Barca are back… or are they masters of spin?

JUST A couple of months ago, Barcelona were supposedly staring into the abyss, broke, unable to keep their talismanic player and in a deep, deep crisis. Their story was a lesson to every over-ambitious and reckless football club and also, some assumed, an indication of the troubles to come for the industry. The perils of debt and overspending, that was the moral of the tale.

Barca have been in better places and they have certainly lost ground on their rivals at home and abroad. But what’s this we have here, some kindly bankers saving the club? It’s not a Spanish institution that has come to their rescue but Goldman Sachs, the US investment bank who, according to their then CEO in 2009, were very good at doing “God’s work”. Barca probably need celestial help at the moment, so why not hire Goldman to sort out the mess that has built-up at the club? One might suggest the Wall Street firm have provided a big vote of confidence for the Blaugrana.

Joan Laporta, who won the political battle to become president last year, claimed that “Barca are back” after acquiring Manchester City’s Ferran Torres for around € 50 million. With the club’s debts supposedly well over € 1 billion, people are naturally asking how they can suddenly afford such a signing. Laporta, who called Barca “a benchmark club” also insisted a new squad is under construction at the Camp Nou and boasted he will sign Europe’s hottest property, Erling Haaland from Dortmund in the summer. There has been talk of bids for Chelsea central defender Andreas Christensen and Juventus striker Álvaro Morata.

Barca were never going to become football’s Lehman moment precisely because they are Barca. Nobody was going to close them down and even if it did get to the 11th hour, Spain and Catalonia would never allow the demise of one of its biggest sporting entities and ambassadors. The public relations would be a disaster, the blow to Spanish morale would be ill-timed and the politics would also be very tricky to handle. Barca’s situation was undoubtedly caught up in politics, but it did highlight how badly they had been run for a long time.

Goldman Sachs have agreed a € 595 million loan that will run for 35 years but for the first five years, Barca will only have to deal with the interest. In that period, Goldman will work on the vital task of restructuring the club’s finances. The loan, of which € 100 million was available immediately, will allow Barca to stay afloat and also provide some much-needed breathing space. 

Laporta, when he unveiled Torres, said Barca were recovering their status and warned the rest of the football world that “we are back as big players in the market”. Such a statement would appear a little premature and also tasteless given the publicity surrounding the club’s financial crisis in 2021. Borrowing money is not an achievement, but merely underlines the parlous state of their finances. A little humility would have served them better.

However, if a bank is going to lend to any football club, it would ideally be to one that can generate € 1 billion a year when the climate is right. With such a high cost base, the problem was that when conditions turned bad it exposed Barca’s fragile business model.

On top of being able to meet their running costs, the club also has its ambitious Espai Barca project in the pipeline. Barca’s members voted overwhelmingly to continue this scheme, which includes the Camp Nou and a new sports centre. The stadium, when completed, will cost around € 900 million, but Laporta believes additional revenue generation from the project will total € 200 million per year.

Barca suddenly seem to be in a better frame of mind than they were just a few weeks ago. Although they crashed out of the UEFA Champions League at the group stage, which must have been a seismic shock on so many levels, they now have “one of their own” in Xavi as coach, their seventh full-time appointment since Pep Guardiola departed in 2012. Only Luis Enrique has seemed anything like a comfortable hiring during that time. Xavi could be Barca’s Zidane, but he doesn’t have the squad the Frenchman inherited at Real Madrid. Xavi has been in charge for nine games and his win rate is 44%, but he will enjoy the luxury of patience from the Barcelona top brass. 

Cynics believe Barca desperately needed some good news and Laporta is doing his best to stir things up in the media. He may well have cash that is burning a hole in his pocket, but competition will be fierce for Europe’s big names. How far can they go when they still have so many issues to solve?

The unstoppable charge of Real Madrid

NOBODY WOULD argue that Real Madrid are not quite as glittering as they have been at various times in their history, but in 2021-22, Carlo Ancelotti’s team appears to be heading for glory both at home and abroad.

While their old rivals Barcelona lurch from crisis to crisis, Real are trying to manage their transition while storming away at the top of La Liga. Their latest victory, against last season’s champions, Atlético Madrid, not only put their cross-town enemies in their place, but also suggested there’s nobody to seriously stop them. Emerging talent and a swansong or two from the club’s veterans has created a compelling mix that is flourishing under Captain Valium himself, the amiable and understated Ancelotti.

Real, despite their 2-0 win against Atléti and an eight point lead at the top of La Liga, are unhappy about the Champions League draw. They have called the redraw debacle “shameful” after they were drawn against Paris Saint-Germain following the original pairing with Benfica. Their last 16 task is now significantly tougher than the initial draw. 

In the league, however, Real have been almost unbeatable and have lost just once in 17 games. As well as their lead over second-placed Sevilla, they are 13 in front of Atléti and have 18 more than Barcelona. They’ve scored 39 goals and their striking duo, Karim Benzema and Vinícius Júnior have scored 30 goals between them. They are currently the most potent front-line in Europe. And they want to  increase their firepower by acquiring Erling Haaland from Borussia Dortmund. With Real’s finances impacted less than most during the pandemic, they will be one of the very few who can afford such a signing in the new year.

The difference between Real and Atléti was Los Blancos’ counter-attacking and the form of goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois, who pulled off some superb saves and was actually busier than Jan Oblak, his counterpart in the Atléti goal. The speed of Real’s forward thrusts and their interplay demonstrated a degree of sophistication unmatched by the visitors, resulting in a splendid volleyed goal from Benzema in the 16th minute and a second goal from Marco Asensio to clinch the victory. Atlético failed to muster up a decent chance despite having Antoine Griezmánn in their line-up. 

Asensio, who could be on his way out of the club, said Real are “solid” right now and praised his team-mate Vinícius who seems to have found the consistency to match his talent. Ancelotti appears to be getting the best out of the young Brazilian. As for Atlético, their midfielder Koke admitted they are not in a good place at the moment and far from their best. They currently look like a team that has exhausted itself from the intensity of their title win in 2020-21. Real, meanwhile, look destined to win the title. 

As for the Champions League, if they can get past PSG and Lionel Messi, they will be in business. They won’t need reminding that they may also come up against their former skipper, Sergio Ramos, who has already said he would have preferred another opponent. Emilio Butragueño, the club’s director of institutional relations, was fuming about the redraw: “I must say it’s very difficult to understand what’s gone on today, given that millions of fans and the world of sport were following the draw.” The relationship between Real and UEFA has been strained for some time owing to the European Super League project, this will doubtless only serve to harden the frost.