Welcome to ESPN’s Insider Notebook, featuring contributions from our reporters across the continent. In this edition, Inter Milan face a problem with Mauro Icardi, there’s a top forward available for a knockdown price, and a new league attempts to shake up Mexico‘s established order. PLUS: No more VAR (in the Europa League group stages, at least…)
Icardi could be Inter’s big problem
The cancellation of the Ligue 1 season amid the coronavirus pandemic will hit PSG hard financially and the fear is the club won’t sign Icardi permanently, having agreed to take him on loan last summer.
He began well at PSG, with 17 goals in 19 games in all competitions but since January his return has been a more modest three in 12.
A clause was inserted in the deal that would enable PSG to buy Icardi for €80 million and until recently Inter were confident PSG would make his move permanent.
The Serie A club’s net spend was around €110m last season and if Icardi doesn’t leave it’s not just the €80m windfall that goes up in smoke, it would also saddle them with his hefty €14m-a-season wages.
One source familiar with the situation described Icardi’s return as “blowing a giant hole in Inter’s budget.”
It’s the sort of hole that could only be plugged by selling one of the family jewels: striker Lautaro Martinez or defender Milan Skriniar, though Inter coach Antonio Conte is desperate to keep the pair. — Gab Marcotti
Ribery a rapper’s hero for saving mom during virus
First, the Fiorentina winger was mocked online by French television star Karine Le Marchand, who portrayed him as stupid and illiterate. He is now thinking of suing her.
More importantly, Ribery was labelled a hero by a rapper in Marseille named “Kofs” after the winger stepped in to rescue the musician’s mother amid the coronavirus pandemic.
After the rapper’s mom started showing symptoms of the virus, Ribery paid for a private jet to repatriate her from Algiers to her home in Marseille, as well as paying for her medical treatment.
Marseille-based rapper “Kofs” and Ribery are longtime friends, with the 2013 Champions League winner spending two years at Marseille before moving to Bayern Munich in 2007.
The Frenchman, 37, has also given €50,000 to hospitals in Florence, where he now lives with his family. — Julien Laurens
Arsenal transfer plans shift
Sources have told ESPN that Arsenal regularly scouted the star during 2019 and had even reached out to intermediaries to sound both the club and player out over their interest in a possible transfer.
However, Emery was sacked at the end of November and although Volland continued to be monitored as a possible target during Freddie Ljungberg’s spell as interim boss, the situation changed soon after Mikel Arteta’s appointment on Dec. 20.
Arteta quickly informed head of football Raul Sanllehi and technical director Edu that he had doubts over Volland’s ability and saw other areas of the team as more immediate priorities to strengthen, leading in part to the January arrivals of centre-back Pablo Mari on loan from Flamengo and right-back Cedric Soares from Southampton.
It remains to be seen whether Arsenal revive their interest in Volland — especially if Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang departs this summer — but the 27-year-old will have plenty to prove.
And to add insult to injury, instead of finishing the season at the Emirates, Volland went on to suffer ankle ligament damage in late February, which required an operation and sidelined him for three months. — James Olley
Depay looks to leave and could be a bargain
The Dutch forward is out of contract in June 2021 and he has not responded to any of the offers put on the table by his club, sources have told ESPN.
At 26, the former Manchester United star, who joined Lyon in January 2017 for a fee rising up to £22m, believes he deserves to play for a bigger club. Lyon cannot offer any European football next season either, following the cancellation of the Ligue 1 season on Thursday.
He wanted a move last summer but big clubs didn’t come for him. Now, Lyon risk losing him for free in a year if he doesn’t agree to new terms. They have pushed hard for a new deal with a pay rise (Depay earns around £4.5m gross a year) but have not convinced the player to commit his longer-term future to the club.
Manchester United have a buy-back clause but they have not yet showed an interest in re-signing the forward. They also have a sell-on clause and will earn money from a possible transfer.
It is in Italy where Memphis’ stock is the highest, sources have told ESPN. With only a year left on his deal, Lyon could sell at around £30m — pretty cheap in today’s market for a player who has scored 43 goals in 102 Ligue 1 matches. — Julien Laurens
Could rebel league really shake Mexican football?
These are strange times in Mexican football and not just because Liga MX is suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic. Promotion and relegation between the top two leagues has been put on hold for six years in one of the most important shake-ups in recent times. Then, the second division appears set to be a development league with age limits (probably eight players over the age of 23 per squad). The relationship and potential further integration with Major League Soccer has also been making noise in the Mexican media.
But the upheaval does not end there. A rebel league is in the pipeline, with Mexico legend Carlos Salcido announced as its president. The league is promising to promote Mexican players and to have three divisions with fluid promotion and relegation. All this is due to begin in September, with a TV deal apparently already being negotiated.
Sound too good to be true? Maybe. Sources have told ESPN the feeling is that it’ll be a near miracle for the league to establish itself over the medium and long term.
A source said: “If the league isn’t recognised by the Mexican federation, which there is no way it will be, how is it is going to generate income?”
Others pondered how transfers and registration would work — the league has set up a rival football association — and how the new league is going to be economically stable in these devastating times. Then there’s the issue of where the potential investment might come from at a time Liga MX is trying to crack down on making sure there are no illicit funds bankrolling clubs. The level of play, quality of stadiums and training facilities all came up as other potential issues.
It is a fun idea and could potentially provide employment for players not involved in the system. That could be a good thing. But as a threat to Liga MX and the new-look development second division? We’re not so sure. — Tom Marshall
Even VAR not safe from coronavirus
UEFA are set to shelve plans to introduce VAR from the group stage of next season’s Europa League as a consequence of the impact of the coronavirus, sources have told ESPN.
The system has already been in use at the group stage of the Champions League this season and, having been judged a success, UEFA had taken steps to replicate in the Europa League, which had adopted VAR only from the round of 32 in this season’s competition.
But sources have told ESPN the process of giving VAR the green light in the Europa League is more complex than merely signing it off it at the organisation’s HQ in Nyon, Switzerland.
Every host stadium must pass a UEFA site visit to ensure that VAR can be installed effectively, but with 48 clubs involved in the Europa League group stage, from Iceland in the mid-Atlantic to Kazakhstan in Central Asia, the logistics of travelling to each potential venue are likely to pose an insurmountable challenge for UEFA.
A final decision is expected to be made at UEFA’s Executive Committee meeting on May 27. The meeting was due to be staged in Gdansk, Poland, but it is now set to be held via video conference. — Mark Ogden
Remembering Don Tomas
I visited the Chivas legend Don Tomas Balcazar just after his grandson Javier Hernandez had signed for Manchester United in 2010. In Balcazar’s man-cave football room at the back of his house, decorated with trophies and memorabilia, I found a proud, tough, hard-working man with a sharp sense of humour: a typical Tapatio (person from Guadalajara).
It was a relatively brief encounter, but the wave of tributes for Balcazar since his death last Sunday have highlighted what a character he was and just how much he influenced those around him.
Hernandez didn’t used to believe his grandfather had played for El Tri and had scored against France in the 1954 World Cup.
“You really scored a goal at a World Cup?” Javier asked his grandfather as a child, according to ESPN analyst Hector Huerta, a friend of Balcazar’s.
“I did, son, I scored against France. We levelled with that goal, but the the referee called an unjust penalty against us and the great Raymond Kopa took it well and they defeated us almost in the last minute.”
Balcazar told his grandson that he could only call him by the impolite “tu” in Spanish, as opposed to the more formal and respectful “usted,” when he achieved the same feat, something Hernandez did when he scored past France goalkeeper Hugo Lloris at the 2010 World Cup.
ESPN’s Rafa Ramos highlighted how Balcazar used to joke around with journalists, telling them a player they wanted to interview had just left through a side door of the training centre, when he was still in the dressing room. The journalists would rush off.
Ramos also mentioned Balcazar’s discipline, reminiscing on an episode that summed up part of his personality. Balcazar, who worked at Chivas as a coach and took pride in developing players, warned youngster Sergio Pacheco, that he’d been late to training twice. Close to making the first team, Pacheco’s car broke down one morning soon after his warning. He ran to reach the training complex in time, but Balcazar signalled to him to leave. It was the end of his Chivas career and Pacheco would go on to play for rivals Atlas.
The stories coming out since Sunday have done justice to what a character, inspiration and football-lover Don Tomas was. — Tom Marshall