As the years have passed and technology has improved, the likelihood of unknown players emerging out of nowhere to star at a World Cup has radically diminished. The routine use of analytics, “digital scouting” (where video footage is prioritised over the need to see the player in person) and meticulous data available from across the globe means that any national team player who stands out from the age of around 15, no matter where they are from, is typically flagged up immediately.
As a result, when it comes to the transfer market, major tournaments are now merely a setting in which final checks are carried out by clubs looking for confirmation that a player is of the required quality to join them. Running the rule over a player at a World Cup — when the pressure is unlike any other in the quest for the most prestigious trophy of them all — is still useful and watching how a player conducts themselves while representing their country in such a scenario offers scouts and club representatives further insight into their character. But, for the most part, clubs are already fully aware of what they are dealing with.
This year’s World Cup, however, offers a few more challenges than normal. Qatar 2022 starts on Nov. 20 (a week after the European domestic season pauses) and ends on Dec. 18 (a week before the Premier League returns on Dec. 26.) With the monthlong January transfer window opening on the 1st of the month, time will be short for clubs to capitalise on what they have learned from players on the pitch. But with international football taking centre-stage for the next month and no domestic fixtures to get in the way, clubs may also have more breathing space to figure out what they want.
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Facing a World Cup in the middle of the European season will already have caused an impact on the general planning of the campaign — especially in terms of how to gauge and pinpoint the fitness level of the players. It’s almost like having a second preseason thrown at you — though the same could be said about the break suffered at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Most clubs will be treating the upcoming hiatus as an opportunity to take stock and to tweak or get on with carrying out their priorities ahead of the January window.
The “sounding-out” meetings with agents over players not involved in the World Cup are likely to take place a few weeks earlier than normal. With the customary busy November and pre-Christmas fixture schedule out of the way, clubs will be left to base their judgement on previously collected evidence, paving the way for concrete negotiations to take place imminently. As a result, you may see a few more deals agreed in principle ahead of Jan. 1.
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When it comes to the financial aspect, because of the current economic downturn and the global pandemic over recent years, top European clubs have already had to become more flexible and adopt a higher degree of diligence when it comes to new signings. Yet any potential acquisition on the back of an impressive World Cup performance is likely to come at a huge premium, as a player’s transfer fee will rise with every goal, assist, tackle or save (unless their contract is expiring in 2023.)
January is traditionally not a time to spend lots of money, but clubs may well be pushed into signing cover for injuries, fatigue, or simply taking advantage of an opportunity that otherwise might not have presented itself.
For the players, the tournament’s timing provides a novel element which doesn’t usually apply to the ordinary, yearly scouting cycle, so those headline-grabbers have a unique opportunity to put themselves front-and-centre to get noticed by club owners, presidents and bankrollers who will all have their eyes glued to the action in Qatar.
It has happened before, but history provides a warning that things don’t always work out for the best when you base a transfer on World Cup performance. Here are a few examples of past breakout stars, plus a few of the names who clubs are likely to be watching closely at this tournament.
World Cup wonders of the past
James Rodriguez, AM, AS Monaco to Real Madrid, €75m, 2014
Though a rising star thanks to promising campaigns with FC Porto and AS Monaco, the Colombia international midfielder put himself firmly on the map with some awe-inspiring outings at the 2014 World Cup. Not only did Rodriguez win the Golden Boot with six goals — a rare feat for an attacking midfielder, let alone in a team who didn’t make the semifinals — but his spectacular volley on the spin against Uruguay also won him the Puskas Award for the goal of the year. No stranger to signing the hottest young players in the world game, Real Madrid quickly pounced and practically sealed a €75m move before the tournament had finished. While Rodriguez can hardly be labelled an outright flop at Bernabeu — he scored 13 league goals in his first season and won two LaLiga titles and two Champions Leagues — his six-year stay was a shadow of what could have been. Following a loan to Bayern Munich, an unremarkable spell at Everton and a short stint at Qatari side Al-Rayyan, the 31-year-old now plies his trade in Greece with Olympiakos.
El Hadji Diouf, FW, Lens to Liverpool, €15m, 2002
Liverpool boss Gerard Houllier wasted no time in recruiting the Senegal forward following the Africans’ shock defeat of France 1-0 in the opening fixture of the 2002 World Cup. With his trademark dyed hair, Diouf never gave the French defence a rest with his powerful running and skill, and at just 21, it seemed he had all the requirements to become the next big thing. Though he didn’t score during the tournament, he set up three goals and seemed more than comfortable with the eyes of the world on him as Senegal fell to Turkey in the quarterfinals. However, Liverpool and Diouf never proved to be a perfect match and the controversial forward left Anfield for Bolton (initially on loan, then for a third of the €15m Liverpool paid Lens) after three seasons. He went on to forge a respectable Premier League career with 28 goals in 243 games at clubs such as Sunderland, Leeds and Blackburn before retiring at Malaysia’s Sabah FC in 2015.
Gilberto Silva, DM, Atletico-MG to Arsenal, €9m, 2002
Virtually unknown outside of South America at the time, the combative No. 6 midfielder was instrumental in Brazil‘s successful 2002 campaign — he didn’t miss a minute of action — and was snapped up by Arsenal before the celebrations had ended. Known as the Invisible Wall for his tackling and stamina, Silva quickly became as indispensable for his new club as he had proved to be for his country, providing balance and grit to one of the top sides of the Premier League era. After six seasons under Arsene Wenger’s guidance — with more than 250 appearances, a Premier League title and two FA Cups to his name — Silva left for Panathinaikos in the summer of 2008.
Enner Valencia, FW, Pachuca to West Ham, €15m, 2014
A relative unknown at the time, Valencia netted three goals from his first two games for Ecuador at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil and shot to the world’s attention. If his goals weren’t enough, Valencia also impressed with his startling pace, direct running, fancy turns and some spicy unpredictability. Though he had only signed for Liga MX side Pachuca a year earlier from Ecuadorian side Emelec, West Ham swiftly paid €15m to bring Valencia to Upton Park that summer. Though his Premier League stay never delivered what his World Cup performances may have promised, he scored 10 goals in 68 games for West Ham and three in 23 on loan at Everton for a season. Departing for Liga MX’s Tigres in 2017, he bagged 34 goals in 118 games in a three-year spell before moving to Turkey, where he is currently the league’s top scorer at Fenerbahce this season with 12 goals in 11 games. Valencia is a sure starter for his country in this edition too.
2022 World Cup wonders of the future?
Cody Gakpo, 23, FW, PSV/Netherlands
With a dozen elite European clubs already on his trail, including Manchester United, the next few weeks might prove crucial for the future of the PSV winger. Gakpo has already proven himself in the Dutch Eredivisie — he has 36 goals and 39 assists from 105 games — and he looks ready for a step up. Wonderfully gifted on the ball, with end product and defensive contributions to match, the Netherlands forward possesses the fundamentals to become a difference-maker at the highest level. Though his goal scoring may have dried up in recent weeks, the assists and key passes have kept flooding in. If he shines in Qatar, a €60m transfer fee might seem cheap.
Ikoma “Lois” Openda, 22, FW, Lens/Belgium
With just four senior caps to his name, Openda could be a bit of a wild card for Belgium. While there’s fierce competition for a spot in the attacking line, the Lens striker does bring an edge. His hat trick from off the bench against Toulouse two weeks ago in Ligue 1 was not just a sign of his fine form but also suggests he can be used as a “super sub,” and he also scored within seven minutes of his senior national team debut against Poland in June. Openda loves playing on the shoulder of defenders, always threatening the offside line, and he is excellent at finding space in the box. The 22-year-old failed to make an impact after coming through at Club Brugge, but his development over the past year at Vitesse and Lens has been remarkable and he has seven goals from 14 games this season.
Moises Caicedo, 21, DM, Brighton/Ecuador
Usually it’s the attacking flair players that draw the most attention during major tournaments, but can the Ecuador midfielder prove to be this year’s Gilberto Silva? As much as the demand for difference-makers in the final third is seemingly endless, the appetite for an efficient, powerful presence in central midfield is not to be underestimated either. An under-the-radar £4.5m signing by Brighton in January 2021, Caicedo was sent out on loan to Beerschot but returned in January 2022 and was cleverly eased into the rhythm of the Premier League. His week-by-week improvement has not gone unnoticed by the powerhouses of European football. In addition to being tactically disciplined, the industrious Ecuadorian tackles, closes down, intercepts and moves the ball on without much fuss (though he can also pick out a deep run.) A fine run of games in a young Ecuador side could also spark interest from beyond the Premier League, but Brighton are already reported to want £85m for his services.