Imagine: you are a man in his early 20s who has never owned a bedside lamp, let alone a home.
You have many girlfriends, but are effectively single. Suddenly you move to a city you have never seen before, where you can afford to buy any house (or houses) you like.
You do not know whether you will stay for nine months or a lifetime.
You will be gawked at every time you drive out of your electric gates.
This is the situation in which many footballers will find themselves when they move clubs in this month's transfer window. How will they cope? How and where do the world's best players live?
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If you charted a footballers' house-price index over time, it would track the growth of sporting television rights.
When I was growing up in a middle-class neighbourhood in the 1970s, a prominent player lived around the corner in a terraced house smaller than ours. Peter Crouch, the former England striker, in his book How to be a Footballer, reminisces about the "generic footballer's house" of the 1980s through the mid-1990s: "Mock Tudor, detached, out beyond the orbital motorway but never into the sticks. Bit of land, swimming pool with concrete paving-stone surrounds, snooker room with corner bar. A large and aggressive dog, a large and aggressive sports car."
From the 1990s, as television money flowed into football, players' housing budgets rose, though initially within limits.
I remember in 2001 talking to a European player who had signed for Chelsea and begun flat-hunting in Kensington and Knightsbridge. "You'll never guess the prices," he marvelled. With a Londoner's practice in these matters, I answered, "A thousand pounds a week." He looked surprised: "Yes, a thousand a week!" I realised then that if London was getting pricey for Chelsea footballers, I should reconsider my own situation. It is partly thanks to him I now live in Paris.
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Often the first house a footballer purchases is in his home town. "Buy stones," the agent Mino Raiola advises his players, some of whom are thinking about nightclubs or restaurants instead. In 2007, Zlatan Ibrahimović, Raiola's Swedish client, bought the nicest house in Malmö for $4.73m — an Italianate thing he used to ogle while jogging past (or sneakily sailing past on the bus) during team runs at Malmö FF. On the wall he hung a giant photograph of his giant feet, which had paid for the whole thing.
A move to a new city is more difficult, especially when it is sudden. The wife of the ex-player who writes under the pseudonym The Secret Footballer recalls sitting at home in their first house when another player knocked at the door. "Have you spoken to TSF?" he asked. She hadn't. "That," she writes, "was when I found out that football works a little differently to other jobs. My boyfriend, as he was then, was on the other side of the country signing a contract with a Championship club. Not so much as a phone call or a text about a career move."
Single teenage émigrés have it even harder. Until about a decade ago, clubs would fork out millions to sign a footballer but then not spend a penny helping him to settle. When Ibrahimović joined Ajax Amsterdam in 2001 aged 19, he found himself alone in a Dutch suburban house with his Hästens bed, 60-inch TV and PlayStation. He felt so lonely that he called a fellow émigré, the Brazilian left-back Maxwell, and slept on a mattress in his house for three weeks.
Even a transfer within one's own country can be disconcerting. When 18-year-old Wayne Rooney moved 35 miles up the motorway from Everton to Manchester United in 2004, the club parked its £26m signing in a hotel room.
"Living in such a place I found horrible," he said later. The only person who did anything to help him find accommodation was a teammate: "Gary Neville tried to persuade me to buy one of his houses. I don't know how many he has, or whether he was boasting or winding me up, but he kept telling me about these properties he had."
Another footballer turned property investor was Liverpool's Robbie Fowler. He and his wife acquired such a large portfolio of buy-to-rent homes around Merseyside that the club's fans used to sing (to the tune of Yellow Submarine) "We all live in a Robbie Fowler home".
But many players are baffled by the housing market. Happily, these days they get more advice from grown-ups, typically their agents or the "player liaison officers" now employed by most big clubs. Raiola fondly mimics his young clients FaceTiming him during a house viewing, holding up their phones and asking, "What do you think?" They have learnt to be cautious in a market where some estate agents (and even, I have heard it said, some unscrupulous player liaison officers) are eager to show young footballers the subsiding mansion with dodgy drains just off the motorway.
Clubs like to steer players to quiet towns near their daily workplace, the training ground. At Manchester City's training ground a few years ago, on a wall just behind reception, I noticed a map of the local area, designed to catch the eyes of passing players. The map highlighted eight recommended wealthy towns and suburbs: not on the list was central Manchester, with its vibrant nightlife.
The 43 professional clubs within 90 miles of Manchester have created what is probably the world's densest footballer habitat. The Cheshire towns of Hale, Wilmslow, Alderley Edge and Knutsford are particular favourites, says Andrew Thorpe, director of residential at Savills Wilmslow, the estate agency.
"Players like to be in an area with similar company, where they've seen teammates buy." In fact, footballers now almost monopolise the local top-end housing market. Tom Burke, who heads north-western lettings for Savills, says family letting budgets in the area peak at about £5,000 a month. A Premier League footballer's budget typically starts at £5,000, says Burke. "There are developers who will build specifically for footballers. At the prices they rent for, they can only rent to footballers."
In a quiet transfer window with few players moving, supply dries up. When a footballer does leave, an incoming player often takes his house. Budget is only occasionally an issue: Burke says that recently a player earning more than £150,000 a week walked away from a deal on a house for which the rent was £20,000 a month because he would not budge from his offer of £18,000.
More typical, was another, highly relaxed negotiation:
Footballer: "How much is it again?"
Burke: "£12,500 a month."
Footballer: "Oh, brilliant! I was paying £18,000 at my last place."
Carlos Tevez, the Argentine forward, is remembered in the north-west of England for paying £30,000 a week in rent, but most footballers today are better advised, especially the older ones who have grown wary of people seeking to take them for a ride. Second-tier players remain budget-constrained: London property prices can deter them from joining clubs such as Millwall or Fulham.
Estate agents are clear about what kind of houses footballers go for. Forget period charm. "The architectural style a lot of them seem to favour is modernist," says Thorpe. "They usually never want anything requiring work. They want something uber-high-spec, what we call 'turnkey.'" He recently sold to a player who bought every bit of furniture in the house. "He turned up on moving day literally with his chef and a suitcase."
Security and privacy are essential, too. Footballers are prone to burglary, given that the whole world knows when they are travelling, and they often keep watches, jewellery and cash at home. Sometimes a club sends its security unit to upgrade the house's alarm systems.
Typically, dining rooms do not get used, five bedrooms will never be touched, the pool will rarely be used.
Stephen Lovelady, head of residential sales at Barton Wyatt, adds that players want "all the toys: cinemas, golf simulators, indoor pools, hot tubs". Crouch highlights the games room: "Even the players with kids can still be found spending their evenings playing Fifa on the PlayStation, beating themselves at pool and winning on fruit machines that can never pay out." Crouch also recalls a teammate who kept "genuine sharks" in his fish tank.
All this is easy to mock, but remember that famous players are prisoners in their own houses. The moment they step outside, they are mobbed with demands for selfies, so the footballer's home becomes his castle. Kylian Mbappé, the French prodigy, lives so reclusively he says when his future children will ask him about his youthful adventures, he won't have had any.
Lionel Messi, the world's best footballer, is a small-town dad. High up in the unremarkable inland Catalan village of Castelldefels, he has bought his neighbour's home and constructed a compound complete with a mini-football field. Palm trees, bougainvillaea and white walls provide privacy. Far from the nightlife of Sitges 20 minutes up the road, Messi ferries his sons to and from school, and pops round to the neighbour (his bosom pal and teammate Luis Suárez) for barbecues, maté drinks and gossip about how their kids have slept.
One place to witness footballers' home lives en masse is La Finca, a gated community west of Madrid that could be in suburban Florida. Many Madrilenian footballers past and present — Cristiano Ronaldo, Antoine Griezmann, Gareth Bale — have inhabited the flat grey modernist mansions behind high fences. Almost nothing moves on the lanes outside except the Vigilancia (private police) cars driving slowly to and fro. It could not be further in spirit from bustling Madrid.
Single footballers can end up rattling around their mansions. Burke says: "They tend to live in about three rooms of these six-bedroom houses. Typically, dining rooms do not get used, five bedrooms will never be touched, the pool will rarely be used. Often, they want the pool for prestige. They want the best house on the market, they take the most expensive house on the market."
Some players fill the space with their entourage. When Memphis Depay moved from PSV Eindhoven to Manchester United in 2015, the Dutch player and his pal Gigi moved into a house owned by Gary Neville's brother, Phil. Others come with family. When the Brazilian Lucas Moura (now at Tottenham) joined Paris St Germain in 2013, he moved with his mother, his girlfriend and his girlfriend's father into a mansion in the chic Parisian suburb of Neuilly, where impeccably dressed old ladies walk tiny dogs down quiet avenues. It was the antithesis of the poor São Paulo neighbourhood of his childhood.
"I have nothing to complain about," Moura told me in his front room, where the only noise was the chatter of local boys waiting on his doorstep for him to emerge.
Lieke Martens, a Dutchwoman who plays for Barcelona, wishes female footballers could afford such company: "I sometimes still feel homesick. Male footballers bring along their whole family, anyone they want. They can create their own home."
For comparison: 88 per cent of players in the Women's Super League in England earned less than £18,000 a year in 2017, with more than half considering quitting for financial reasons, according to a report by the international players' trade union Fifpro in 2017. The average annual salary in the male English Premier League is more than £3m.
Once the footballer is in his mansion, he leaves practicalities to other people. Raiola recalls his client Mario Balotelli phoning him to say that his house was on fire. "Call the fire brigade," suggested Raiola. Some players ring their clubs' player liaison officers to ask why a light is not working. The usual answer: the bulb needs changing. A player who retires and loses his support system can often struggle.
By that time, a new star will have taken over his old home. If he is the house-proud type, he might replace the shark tank with a dance floor.
Hot property: homes for footballers
8th arrondissement penthouse, Paris, €21m
On the Avenue Hoche, between the Arc de Triomphe and Parc Monceau. About 30km to Paris's Charles de Gaulle Airport.
What A four-bedroom, two-bathroom penthouse, with roof terrace and library. Includes use of the pool and concierge from the Le Royal Monceau Hotel.
Why In the centre of Paris. Pavillon Cambon Capucines — where Paris St Germain forward Neymar Jr held his birthday party — is about a mile away.
Who Christie's International Real Estate.
Les Pelouses, Le Vésinet, Paris, €3.8m
Where Located in Le Vésinet, 16.4km north-west of Paris, famed for its tree-lined streets and lakes. It's a 40-minute drive to Charles de Gaulle Airport.
What A five-bedroom townhouse with a pool, fitness room and separate self-contained apartment.
Why The Paris St Germain team train at Camp des Loges, a 15-minute drive from the property. Paris St Germain forward Neymar Jr used to live nearby.
Who Christie's International Real Estate.
Beetham Tower, Deansgate, Manchester, £3.5m
Where In the centre of Manchester. Manchester airport is 30 minutes away by car.
What On the 44th, 45th and 46th floors of a modern tower, this four-bedroom triplex has three terraces, a cinema and five underground parking spaces.
Why A 10-minute walk from celebrity hang-outs the San Carlo and Rosso restaurants. The Etihad Campus — where training and matches happen — is just a 15-minute drive away.
Who Rendall & Rittner.
Ash Lane, Knutsford, Cheshire, £7.5m
Where Part of the Golden Triangle, once home to Rio Ferdinand, Michael Carrick and David Beckham. Manchester airport is 20 minutes away.
What The property has five bedrooms, a gymnasium, swimming pool, steam room, spa, tennis courts, wine cellar, cinema and 25 acres of grounds.
Why Knutsford gives a secluded alternative to central Manchester.
Who Jackson Stops.
How to build a footballer's house
Angus McQuhae was once asked to build a fish-tank wall: the strangest request he ever received. Was it technically demanding? "Not especially," he says.
McQuhae has been building homes for Premier League footballers for about 20 years, reports Nathan Brooker. He is a director at Octagon, a developer specialising in luxury homes, often in the neo-Georgian style favoured by sports stars. His clients have conservative tastes. For footballers — and he has designed homes for Chelsea, Fulham, Spurs and Arsenal players — prices range from £2m to about £10m.
Does sudden extreme wealth lead to extravagant demands? "If they are not grounded themselves, there's usually someone in their circle who is," says McQuhae — usually family, an agent or a club.
A footballer's life is peripatetic. Premier League players can be sold to clubs anywhere in the world during the January transfer window, or in summer between seasons. McQuhae says the perfect time for a player to get involved with the design of a house is not at the start of the build, but about six months before completion. For that reason, Octagon builds homes speculatively — mostly in expensive parts of the London commuter belt — for buyers who want only to choose the finishing touches. "Otherwise they could be waiting two years for the home to be built," says McQuhae. "And who knows where they will be then?"
Written by: Simon Kuper, Rachel Hagan
© Financial Times