Unlike most American sports, the world of soccer
("football" from here on) has a system of transferring players based completely on money. You may have heard of record-breaking transfers such as Luis Figo
's move to Real Madrid
or Zinedine Zidane
's move, also to Real. The sums of money involved in these deals were enormous. (£34M for Figo, £48M for Zidane. This converts to $56.1M and $77M.)
However, the players themselves do not receive this money, but rather the team itself. Players are essentially bought and sold like stocks. Barcelona was able to buy Figo from Sporting Lisbon (a traditional source of young Portuguese talent) before the 1995 season for only £1.4M. Clearly, they made quite a hefty profit on the lad, as they were able to recoup more than £30M on his sale to Real. (Of course, the transfer was a bitter loss for Barça, who are arch-rivals with Real for political and footballing reasons, a topic on which entire books can be written.) The way the system works is that small clubs (such as Sporting) draft local players into their youth team as early as 10 years old. These players are developed through the youth league through to the B team, then reserves, and finally the first team. If a player excels on the first team, a larger club will generally swoop up the starlet because it can offer a lot of money to smaller clubs that are generally strapped for cash. Argentinean football, for example, has provided a host of standout players for large Spanish clubs such as Valencia (who bought Pablo Aimar for £14M from River Plate) and Barcelona (who purchased Javier Saviola for the same price, also from River). In this way, talent is always moving toward the giant clubs of football.
Contracts with individual players are worked out separately, after the transfer fee is decided on between the two clubs. Obviously the transfer falls through if the player is unable to come to terms with the potential new team, or is uninterested in the move.
There are some cases in which players can be "traded," so to speak. Every player is assigned a monetary value by the club, and so a player can act much like cash. In the recent transfer of Ronaldo to Real Madrid (notice a theme in the massive transfers?), for example, Real have agreed to pay roughly £30M to Internazionale, but the Italians have the option of selecting a player (speculated to be Santiago Solari or the out of favor Fernando Morientes) valued at £12M. This, for reasons that should be obvious, is referred to as a player-plus-cash deal. Clubs can also engage in a straight swap if the players are of equal value. The aforementioned Inter and cross-city rivals AC Milan swapped Clarence Seedorf and Francesco Coco in the summer of 2002.
Players can also be used to clear a team of debt. For example, Valencia has been up in arms for quite some time about Lazio of Rome's failure to complete the payment for the £28M transfer of star midfielder Gaizka Mendieta. The financially embattled Lazio have proposed to tranfser the £9M-rated Yugoslavian striker Darko Kovacevic (currently on top form while on loan to Real Sociedad) to Valencia to make up the difference.
Giants such as Real Madrid, Juventus of Turin, Manchester United can afford to sit back and let other clubs develop players and simply swoop them up later. Scouting is becoming increasingly more and more important, especially with incredible talents (such as Hidetoshi Nakata, Shinji Ono, and Cha Doo-Ri) emerging from the Far East. There may yet be a £100M man, if only because large European clubs have raised the stakes when it comes to transfers.