Let’s imagine for the sake of argument that while Erling Haaland is not on the transfer market, his contract is definitely available. He has a queue of suitors and Borussia Dortmund stand to triple their investment a year ahead of the Norway forward’s reported €75 million release clause kicking in, making him available to sign for a lower set price.
Let’s also admit, to advance things, that while Barcelona might have left it too late to become Spanish champions (we shall see in what promises to be an excruciatingly tight title run-in) they are unquestionably playing the best football in La Liga right now. Now let me assure you that despite the global debt at Camp Nou being more than €1.1 billion (just roll that figure around your brain for a moment or so), president Joan Laporta is desperately keen to sign this phenomenon of a kid who very few teams seem to know how to shut down and whose goal-scoring stats, so far, are historically good.
Laporta not only soared to victory in the recent Barcelona presidential elections because of the stellar achievements of his first Camp Nou reign, but on the promise of greatness awaiting in the near future. The first couple of times he produced this trick as a new president of the Catalan club, the results were Ronaldinho and Samuel Eto’o. Two of the greatest footballers, the biggest characters and the most important figures in the entire history of Laporta’s club.
One of the things that the present situation has in common with 2004 and 2005, when the Brazilian World Cup winner and the Cameroon Olympic gold medalist were signed, was that each was betrothed to someone else.
Ronaldinho’s deal to move from Paris Saint-Germain to Manchester United was verbally agreed between the two clubs’ senior executives but, still, he ended up winning the Ballon d’Or, the Spanish title and the Champions League at Barcelona — not in Old Trafford red.
Eto’o’s playing rights were split between Mallorca and Real Madrid. I interviewed him once and he considered himself to have won the Champions League with Los Blancos, despite having made no starts and enjoying a total of 53 minutes on the pitch during their 1999-2000 tournament win — in fact, he listed it as one of the five proudest achievements of his career. In theory, this maverick, exhausting, scintillating, born winner was due to play out the rest of his career for Florentino Perez’s club, and what an absolutely dynamite footballer he would have been for Madrid. But, somehow, Laporta (and his vice-president Sandro Rosell) managed to persuade Perez that the wiser move would be to take the club’s minor share of the purchase price (€24m) and move on. What a mistake.
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Just by coincidence, the third club president involved in those 2005 negotiations was Mallorca’s Mateu Alemany, who Laporta has said he wants to become Barcelona’s new director of football. So far, so good.
The reason that Laporta is desperate to repeat those two stunning rabbit-from-the-hat pieces of magic is that Haaland, right now, looks like a once-in-a-lifetime force of nature. Brutally strong, immensely quick, tall, aggressive and blessed with what looks like an infallible ability to finish every kind of opportunity (from the feasible to the unbelievable), this is the kind of striker you either try to sign or you fear living in lifelong regret.
That kind of regret is something Barcelona have already had to suffer, given that they turned down the chance to sign Cristiano Ronaldo from Sporting Lisbon and chose Ricardo Quaresma instead. Just imagine the entire history of Ronaldo and Lionel Messi being rewritten from the beginning, with the pair growing up at the same club.
Back to the present day.
Stranger things have happened than it turning out that Dortmund’s own director of football, Michael Zorc, is telling the stone-cold truth when he says that Haaland will be playing for the Yellow and Black next season. Or than the Leeds-born 20-year-old, who just became the fastest and youngest to score 20 goals in Champions League history, deciding that he owes some youthful loyalty to Dortmund and opting to stay.
But, football being as it is, money and ambition usually talk loudest. Which is why even though Laporta is mad keen on being able to say the phrase: “Leo Messi, meet Erling Haaland … Erling, meet the greatest footballer who ever lived,” when introducing the new teammates to one another, there’s a brutal process lying in wait if the deal is to be made.
At very minimum Real Madrid, not to mention Liverpool, Manchester City and Chelsea, are determined to win a player who is so devastatingly difficult to face that he gives defenders nightmares several weeks before actually having to play against him. Each of those clubs has distinctly better financial firepower than Barcelona, a less pungent debt situation and can offer Haaland a bunch of things on and off the pitch that make them premium contenders for his signature.
Nor is it to be forgotten that when Barcelona signed Ousmane Dembele from the Westphalian club for around €105m in 2017, they hugely annoyed Zorc and his board of directors by seeming to approve of the player going on strike so that he’d be granted his move to Catalunya. Matters like that tend not to be forgotten.
But, of course, the fact that Madrid like the idea of signing Haaland is just catnip to Laporta. Imagine his frisson of schadenfreude if he could capture the player who threatens to dominate the scoring scene for the next 10 years, thereby convincing Messi to stay on at Camp Nou and thwarting Perez into the bargain. It’s enough to make one throw caution to the wind and abandon all financial prudence. You can see his case, can’t you?
Even though his immediate priorities are to pay off the debt in delayed wages for his players (which must, by now, amount to nearly €100m), to pay off or persuade creditors owed another couple of hundred million to be patient, and convince Messi to stay, Laporta has always been the guy who wants everything. Immediately. No arguments.
But is there an argument, now, for Laporta to show self-restraint, to accept that time and tide are against him and that he needs to grit his teeth and not even put Barcelona in the race for Haaland. To raise funds in order to become competitive for that high-stakes game, Laporta wouldn’t simply need another high-interest investment fund loan, on top of all those vast debts he’s inherited, he’d have to move Philippe Coutinho on (for a much-reduced fee compared to the €160m they spent to land him) plus one of Dembele and Antoine Griezmann, the latter of whom was not cheap either when signed for €120m from Atletico Madrid.
Looking at Barcelona and their current form, is that the right option? Both Frenchmen have shown character and maturity to emerge this season as key players for the club and teammates who now understand and dovetail with Messi.
During the first 14 domestic matches of Ronald Koeman’s reign, the Blaugrana were barely scoring at a rate of two goals per game. Since then, the following 14 La Liga matches have yielded scorelines, and no defeats, that shows a goal average touching three per match.
Moreover, it’s not just that Messi, Griezmann, Dembele, Martin Braithwaite and others are hitting the net, there’s the small matter of Ansu Fati’s return to action to factor in. We live in a butterfly-memory era of world football, and some may have forgotten that Ansu is another standout, mould-breaking talent. He’s already the youngest this-that-and-the-next-thing for both club and country, and he’s the youngest ever scorer in the Champions League. Ansu is different from Haaland in so many ways, but united with the Norwegian in possessing something truly exceptional for which Barcelona haven’t had to pay €160m.
Right now Barcelona play with verve, they are keeping the ball better, using Koeman’s version of 3-5-2 to stretch and penetrate opposition and, in Paris a few days ago, there was the hint that the Champions League buffetings they were taking at the hands of PSG, Juventus, Liverpool and AS Roma might be a thing of the past.
Compared to the forward positions, there’s little doubt that Barcelona require a first-class central defender, proper high-quality cover at left-back or that they should be trying to sign a robust, clever, athletically and mentally sharp central midfielder who can begin to mimic the best of Sergio Busquets. What with these tasks and the general need to repay huge debts while generating new revenue in order to draw Barcelona back from the financial precipice, would you be frantically chasing Dortmund, Haaland and his famously avaricious agent Mino Raiola with a €160m bank draft? Or would you be willing to watch a generational talent turn up at Real Madrid and torture you, in football terms, for the next handful of seasons because there’s more important Camp Nou housekeeping to see to first?
Choose honestly, write your answer down on a piece of paper to review in five or six years’ time to see whether your decision holds up to review. Then admit to yourself that, come what may, Laporta will pursue the signing of Haaland until either: he joins Messi at Barcelona or is presented as a new player at Madrid, Bayern Munich, Manchester City, Chelsea, Liverpool or wherever.
Because that’s the way Laporta, and almost every big-club president, rolls. Let battle commence.