When Atlético Madrid’s transfer ban was upheld by the Court of Arbitration for Sport in June, many thought it would lead to a quiet summer for the Rojiblancos, with no players arriving and very few leaving.
This punishment, for breaching rules relating to the transfer of under-16s, does not preclude Atleti from signing new players, but does stop any new signing from being registered until January 2018. The general feeling was that no player would be willing to sacrifice six months of their short playing career just to join Atlético, particularly in a World Cup year.
Alexandre Lacazette was the first such player to pull out of a move when the ban was announced, despite having verbally agreed a move from Lyon to the Spanish capital. But Lacazette aside, Atlético have been largely undeterred in pursuit of their transfer targets. Perhaps they have been heartened by Barcelona’s ability to secure the signings of Arda Turan and Aleix Vidal two years ago while facing a similar sanction. But unlike Barça, Atlético have cleverly, and somewhat nefariously, taken advantage of a loophole to help them circumvent the ban.
Spain international Vitolo has joined from Sevilla after a protracted and circuitous transfer saga, which saw the winger verbally agree to a new deal at Sevilla before having a late change of heart and paying his own €37.5m release fee (courtesy of a loan from the bank of Atlético). Being released from his contract meant he could sign for Atleti as a free agent, but defer his registration as a player until the ban is lifted next January. This freed him to register at his hometown club Las Palmas on a six-month contract in what is effectively a loan deal, but crucially one that sidesteps the FIFA rule stating that a player must register with a parent club before being sent out on loan.
The deal suits all parties involved (with the obvious exception of Sevilla, who are threatening Vitolo with legal action), as Atlético get their man, Vitolo gets precious La Liga game time and Las Palmas get the temporary use of a top-class player and local hero. Perhaps best of all for Atlético, Vitolo will join them in January with match-sharpness that could not be replicated if he had only been training with the first-team squad.
It has been suggested that Atlético will use this tactic again to sign their other main transfer target this summer – Chelsea outcast Diego Costa. The man himself is very keen on the move back to the Rojiblancos having been told in no uncertain terms that he is not in Antonio Conte’s plans. He has dismissed talk of a lucrative move to China, saying he wishes to stay in Europe to make sure he lands a place in Spain’s World Cup squad. The fact that he was recently pictured wearing an Atlético shirt while on holiday in Brazil provides a clue as to his preferred destination.
But the question is, if he were to return to Atleti, where would he spend the first half of next season? Beşiktaş has been mooted as a likely destination, but reports in Spain suggest that Atleti manager Diego Simeone will be happy to keep him training with the squad without playing until January. Costa himself is unlikely to be happy with kicking his heels, so a Vitolo-esque deal would perhaps be the best solution for all involved including Chelsea, who are desperate to cut him adrift.
There are obvious drawbacks to using this method, though, as Atlético will have discovered from the Vitolo transfer. Firstly, they would have to release Costa from his Chelsea contract, which will not come cheap. Getting the selling club, the buying club, the ‘loaning’ club, the player and his agent to all agree to each stage of the process is easier said than done, and brokering a deal that keeps everyone in the chain satisfied will be difficult when there are so many variables in play.
The nature of the Vitolo deal itself has created a great deal of controversy, and it remains to be seen whether Atleti have the appetite for such a complicated transfer given the difficulties they faced in bringing Vitolo to the Wanda Metropolitano. In light of Costa’s apparent eagerness to join Atlético and desperation to leave Chelsea, they may be better served convincing him to sit out the first few months of the season to push through a deal.
Either way, it seems inevitable that Costa will end up at Atlético in the end. Whether his signing generates the same controversy as Vitolo’s remains to be seen, but one thing is not in doubt – this has been anything but a quiet transfer window for Atleti so far, and with six weeks to go, there’s every chance it could get a lot noisier.