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  • By Alessandro Schiavone

Is London still the place to be for superstars? Kane and Zaha could exacerbate mass exodus

By Alessandro Schiavone

There was a glorious era when some of the world’s most prodigiously talented footballers were stationed in London. Thierry Henry was the reason the whole world looked at Arsenal with envy from 1999 to 2007.


Back then Titi was hailed as the planet’s attacking benchmark alongside Barcelona’s Samuel Eto’o and Milan’s Andriy Shevchenko. And it was just a matter of time before the Cameroonian and Ukrainian juggernauts ended up a mile down the road from Picadilly Circus at Stamford Bridge.


Remarkably, Cesc Fabregas was emerging as one of the finest passers of the ball in the game at Highbury while Chelsea magician Eden Hazard was the only player people would dare name in the same breath as Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. Londoners also prided themselves on calling Patrick Vieira, Robin Van Persie, Dennis Bergkamp, Didier Drogba and Frank Lampard as their locals.


The lure of London was just too irresistible. Who wouldn’t fancy to kick a ball in the Premier League all while living a lavish lifestyle in one of the world’s most popular cities? From eating out in fancy five-star restaurants to shopping at Harrods and hitting the Mayfair nightclubs, all while importantly dodging the limelight in a city with nearly 10 million inhabitants where a highly paid footballer strolling up and down at New Bond Street after the latest designer accessory hit the boutiques was hardly news. Unlike other cities in the world such as Naples, Marseille or Barcelona where players are lionised and worshipped and thus mobbed when they are spotted in town, London offers household footballers the rare chance to go around almost unnoticed. Another pull for players and families.


Yet fast forward to this summer and the landscape has changed. Worryingly London is weekly, and it feels almost daily, losing big-name players. N’Golo Kante, the best defensive midfielder in England’s top-flight since 2015, bit off filthy-rich Al Ittihad’s hand when they tabled an £85.9million-a-year offer. Edouard Mendy, arguably the best African goalkeeper in Premier League history and a decisive factor in Chelsea winning the Champions League two years ago, upped sticks heading to the Middle East three days after his countryman Kalidou Koulibaly was won over by the sheikhs' powers of financial persuasions. And Saudi Pro League’s thirst for the Blues stars may not be sated yet as they eye Romelu Lukaku. The Belgian has his heart set on rejoining Inter on a permanent deal but Al Hilal’s interest could play into Chelsea’s hands, triggering a bidding war for their out-of-favour centre-forward. There’s an acceptance that come what may he too will be consigned to the London history books by September 1.


Ruben Loftus-Cheek didn’t think twice about swapping “The Bridge” with the San Siro in search of regular first-team football when Milan came calling while Mason Mount decided to bring the curtain down on his London adventure when Manchester United knocked on his door. Tottenham’s hero of Amsterdam 2019 Lucas Moura left the club and the UK's most populated city after five years of fluctuating fortunes as has West Ham’s Manuel Lanzini.


Elswhere, Watford's Joao Pedro became a Seagull while it's unlikely that Ismaila Sarr will call Vicarage Road home in two months. Making matters worse, Willian may wave goodbye to Fulham while AC Milan-bound Christian Pulusic and flamboyant Moroccan winger Hakim Ziyech won't start the new season at Chelsea.

Some bullets have been dodged and it could have been even worse had Declan Rice followed Mateo Kovacic to Manchester City and Kai Havertz landed at Bayern Munich’s famous Saebener Strasse. Mikel Arteta’s ambitious Arsenal ensured that London would at least keep hold of the pair.


The worst may be yet to come though as Tottenham’s all-time record goalscorer Harry Kane is heavily linked with a move to Bundesliga supremos Bayern Munich while Wilfried Zaha’s Selhurst Park future is up in the air following the expiration of his deal. The Ivorian posted a cryptic photo of Crystal Palace’s training ground last week, leading some fans to speculate that he was saying his goodbyes to the club after reportedly agreed terms with a hat-trick of clubs in Fenerbahce, Lazio and Al-Nassr.


Last but not least there are also question marks over the future of Hugo Lloris, with the Frenchman hinting that he has grown tired of life at Tottenham and is looking to move to pastures new


All things considered, there's always been a merry-go round of top footballers in and out of the capital in the Premier League era. It began way back with Nicolas Anelka in 1998. The same Henry, Fabregas and Hazard forced through moves to Spain’s La Liga while Modric and Courtois enhanced their careers, reputations and trophy cabinets to wear the heaviest domestic shirt in club football at Real Madrid.


But the difference with the past is that London clubs are no longer entering the conversation when the biggest players move. No Big Smoke side approached Dortmund to sign Bellingham while Arsenal’s apparent interest in Kylian Mbappe could be dismissed as fake rumours just like Todd Boehly plotting a move for Neymar. Chances that the American guru adds Victor Oshimen to the two-time Champions League winners' armoury are fading by the day.


It's not all doom and gloom however as Tottenham snapped up Leicester’s James Maddison, Brentford captured Holland international and SC Freiburg keeper Mark Flekken while Folarin Balogun returns to North London with Arsenal following his 21 goals at Stade ReIms in Ligue 1. But even the youngster's future is in limbo.

That leaves Chelsea’s signing of RB Leipzig’s French international Christopher Nkunku as London’s only transfer business of note from outside thus far until Ajax’s Jurrien Timber trades Amsterdam for London. The Dutch will put pen to paper on a contract with the Gunners in the next days to become the English capital's second marquee arrival from abroad.


Thanks God Arsenal are keeping the London flag flying as almost all of their A-listers are likely to stay put, all while adding a Germany, England and Holland internationals to their promising squad.

Yet if in the past supporters across the capital were licking their lips at the prospect of a gripping two months of summer transfers, the current window is turning out to be a bit of a head scratcher. And things could exacerbate before we know it. If Tottenham and Crystal Palace’s standout players of this millennium are asked to show their passport before going on to complete their next moves, it would be the confirmation of an open secret.


Needless to say the hypothetical departures of Selhurst Park legend Zaha and goal-machine Kane would see London slip futher behind Paris, Manchester and Madrid.


It's an inescapable fact that London is no longer calling and it takes indoctrination rather than persuasion to think otherwise.

And with only one capital club featuring in next season's Champions League, Londoners' best shot at football's aristocracy is when Chelsea, Arsenal, Tottenham, Fulham, Brentford, West Ham and Crystal Palace welcome Pep Guardiola's side in town.


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