Threat of Champions League exit fuels Barcelona’s anxiety

THE BARCELONA story is becoming as volatile as the British government’s approach to post-pandemic economics. After a summer of pulling levers, constructing virtuous circles and signing players, Barca’s president told the annual assembly that “together we have saved the club”. That statement was arguably true, but it did involve selling some of the family silver and allowing their prized asset to leave the Camp Nou.

The financial levers the club referred to involved selling part of their TV rights for a 25 year-period to Sixth Street, raising a huge sum of money that eased their financial pain. On the other hand, many felt Barca were merely kicking a problem down the road and taking a substantial risk.

Barca started the season well, but their Champions League form has not been good and they are on the brink of group stage elimination for the second successive year. The amount they could lose, which could be around € 20 million, would be offset against potential income from finishing third in the group and moving across to the Europa, but the psychological effect of being exiled to Thursday night football is just as significant. If Barca ever needed a good Champions League campaign to remind people of their elite status, it was this season.

The 3-3 draw with Inter Milan in front of 92,000 people was an exciting game that highlighted the appeal of the Champions League; when it’s good, it can be very good. But their failure to trigger another of their famous escapes also provided more evidence that Barca are a diminishing force on the European stage and the timing couldn’t have been worse. Barca are about to face Real Madrid in the first Clásico of 2022-23, and the gossip has centred on the future of coach Xavi – “The confidence in Xavi is intact” – the real agenda of Barca president Joan Laporta and the possibility the club may have to sell more assets or players to raise cash. Some of Barca’s players are long in the tooth, but essentially, the game at the Bernabéu is a meeting between the top two and Barca are on top of the La Liga table. There is not an awful lot wrong with the actual team, Barca’s problem is the past and a period of excess.

It is hard not to see the club’s finances and psyche as acutely precarious, even though they did make a pre-tax profit of € 124 million in 2021-22. Furthermore, they may have generated  € 1 billion in 2021-22, but € 344 million of that came from the sale of assets. Take the € 266 million initial TV rights sale out of the equation and revenues were € 750 million. That’s a very good figure, but the club’s sporting payroll totalled € 518 million, down from € 617 million in 2020-21, but still way too burdensome. At the assembly meeting, the club said it was working to terminate the contracts of some high-earning players who are a drain on the wage bill, but this is obviously a sensitive matter.

The club is confident, however, that it can continue to grow revenues in 2022-23 and anticipates an increase to € 1.3 billion, with a pre-tax profit of around € 366 million. At the same time, they see wages rising to € 656 million. This forecast includes the sale of 15% of TV rights for € 400 million. The club also expects to restore equity balance by 2025, slightly ahead of the five-year target they set when Laporta was elected president.

Laporta is still an advocate of a super league, but does not believe a closed league concept is the way ahead. Barcelona were one of the 12 clubs a scheme that was rightly aborted, but there has been renewed energy behind the project, although Laporta sees a structure where the big clubs repeatedly play against each other as an unattractive proposition that would soon become tiresome.

While the loss of Champions League income in itself won’t tip Barcelona into the abyss, it will raise some anxiety at the club. The securitisation of TV rights has been criticised for mortgaging the future, but its success does depend on the club being successful. In other words, Barca is something of a cash machine, but if the club endured a prolonged period of failure, it might cause problems around their long-term sale of TV rights. Hence, every setback will be the source of extreme angst, as we are seeing.

Europe’s Champions: AC Milan 1988-89

BY 1987, AC Milan had declined from their 1960s highs and had even suffered the ignominy of relegation from Serie A in 1980 due to a match-fixing scandal. Milan won promotion back to the top division in 1981 but went straight back down to Serie B. They went up again in 1983 and spent a few years re-establishing themselves as one of Italy’s premier clubs, but the club was in a bad state financially and on the brink of bankruptcy. In February 1986, Silvio Berlusconi, a wealthy entrepreneur, bought AC Milan for 40 million Lire, beginning a successful and often controversial period in the club’s history. Berlusconi had a very clear vision to transform the club’s fortunes. “Milan is a team, but it’s also a product to sell; something to offer on the market.” Berlusconi proceeded to use his media companies to create football’s first global brand, while he also covered any losses.

Serie A at the time was in the midst of a glorious era in which some of the world’s top players were lured to Italy: Diego Maradona had joined Napoli in 1984, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge of West Germany was at Inter and France’s virtuoso, Michel Platini was orchestrating Juventus’s midfield.

In 1987, Napoli won their first scudetto, with Maradona at his very best. Milan finished in fifth place, but Berlusconi was determined to compete with Napoli and bring top talent to the club, signing two brilliant Dutchmen, Ruud Gullit of PSV Eindhoven and Marco van Basten of Ajax. Gullit cost 18 million Dutch guilders, the equivalent of £ 6 million at the time and a world record fee. Van Basten was signed for little more than £ 1 million. Other players to arrive in 1987 were Carlo Ancelotti of Roma, a slow-paced midfielder with excellent vision, and Angelo Colombo.

Milan also had outstanding products from their youth system, such as Paolo Maldini, son of Cesare Maldini, who captained Milan’s 1963 European Cup winning side. Paolo would go on to play more than 900 games for the club and win 126 caps for Italy. Captain Franco Baresi was also a graduate of the Milan set-up and spent 20 seasons with the club. He was one of the best defenders ever produced by Italy, combining power and pace.

Milan effectively rejected the concept of catenaccio

Berlusconi persuaded Parma’s Arrigo Sacchi to join the club, an innovative yet unknown coach who influenced a generation of football managers. But the bespectacled and dapper Sacchi had to win over the demanding Italian media, who felt he was ill-equipped to manage a club like Milan. They predicted he wouldn’t last more than a few months and even when they were heading for the title, were forecasting who would be the club’s coach for the following season.

Sachi created a fluid style of football built around 4-4-2 that was not only effective and entertaining. His approach was basically a rejection of the notorious catenaccio that stifled the life out of opponents. Furthermore, Sacchi’s team played a flat back four and dispensed with the use of sweepers. The emphasis was on space, so man-marking was also abandoned. Milan became the most unItalian of Italian sides.

In 1987-88, Milan looked to be off the pace at one stage, but they only lost twice all season and remained unbeaten away from home. Sacchi admits today Gullit was the key man in the title race, describing him as a formidable athlete. Van Basten was rarely fit in his first season, forever troubled by an ankle injury.

With five games to go, Napoli still had a four-point lead over Milan and looked set to successfully defend the scudetto. But it all went wrong and they lost four of their last five games, including a 3-2 defeat at home to Milan. Prior to the finale, Napoli had lost twice and there have been numerous attempts to explain why they threw away a second successive championship. Needless to say, some tried to link underworld gambling to Napoli’s collapse. Milan were none too convincing in the last couple of games, but they won their first scudetto since 1979 and secured a place in the European Cup in 1988-89. Meanwhile, Milan’s big signing in 1988-89 was another Dutch player, midfielder Frank Rijkaard, who joined from Sporting Lisbon after falling out with Ajax.

In 1987, Gullit was named European Footballer of the Year, a year later, Milan dominated the award, with all top three places occupied by their players: Van Basten top, Gullit second and Rijkaard third. Milan really were dominating European football.

It was fairly clear Milan’s target for 1988-89 was the European Cup and they relinquished their Serie A title all too easily. Sacchi believed his team had, to some extent, lost the will to win after their outstanding efforts in 1987-88. Inter were the latest force to be reckoned with, thanks to their German influence, and four defeats in the first 12 games cost Milan dear. They may have been the only losses Sacchi’s team suffered, but Inter’s relentless form meant they finished 12 points ahead of Milan in third place, with Napoli one ahead in the runners-up spot. Milan drew 14 of their 34 league games, far too many given Inter won 26 games, 10 more than their San Siro co-tenants.

The European Cup of 1988-89 was notable for the lack of English teams, who had been banned following the Heysel Stadium disaster of 1985. Since 1985, the competition has been won by some unlikely teams: Steaua Bucharest, Porto and PSV Eindhoven. Prior to the Liverpool versus Juventus final in Brussels, English clubs had won the European Cup seven times between 1977 and 1984. There was something of a vacuum in European football but Milan were ideally placed to fill the gap left by the absence of clubs like Liverpool. Milan were considered among the favourites, along with Real Madrid and holders PSV.

The first round gave Milan a relatively easy draw, Vitosha Sofia of Bulgaria, the new (and temporary) name for Levski Sofia. They had won their domestic league by a narrow margin, overcoming the challenge of CSKA, the Bulgarian army side. Milan won 2-0 in Sofia and then Van Basten scored four times in the second leg in the San Siro as they ran out 5-2 winners. Van Basten was in sensational form at the time after winning the European Championship with the Netherlands in the summer.

Red Star Belgrade offered a more daunting hurdle in the second round. The first leg ended 1-1 in the San Siro, Red Star going ahead through Dragan Stojković but Milan responding almost immediately with Pietro Paolo Virdis netting the equaliser. The game had been tough and some players, such as Van Basten, felt Milan were already out of the competition. The second leg was in the cauldron that was Red Star’s Marakana, so it would be another stern test of character.

The game in Belgrade was going the home team’s way but was played in thick fog. The Milan bench didn’t realise that Dejan Savićević, who would later play for Milan, had given Red Star the lead. Similarly, they only knew of Virdis’s sending-off when he emerged through the mist after receiving his red card. The game was eventually called off after 65 minutes and was replayed the following day. Virdis and Ancelotti were both unable to play because of red and yellow cards, but there was no denying Milan had got out of jail.

The replayed game ended 1-1 and Milan went through on penalties, but the big talking point was the injury to Roberto Donadoni who was victim of a dreadful challenge – a headbutt and elbow – and almost lost his life. Gullit, who was far from fully fit came on in his place, but the incident understandably dampened the mood.

Milan were drawn to meet Werder Bremen, the West German champions, in the quarter-finals. Milan edged through 1-0 on aggregate, thanks to a Van Basten goal, but the first leg in Bremen saw the home side have a goal ruled out.

The semi-final produced what has been regarded as the definitive performance by this AC Milan side. Real Madrid were the opponents, the club that set the benchmark for European club football. The first meeting ended 1-1, Sacchi very disappointed with his side – “the best Milan couldn’t beat the worst Real Madrid”, he noted in his memoirs – but there was pressure from Berlusconi for Milan to thrash Real in the San Siro. He called for a 5-0 victory, an extravagant request from any club owner, but that was exactly what the Rossoneri delivered.

Milan’s performance in the second leg was sublime, a combination of, to quote Brian Glanville, “technical excellence, dynamic pace and inspired movement”. Ancelotti opened the scoring after 18 minutes, Rijkaard headed a second and Gullit did likewise. By half-time, Milan were 3-0 ahead and it was soon four when Van Basten scored four minutes into the second half. Donadoni, happily recovered from Belgrade, added a fifth on the hour. Real were completely torn apart. Berlusconi, who had envied Real their forward power in Hugo Sanchez and Emilio Butragueno, no longer worried about Real’s riches. The result, for many, announced the second coming of AC Milan.

Their opponents were Steaua Bucharest, who had stunned Europe in 1986 when they won the Europan Cup against highly-fancied Barcelona, who were coached by Terry Venables. Steaua won on penalties after a tedious final, but they had shown their pedigree by reaching the final again, although their path to the Camp Nou was relatively comfortable and included Galatasaray, Sparta Prague, Göteborg and Spartak Moscow. But they had won the Romanian league for four consecutive years and would also be champions in 1988-89, going unbeaten in their 34 league games and scoring 121 goals. Steaua had Gheorghe Hagi, Marius Lâcâtus, Dan Petrescu and Ilie Dumitrescu in their squad, all names that became very familiar across Europe.

This was the team that epitomised “sexy football”

Milan’s fans swamped Barcelona, some 75,000 of them, while Steaua had a mere 1,000 in the Camp Nou. Milan were red-hot favourities, even though Sacchi and his players were outwardly modest about the outcome. Milan had a worry, however, as Gullit was still recovering from a cartilage operation. Sacchi passed him fit on the eve of the final, or at least fit enough to start. “Gullit has to play even if he is not in perfect condition. We will need him if we are to win,” he said. Sacchi also praised the collective spirit of Steaua and saw them as very strong opponents. While Sacchi was being quite diplomatic, Berlusconi was being as controversial as ever, talking about a European Super League and dismissing English clubs because they had antiquated stadiums.

The game was over by half-time as Milan produced a master class for the crowd and watching millions. This team gave birth to the term, “sexy football”. Gullit gave Milan the lead after 18 minutes, finishing from close range after the keeper had parried a shot from Angelo Colombo and Van Basten had followed up. It was a simple tap-in, but 10 minutes later, a cross from Mauro Tassotti was expertly headed downward and into the net by Van Basten.

The first half scoring was completed by Gullit, who receives the ball from Donadoni, controls it and shoots home from just inside the area. Steaua were exhausted, and beaten. Four minutes into the second period, Van Basten runs onto a ball from Rijkaard and strokes it into the net with his left foot.

The 4-0 victory was not only comprehensive but also underlined the sheer beauty of AC Milan’s football. After so many disappointing finals, invariably producing sterile, cautious football, the craft and class of Sacchi’s players built one of Europe’s most watchable teams, but how long could they maintain such excellence? A year later, they retained the cup, beating Benfica 1-0 in a less attractive final after eliminating Real Madrid (again) and Bayern Munich. They would not win another scudetto under Sacchi, but they were champions in 1992. The team of Gullit, Van Basten and Rijkaard, not to mention, Maldini, Baresi, Donadoni and Ancelotti was very special and deserves its place in football’s pantheon. How fortunate we were to witness it in full flight.