NEVER MIND Liverpool’s tepid defence of their Premier League title, the biggest story in European football at the moment is the apparent decline of Barcelona, encapsulated by their 4-1 collapse at home to an exciting Paris Saint-Germain side in the UEFA Champions League round of 16.
Commentators continue to refer to the last time PSG handed out some humiliation to Lionel Messi and co., hoping that the second leg won’t be a formality and echoes of 2017 will result in a classic recovery and triumph. But this isn’t 2017 and Barca are a shadow of the teams that captivated the world under Pep Guardiola. What’s more, Lionel Messi is 33 years old and one of his heirs to the throne, PSG’s hat-trick hero Kylian Mbappé, is only 22. The king is dead, long live the king, perhaps?
This has been coming, make no mistake, for Barca have failed to heed the warnings of an ageing side that is over-dependent on an ageing superstar. Internal politics, heavy debt, transfer market inefficiency – you name it, the walls are closing in on one of the world’s biggest, most glamorous and respected clubs. The pandemic, an empty Camp Nou and the gradual removal of familiar faces at competitive-prices has left Barca looking bereft of ideas, short on cojones and basically, more than a little fed-up.
Messi, too, is showing signs of reduced potency. At 33, he cannot carry the team and he needs co-stars that are no longer alongside him. As has often been the case, when Barca get beaten heavily, he was below-par against PSG. He has not been in an optimal state of mind for some time and this latest setback, coupled with a forlorn league campaign, may finally push him out of the door. He needs to go, but he may not have as many options as he would have had a few months ago. For starters, the transfer market is as depressed as Barca and there are few who will be able to afford Messi. Secondly, acquiring Messi, however costly, does not demonstrate forward-thinking, so why would clubs like PSG and Manchester City, the only employers who could pay top dollar in a crisis, indulge him?
Letting Messi go will upset the “culers” but with the club’s financial position seemingly getting worse, it may provide some balance sheet relief. Recent reports reveal Barca are around € 1.2 billion in debt and have to pay a shattering € 266 million of short-term debt to banks by June 30.
Spanish newspaper El Mundo said Barca are on the verge of bankruptcy, an extravagant claim perhaps as it is unthinkable anyone would let the club sink. If any club can be considered “too big to fail”, it is surely Barca, and Spanish local authorities have done their best to prevent crisis-torn football institutions from going under in the past. However, Barca’s position is precarious and they don’t have much scope for error. They need to cut costs, such as their wage bill, which accounts for 74% of income, 4 percentage points higher than the league’s 70% limit. Look at the current Barca side and you sense they are not getting very good value for money. Messi is, according to a leak, earning € 70 million per year, which amounts to over € 8,000 per hour. Apparently, Barcelona can no longer afford such a lucrative deal, indeed are struggling to pay the entire squad at the moment.
It doesn’t help that behind the scenes, Barca are in a state of flux. The presidential election will take place on March 7 and the three candidates, Joan Laporta, Victor Font and Toni Freixa, all want Messi to stay. Freixa, the outsider, has acknowledged costs are too high and that he will talk to all the players, including Messi, if he wins, presumably to discuss thinner pay packets. Whoever wins the vote will need to unite a club that faces an uncertain near-term future.
PSG’s emphatic 4-1 win in Spain was not the first seismic defeat in the recent history of Barcelona. Champions League failure is becoming a habit: Bayern (2-8), Liverpool (0-4), Roma (0-3), Juventus (0-3), PSG (0-4), have all been capitulations on a grand scale, with only the PSG scoreline overturned. Unless they produce something extraordinary, it looks like the end of the campaign, at an earlier stage than normal. It could well be a second successive year without a trophy.
But rest assured, Barca will be back, sooner rather than later. This is a club that can generate up to € 1 billion in revenues per season and draw 70,000 crowds, so a little prudence can go a long way. We may be witnessing the end of an era, the decline of an irresistible force and the farewell tour of a legend, but it will only be temporary lull. Europe, Spain, La Liga and Real Madrid all need a vibrant Barcelona – they are a systemic club.
If they get desperate, there’s a bald man with designer stubble and a black pullover who could do a job in reviving the corpse, and we’re not talking about Zinedine Zidane! Now that would be a story, and one way to hang onto their talisman.