It says much about the financial might of England’s Premier League that West Ham United can loan one of Barcelona’s high-earning first-team players with a view to signing him.
Alex Song was far from an automatic starter at Camp Nou, but he was earning the wages of a first-teamer, wages the London club were satisfied to pay.
In part down to Song’s performances, West Ham are enjoying their best season since 1985/86, when they finished third in England’s old first division.
The combative Song pulls the string of their attack, regularly sees more of the ball and also covers more ground than any other player.
Enjoying their highest league position since September 1999, West Ham are making an unexpected push for a European place.
Song has said that he wants to play Uefa Champions League football, and there is a previously improbable chance that it could happen at Upton Park next term.
Sam Allardyce's side are fourth, and the West Ham manager has ridden out fan dissent from earlier in the year.
Fans are pleading with him to make Song’s loan a permanent deal and, while the 3,000 fans who will travel across London on Friday for the derby at Chelsea know they are underdogs, they are happier to have Song in their team.
“Song calms the game down,” said his Senegalese teammate Cheikhou Kouyate. “To have someone with his experience, who knows how to keep the ball and calm the game, is a bonus for us, particularly for me as I’m learning plenty by his side. It’s good for the team.”
So far, so good. Song is said to be very happy at Upton Park, and a bonus for them is that, while they face losing Diafra Sakho and Kouyate to the African Cup of Nations commitments next month, Song was not picked by Cameroon in their squad, so he will be available for their January run of games.
The move back to London has worked out for Song. The 27-year-old holding midfielder had become a substitute for Sergio Busquets at Barca and, like Yaya Toure before him, knew he could be effective in one of the world’s top leagues rather than sit on the bench.
He made 39 appearances for Barca in two seasons after signing from Arsenal in a £15 million (Dh85.7m) deal in 2012 – a £14m profit for Arsenal, who had signed him from French club Bastia six years earlier.
Arsenal were reluctant vendors. They did not want to sell Cesc Fabregas to Barcelona a year earlier and in 2012 had seen Robin van Persie depart.
With Song, manager Arsene Wenger felt they had invested seven years – he spent his first season on loan in the club’s last season at Highbury – in the player and that his aggressive style was far more suited to the Premier League than the Primera Liga.
They hoped he would repay Wenger’s loyalty before reluctantly letting him move on, as they had done with Fabregas and Van Persie.
With the possibility of a cut from a big deal, Song and his agent thought otherwise.
Song’s arrival underwhelmed Barca fans, but with Busquets’ position secure as the team’s only holding midfielder, Song knew he would not be first choice in his favoured position.
He also brought a physical presence Barca had been lacking since the departures of Toure and Seydou Keita, plus versatility that allowed him to play as a central defender in a team as attacking as Barca.
He did not perform well when he was deployed in defence, leading Spaniard and former Cameroon coach Javier Clemente to describe him as a “much better player in attack than he is defensively”.
Song played in 20 league games in Barca’s title-winning 2012/13 season, but by last season he was subject to transfer speculation and became a more regular fixture in the Catalan press for his wacky, lurid clothes than for his performances on the pitch.
Manchester United manager David Moyes was an admirer, while Liverpool made serious inquiries for the player who had made the first of his 47 Cameroon appearances at age 18 in 2005.
He ended up at West Ham, who are enjoying to the full the many benefits he brings to their side, which they hope to experience even more of today at Stamford Bridge.
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