Barcelona have offloaded players left, right and centre – including Lionel Messi – and are still shackled by more than £1bn of debt. Where do they go from here?
Some eight senior players have left the Nou Camp amid a fire sale to bring the club’s wage bill towards something vaguely approaching La Liga’s new rules on financial prudence. None of those departures will be felt anywhere near as much as Messi, who even himself did not expect to move on until the morning it was announced.
That the club’s greatest player should depart in this way, in tears at a hastily-called press briefing to justify the club’s decision, speaks volumes for its decline.
Where once stood an institution that redefined modern footballing philosophy under Pep Guardiola, that even with its influence waning was still content to throw £100m+ on each of Ousmane Dembele, Philippe Coutinho and Antoine Griezmann in recent years, now sits a club accused by even its new president of “disastrous mismanagement” under his predecessor, and still scrambling to stay on the right side of crippling financial boundaries.
The returning chief, Joan Laporta, was the man who first employed Guardiola, who oversaw Barcelona’s rise back to the top of European football with Messi leading the way. When he took the presidency again last year, this time his job was to pick up the pieces of Josep Maria Bartomeu’s disastrous six-year reign, following his sudden resignation.
He immediately set about mounting an expectations-levelling exercise, once which has proven painful for the club and its fans, and shows little sign of abating for now with the club well over £1bn in debt.
“The base of everything is the previous administration’s disastrous management which we inherited,” he said during Messi’s uncomfortable press conference in early August.
A little over four years ago Barca could field a front three of Neymar, Messi and Luis Suarez, now the bulk of their forward options consist of Sevilla loanee Luuk de Jong, an ageing Sergio Aguero, ex-Middlesbrough striker Martin Braithwaite and Memphis Depay.
Many of those who have kept their roles at the Nou Camp have done so on new reduced terms to keep the club financially viable, to the point where La Liga only permitted Aguero’s registration after the transfer window had shut, once Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba had agreed smaller contracts to lower the wage bill further.
La Liga’s new rules stipulate clubs can spend 70 per cent of their income on wages. With Messi, Barca would have spent 110 per cent, even without him the figure stood at 95 per cent at the start of August. Griezmann, Junior Firpo, Emerson Royal, Ilaix Moriba, Jean-Clair Todibo, Miralem Pjanic and Francisco Trincao have followed Messi and generated around €130m (£111.5m) in sales.
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The problem is not only the huge transfer fees paid out – it is the quality of players who have arrived, or certainly their fit. Coutinho, Dembele and Griezmann, Barcelona’s three most expensive signings for a combined tally of around £350m, have all flopped. “Every year we were a little bit worse,” said longstanding centre-back Gerard Pique last year. Quite so – ending La Liga last season in third was their lowest finish since 2008.
A time for prudence
In 2018, Barcelona became the first club in professional sport to post annual revenues in excess of $1bn (£723m). Three years on and forced to sell for what they can get, Barca have made an €80m (£68.6m) loss on Griezmann in just two years. The pandemic has obviously played its part, but if any club were not ready for a rainy day, they were at the top of the list.
“The days of spending like they have in the last few years are over,” journalist Carles Ruiperez, who has written about Barca’s struggles for Catalonian newspaper La Vanguardia, told Sky Sports. “There is a phrase with which the club summarise the situation: sports policy is subordinate to economic policy until it becomes sustainable again. Obviously, they know that the team is less powerful than last year.”
Barcelona’s summer business would have enraged fans in years gone by, but in this new era of austerity, there is patience to allow Laporta and his board to rebuild the club’s badly damaged foundations.
Things may still get worse before they get better. Last month Laporta announced Barcelona’s debts amounted to €1.35bn (£1.16bn), partly accrued from years of lavish spending under Bartomeu, partly due to the pandemic, and partly down to the cost of keeping Lionel Messi at the Nou Camp throughout most of his career.
“I think there’s probably more cost-cutting to come,” Spanish football expert Terry Gibson told Sky Sports. “I think Barcelona were looking for a better deal from Atletico Madrid for Griezmann which is why it went on so late, and Sevilla are paying some of De Jong’s wages for him to play for Barcelona. It just goes to show how much things have changed.”
The brightest prospects who remain, Pedri and Frenkie de Jong, are strongly linked with moves away from the Nou Camp in the near future. No one knows for sure how long the era of austerity will last, but Laporta’s public estimate is that it will continue for a while yet.
“I think that in a couple of years, the club’s economy will be healthy. It’s a big challenge but we are capable of overcoming it,” he said last month.
Rebuilding from within
How do Barcelona go about rebuilding? As well as cost-cutting, Laporta and manager Ronald Koeman still have a club to run, and seven points from their opening three games, given the financial and emotional turmoil surrounding everything, is a decent return at the start of the new season.
What will be a long-term restoration is being undertaken the traditional Barca way, even if in less-than-ideal circumstances – through La Masia, their world-famous academy. Earlier this month, 18-year-old graduate Ansu Fati inherited Messi’s famous number 10 shirt only 41 appearances into his Barcelona career and 10 months since his last, with a knee injury last November still keeping the forward out of action.
Elsewhere, 18-year-old midfielder Pedri has already become a regular for Spain, while it has been suggested manager Koeman’s contract will only be renewed if Riqui Puig is given more game time in midfield.
“I think if they go down that road which they are and Koeman is embracing that, then I think the supporters will be patient,” Gibson said. “It’s a long tradition for Barcelona to produce their own players, and a certain type of player as well at La Masia.
“The fans won’t pin the blame on Ronald Koeman, they won’t pin the blame on Joan Laporta, the blame has been pinned firmly on the previous regime, and everyone can see their troubles.
“We saw two teenage substitutes come on last week, Nico Gonzalez, who is a replica for Sergio Busquets, Gavi, who’s 17 years old, he came on to make his debut. There’s obviously Ansu Fati and Pedri, as well as Ronald Araujo, who is in his early 20s and is an excellent central defender.
“But it makes you realise they were nowhere near being Lionel Messi. It was wishful thinking. It was a dream from Joan Laporta to try and imagine they could keep him.”
Wishful thinking is over at the Nou Camp, reality has well and truly bitten. Can Barcelona come back to their former glories? Of course, but not by throwing money at the problem this time. “We need to not try to win La Liga and the Champions League every year,” one club official told the Financial Times.
This time three years ago, Barca were favourites to win the continental competition, but enter this year’s tournament as 20/1 outsiders. They look likely to make good on scaling back their expectations – but after a summer of chaos and more likely to follow, not necessarily out of choice.