Barcelona: A bad time for a football empire to end

WE LIVE in strange times and we have come to learn that the unexpected can happen. Who would have envisaged the world would have been thrown into chaos by a pandemic? Actually, the World Economic Forum and World Health Organisation have been warning everyone, for years, that a pandemic represented one of the greatest threats to global stability. But who would have seen the strange collapse of Barcelona, the end of Manchester United’s dominance in England and a World Cup being awarded to that great footballing power, Qatar?

Barcelona’s sacking of Ronald Koeman is no great surprise, but the state of Barca on and off the field, peaking and shocking with the departure of Lionel Messi, is an incredible case of short-term decline. It shows that despite wealth, influence and position in Spanish society, mismanagement of money can bring down even the most powerful of football institutions. But the truth is, it has been coming for a while.

Koeman didn’t have to read Marca or AS to  know his job was on the line; Joan Laporta, the Barca president, had already hinted he wasn’t the man for the job. Koeman hung in there, understandably given the likely pay-off from his employers, but how sensible was it for Barca to let the situation prevail? A manager on his way out, with a squad shorn of its talismanic figure, Barca were heading for problems on problems. The world could see it – what were they waiting for?

The clásico with Real Madrid was quite revealing; two teams that are now far from their highs, Real comfortable winners and a 2-1 scoreline that flattered Barca. Doubtless some of Barca’s younger players will come good, but their team increasingly looks like a hotch-potch of those with time on their side – a la Fati, Gavi and Mingueza – and those with time running away. Koeman was never going to be the sort of coach to deal with the end of an era and provide the direction for the future. The fall of Barca is much bigger than a rebuild or refurbishment. Any club hampered by a wobbly financial foundation is not going to compete with the “petro clubs” in the current climate. Koeman, in hindsight, probably wishes he hadn’t taken the job.

Over the past couple of years, Barcelona have leaked money, built up around € 1 billion of debt, lost star players and have been unable to secure players that were needed for continuity, starting with the loss of Neymar and more recently, the enforced release of Luis Suarez and Messi. La Liga’s “salary cap” took € 300 million off the club’s spending limit, a significant blow to team-building plans.

The situation was so dire that their CEO, Ferran Reverter said the club would have been dissolved in April 2021 if it was a public limited company, after staring bankruptcy in the eye. According to Reverter, there was no cash flow and they had difficulty paying wages. With the debts so high, the club urgently needed refinancing and it has since taken out a credit line of half billion euros with Goldman Sachs, repayable over 10 years.

It wasn’t just the pandemic that brought things to a head, the club would still have made losses approaching € 400 million in normal circumstances. Messi’s departure helped the bloated wage bill, but it is very unclear why Barca allowed their squad to become so old and expensive.

This season has been a disaster, both domestically and in the UEFA Champions League. In La Liga, they haven’t won away from home and have scored just one goal in four games. At the Camp Nou, they’ve won four of six. They currently stand ninth in the table. In Europe, Barca are in danger of failing to make the knockout phase. Heavy defeats against Bayern Munich and Benfica and a narrow win against Dynamo Kyiv make it one point in nine, a meagre total. 

It is in Champions League where the seeds of Barca’s decline can be found – since winning the competition in 2015, almost every campaign has ended in a huge drama, with Barca being on the receiving end each time. In 2016-17, Juventus hammered them 3-0, in 2018, Roma turned around a first leg three goal deficit, Liverpool, in 2019, beat them 4-0 after a 3-0 first leg defeat, then came Bayern’s 8-2 humbling of Barca in Lisbon and finally, last season, Paris Saint-Germain won 4-1 at the Camp Nou. If you consider that in La Liga, Barca should always be around the top three, the European test gauges how strong they really are and the conclusion has to be, they have been a diminishing force for some time.

While the decline may have been inevitable, it couldn’t have come at a worse time for Barcelona. The pandemic is one side of the story, but arriving when the team should have been transitioning was certainly not what they needed. Indeed, the football industry as a whole has been taught a lesson from covid-19 – a strong business has to plan for abnormal trading conditions and have money in reserve.

Barca will be back, but it will take skill, patience and a long-term vision. Some of these elements do not come easy for football folk, but there is sure to be some urgency for Barcelona will not take kindly to being also-rans.

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