Barca, Messi and a big warning to football

IT IS not easy to be sympathetic to a club that makes a billion but still cannot afford its best player, indeed the world’s leading footballer. Lionel Messi has had to be sacrificed to ensure his employer gets through some dire financial problems and keeps within the law of La Liga. And with Messi’s departure from Barcelona, there is a collapsing deck of cards situation emerging. In short, if this was not Futbol Club Barcelona, we may be reading the obituary of a great football institution.

Because we are talking about a body that is Més que un club, it is unlikely anyone is going to be responsible for sending them to the wall, but Barcelona at present are having a major crisis that includes liquidity, debt and confidence. The news that Messi had gone was greeted with mild hysteria in Catalonia, with fans weeping outside the Camp Nou, shell-shocked and shaking their heads in disbelief. But nobody can say it wasn’t coming, the football world had a sneak preview a year ago.

Bullies

Now it would seem Messi is probably heading for Paris to join the world’s biggest flat-track bullies, Paris Saint-Germain. He has, of course, already turned down before, but in truth, there is only two or three clubs who could afford Messi and they all happen to be those owned by states or ultra high net worths with plenty of disposable cash. 

Quite how a club like Barcelona discovered their debt problems were much worse than first advised is a mystery. These hidden pools of murky debt should make any Barca fan worry – this is not a complex financial institution reliant on shadow markets or desks of testosterone-drenched traders, this is a football club – how deep do the chasms actually go? The comment made by the club’s president, Joan Laporte sounded like something from the 2008 financial crisis. If the club’s financial department have not been aware of the scale of the problem, surely some heads should be rolling?

Laporte currently resembles a bank CEO who has inherited a basket case, but he’s been very candid in informing the club’s fans that “continuing the relationship [with Messi] means jeopardising the future”. If a new contract for Messi had been implemented, even at its agreed knock-down rate, then Barca’s outgoings would still represent 110% of income, a figure the Spanish league could not possibly tolerate. Furthermore, the club’s losses, apparently, could run to almost € 500 million rather than the previously estimated € 200 million. 

Clearly, Barcelona have been pole-axed by the unexpected event that was covid-19, but the problems have been building long before the virus developed. Most people believe it was the transfer of Neymar to Paris Saint-Germain that began the spiral. Barcelona were almost bullied by PSG and there was something of a loss of face in the departure of one of the world’s top players to a club long considered inferior to Barca. 

The response to the loss of a headline-maker like Neymar triggered off hasty and misinformed activity in the transfer market under president Josep Maria Bartomeu. It didn’t help that every other club knew Barca had cash on the hip that was burning a hole in their pockets. Ousman Dembéle was signed from Dortmund for a fee that could have risen to € 150 million, Philippe Coutinho went from Liverpool to Barca for € 160 million and Ajax’s young star, Frenkie De Jong, was secured for € 75 million. And then there was the € 120 million acquisition of Antoine Griezmann that has really yet to bear fruit. While some of these signings seemed extravagant, the swap of a potential-rich Arthur Melo for Juventus’s 30 year-old Miralem Pjanic looked like a convenient piece of book-keeping. Another strange move was the signing of Martin Braithwaite from Leganés when Luis Suárez was injured, hardly a like-for-like addition to the squad. Between 2013-14 and 2019-20, Barca spent around € 1.1 billion in the market, about € 200 million more than their rivals, Real Madrid. This summer’s new boys have largely been free transfers, a very graphic illustration of how far the club has fallen.

Messi was hoping that Bartomeu would try and lure Neymar back to Barcelona, especially as the player had told his former team-mate he wanted out of the French capital. It never happened even though Barca gave the impression they were negotiating with Neymar, but how would they have paid for such a deal? Messi didn’t buy it and a year ago, he told Barca he wanted a move. The fact is, at the heart of Barca’s problems was meeting the extraordinary salary paid to Messi, so they started to trim back their squad to relieve the wage bill. Hence, Suárez was no longer wanted.

Messi, as we all know, is a phenomenal player who has few equals in the history of the game, but the older he got, the more unhealthy the over-reliance on the Argentinian became. As Barca’s squad aged and the star quality started to fade, Messi has found himself ploughing a lonely furrow – he always looks like he’s got the weight of a nation on his shoulders. He scored 30 of Barca’s 85 goals in La Liga in 2020-21, the club’s lowest tally for years. Since 2017, Barca have lost 31 goals and 27% of the total scored in 2016-17.

Red flags

Laporte rightly says that Barca’s financial position would be in dangerous territory if they had accommodated Messi, but Brand Finance estimates the Barca brand would also be negatively impacted by his departure, by around 11%. Given Messi is so synonymous with the Barca name, commercial revenue, matchday income and merchandise sales would all be compromised. A good example of how the loss of a talismanic player can affect a club’s value was seen only a few years ago when Cristiano Ronaldo departed Real Madrid – their brand lost 19% of value. 

There’s a huge message for the rest of big-time football in the plight of Barcelona. When things are going well, the spending and the huge wage bills can be accommodated, but when there’s a problem, the business models of even the biggest clubs are tested, they simply don’t have margin for error. Messi has been priced out of the market, he’s too expensive for the vast majority of clubs, especially in the current climate. Nobody can blame a professional from getting the best deal out of any job, but if the money’s not there and its killing your employer, serious questions have to be asked about the sustainability of such lucrative jobs. The clubs that have been insulated against the pandemic include those that are effectively outside the conventional corporate model – in other words, PSG, Manchester City and Chelsea. What has happened at Barca should terrify the industry and, if people truly care about football, prompt some adjustments to the financial management of the biggest clubs, who are really systemic institutions that should behave responsibility. For Barca, the events of the past week or two will not only wave red flags, there should be a few red faces around the Camp Nou at the moment.

@GameofthePeople / Photo: Alamy

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