The fall of the house of Barca

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.


The Grey Neutral: The football lives of others

FOOTBALL is back in Europe, with the Bundesliga kicking off in empty stadiums and players acknowledging goals with a grin, a mannekin-like pose and not a hint of schadenfreude.

Rout in the Ruhr

The world’s biggest crowd-puller, Borussia Dortmund (average gate 80,000-plus), opened the restart in a near empty Signal Iduna Park. The absence of a crowd allowed you to see just how vast the yellow wall must be with a [safe] terracing area straight out of the 1970s. It was easy going for BVB, who scored four, well-crafted goals. Interestingly, there was not a minute of added time in the second half which made you wonder if that had anything to do with a deserted stadium –  were they just desperate to get off the pitch? It was good to see a decent game of football, but the surreal atmosphere underlined that the product is very diluted without an audience. It becomes as compelling as a park match. We may have to get used to it, though, for putting 22 people on a pitch is one thing, getting 30,000-40,000 and all accompanying bacterial and viral activity into a relatively confined space is a different story. That said, Dortmund showed they were not too rusty after the enforced lay-off, but Schalke have some work to do!

Rewriting history

Crystal Palace’s historian is claiming they are the oldest professional club in the world after reassessing the line of succession from the original Crystal Palace to the club that now plays at Selhurst Park. This all seems a little tenuous given the old team, which played around the Sydenham Hill area and appeared in the first FA Cup in 1871-72, disappeared for more than 20 years. It’s hard to claim a club is the same when it is no longer active, even if the company records show it was still in existence, probably because nobody had bothered to wind things up?  The problem with football history is that for many years, it was not taken seriously and there was, for many years, no rigorous academic research into its past. The proud boast, “oldest professional club” is also questioned given that Sheffield, the widely acknowledged oldest club are in fact “professional”. Nobody would blame Palace’s fans and archivists for trying to claim a rather dubious honour, but clearly, the CPFC that was formed in 1905 were seemingly satisfied they were not the organisation that played in the inaugural FA Cup. Why try and rewrite history? However, the first Crystal Palace club’s opponents in the FA Cup, Hitchin FC, were once guilty of the same debatable claim – Hitchin FC folded in 1911 and a new club, Hitchin Town FC was formed 17 years later! In both cases, it is surely more accurate to say their roots date back to 1861 and 1865 respectively?

Kylian killing time

The transfer market may well be seized up when football finally returns, so it’s no surprise that Kylian Mbappé has said he will probably see out another season with Paris Saint-Germain. The fact is, with clubs of all shapes and sizes feeling the squeeze, there may be a lack of willing takers for the talented young Frenchmen, both in terms of a transfer fee and a lucrative personal deal. Real Madrid are said to be interested in Mbappé, but even the biggest clubs are worried about their cashflow. One of the positives that may come out of the virus lockdown is a more realistic transfer market – Mbappé has been valued from € 175 million to € 250 million, but it would seem unlikely that anyone in the post-virus environment will want to pay € 200 million for a player. Apparently, relationships between Mbappé and PSG are strained, which does sound a little familiar when a player is a year away from the end of his contract. Transfer talk in this time of restriction and deprivation is a little crass. 

Rich man, poor man

The Sunday Times could not have timed their Rich List more inappropriately. With the Coronavirus about to send the UK over a cliff economically, we really needed to know just how wealthy the wealthy are. And it is quite obscene in places, making you wonder just what does it take to become a multi-millionaire or even a billionaire. As for football, the richest English player is Raheem Sterling with a net worth of around £ 28 million, boosted by his £ 300,000 per week contract. It’s not that difficult for a moderately well-paid person to become a millionaire in terms of the accumulation of assets such as pension, property and investments, but just consider that it takes players like Sterling about a month to earn another million.

Lack of cohesion

Stevenage are probably mightily relieved they probably won’t be getting relegated from the EFL back to the non-league world. However, at present there seems to be a hotch-potch of ideas and solutions and no consistent approach towards getting the season either written-off or played-out. It cannot go on forever and the sooner the Football Association and Football League apply a one-size fits all answer to the problem – for once this would seem the fairest way – the better.


Photos: PA