as possible.