European Football

I was wrong, Barcelona are not fine…

The cracks in the financial foundation of one of football’s premier institutions are starting to cause the walls to fall down…

Back in March, I wrote this article about the crisis at Barcelona, arguing that things were honestly not as bad as they seemed. Yes, their start to the season was concerning, but at the time, it looked as though Ronald Koeman had righted the ship. They were firmly in the title race, largely thanks to the continued brilliance of Lionel Messi, but the emergence of Pedri, Ronald Araújo, and Ilaix Moriba alongside the growing confident performances of Antoine Griezmann and Frenkie de Jong showed that there was more to this Barcelona team than their famous number 10. While there were still questions around Messi’s future, it began to look like he would be staying, and it seemed that the club were in stable hands under newly re-elected club president Joan Laporta. Yes, the financial issues still lurked ominously in the background, but on the pitch, things were looking up. Maybe things were not so bad after all.

Well, that dream died quickly.

While I still agree with many of the on-pitch related points I made in the original article, and I do still think the emergence and revitalization of young talents like Pedri and de Jong sets Barça up well moving forward, it is clear to see that the issues are beginning to boil over to crisis level. They ended the season horrendously, bottling their chance at the league title with multiple collapses against lesser opposition. They had a not-so-lovely and quite embarrassingly public near-break up with manager Ronald Koeman, who will continue in his position despite frankly looking well over his head multiple times in the second half of the season. Ansu Fati had yet another surgery on his left knee, the fourth in six months, and I am starting to get real nervous about this kid’s promising career being derailed by injuries. And then there is the financial issue…and that is where we will focus today.

Earlier this week, La Liga announced that Barcelona are in violation of the league’s salary cap rules, with their wage bill coming in at a whopping 40% higher than the La Liga cap. Due to the club being over the wage cap, the league will only allow Barcelona to reinvest 25% of the salary savings they bring in until they are under the cap. Because of this, the club is unable to register any new contracts or signings until they are compliant with La Liga rules. Not Sergio Agüero, not Memphis Depay, not Eric García, not Emerson Royal…

And no, not Lionel Messi, either.

Despite reports suggesting that both sides are close to an agreement on a new contract, and despite those reports also saying Messi has agreed to take a wage cut, it appears Barcelona are currently not able to register their superstar forward until they are compliant with La Liga rules. Given Barça’s also very serious debt issues, the possibility of losing Lionel Messi, a player who earns them a small fortune in marketing and apparel revenue, is absolutely horrifying. This is Barcelona’s worst nightmare working out in reality. Not only does this stop whatever plans that were in motion to reform this squad and turn them into full contenders, this potentially could destroy whatever rebuild they had already started.

Barcelona have successfully made a few moves, sending Francisco Trinçao to Wolves on loan with a buy option while also selling Junior Firpo to Leeds United for €15 million and Jean-Clair Todibo to Nice for €8.5 million. They also rescinded the contract of midfielder Matheus Fernandes, who only featured one time for the club following his arrival from Palmeiras in 2020. This only scratches the surface of the problem, however, as there are several high-earners at the club that they are having quite a difficult time moving. Samuel Umtiti, Philippe Coutinho, and Miralem Pjanić are three players that the Barça hierarchy have been particularly desperate to move out of the club, but suitors, even for a loan, are hard to come by. Even if Barcelona moves all three of those players out of the club in some form or fashion, they would still not be below the threshold needed to be compliant with league rules. By some estimations, the club needs to reduce their wage bill by €200 million. You can only take that number down piece by piece, but man, that is a lot of work to do.

And this is going to lead to Barcelona needing to have some very, very difficult conversations. Saving enough from the wage bill to extend Messi’s contract is likely their priority, but would Messi still want to extend given everything that is going on? Would he want to extend if he knew that there would be no new signings in this team that crashed out of the Champions League in the Round of 16 and bottled a chance at a league title last season? Even if he did, is the club willing to give up on all of their signings and deal with the ramifications that will come with that?

Ok, assume that they ideally want to have both. Are you going to be able to find a way to move all of the least desirable contracts out of this club? Even if you do, will that even be enough? Honestly, probably not. Barça will have to look at some of their key players and think about the possibility of cutting them loose to save themselves. Can they afford to keep Jordi Alba or Sergio Busquets, who still play crucial roles in this team despite their age? Can they afford to keep Marc-André ter Stegen, who, despite a difficult last season, is still one of the best goalkeepers in the world on his day? Can they afford to keep Frenkie de Jong? Sergiño Dest? Pedri? Will the foundations of Barcelona’s future have to be torn down before anything can be built on top of it? Simply moving the contracts they need to move will not be enough, there is going to be some difficult conversations around some crucial players in this team.

The easiest binary choice in this team is between the two Frenchmen. I do not see a reality where Barcelona can afford to keep both of Ousmane Dembélé and Antoine Griezmann. While both have not necessarily lived up to their lofty transfer fees, both are top players on their day and could be key players in any team, but there is no way that Barcelona can keep both of them. It would be illogical even to try, especially with the club wanting to keep the transfers of Depay and Agüero into the team. I would frankly not be shocked if both left, but it seems for certain that one of those two will be leaving the club in the summer the moment that Barcelona find a willing buyer. This was likely true regardless of their salary cap issues, but that has only accelerated their desire to find a buyer soon.

This is a crisis. Barcelona are not fine. The club is in trouble, and they are staring down the barrel of the worst possible outcome for this team and for the club, the potential of losing their greatest ever player, and setting themselves back several years in a rebuild that has already not gotten off to a perfect start.

And it would be all their fault, too. Barcelona’s financial issues have not been a secret, and it has largely been self-inflicted. The presidency of Josep Maria Bartomeu was nothing short of a disaster, and while it began with success on the pitch, the hierarchy of the club slowly but surely diminished the on-pitch ability while weakening the financial stability of the club. They have spent well over €1 billion on transfers since they won the treble in 2015. This largely accelerated after Neymar left the club for PSG in 2017, but the incredible amount of money spent did not help the club out in the slightest on the pitch. While Barça still racked up multiple league titles, Copa del Reys, and Supercopas in that time period, you could tell the level of the team was declining, and they became more and more reliant on Messi. This was at its most prevalent in Europe, where the club were on the wrong end of two humiliating defeats away to Roma and Liverpool. This past season was the first time that one of the El Clasico teams did not win La Liga since 2014, and it took a superhuman Messi to allow Barcelona to even be within touching distance of either of the last two league titles.

Performance levels fell, reliance on Messi rose alongside the club’s debt, youth players began leaving La Masia in droves. Cracks were forming in the foundation of the club, and we are beginning to see the walls start to crumble.

It has been hard work for Barcelona to prepare for the future over the last few years, and just as they looked like they might be on the right track, their incredibly irresponsible financial management might make them scrap the foundation just to survive. As Pedri starred once again for Spain at the Euros, there were genuine questions as to whether he would be a Barcelona player next season. As Lionel Messi continued to carry Argentina through the Copa América, people wondered whether he would be able to put on that famous Blaugrana shirt again.

Regardless of how they feel about their signings, Barcelona have to do whatever they can to get Messi to sign the contract and have him registered in the team. Regardless of what they have to give up, they will not equal the influence that Messi has on the team. Without him, not only do I highly doubt Barcelona would be able to contend with Real Madrid and Atlético Madrid for the title in the next few seasons, but I would be very nervous about their ability to stay in the top four. Sevilla are a very good team in their own right, and Barça’s sheer ineptitude without Messi could leave them victim to being caught by the chasing pack of Real Betis, Real Sociedad, and/or Villarreal. Not making the Champions League, stacked on top of the tremendous debt that burdens the Catalan club, would be nothing short of an apocalyptic-level disaster, and I really do think that Barcelona could be facing that reality if Messi leaves right now.

Barcelona are seemingly on the same ruinous trajectory that Milan fell through in the mid-2010s, and it sure looks like it will be a long time before they rise to greatness again. The only thing they can do is hope they can navigate their way through this storm with their infrastructure and team in the best shape that it possibly can be. Keeping Messi, even if they must ditch some of their summer free transfers, has to be the priority.

One of football’s major institutions is facing calamity, and the best thing they can possibly do right now is survive and preserve month by month. If they can do that, then maybe the foundations will be there for their return to prominence.

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