So Barcelona have their new president, Joan Laporta, who also happens to be their old president, and speculation is rife about what might happen next.
Scenarios range from total doom and gloom — a billion-plus dollars of debt, Lionel Messi’s expiring contract, a global pandemic devastating the football economy — to a “What, me worry?” approach, as best exemplified by presidential candidate Toni Freixa, who had talked about signing Dortmund’s Erling Haaland and PSG’s Kylian Mbappe.
As often happens, reality is somewhere in the middle. There are reasons to fear the worst, reasons to be cautiously optimistic and some reasons to be cheerful, even a few days after failing to reach the quarterfinals of the Champions League for the first time since 2007.
Some clever and responsible stewardship from Laporta can keep Barcelona at, or near, the very top of club football for the next few seasons. Equally, he could screw things up further beyond all recognition. But here’s the good news…
1 . There are two outstanding teams in Europe, and the rest is … well …
Manchester City are a notch above everybody else and, probably, so are Bayern Munich. They’re financially solid and while they’ll need some tweaks in the summer (the former needs a striker, the latter a central defender), they’re sitting pretty. Everybody else has issues to work through either on the pitch, on the bench or in the club accounts. Barca may be worse off than Europe’s other big clubs in many respects, but everybody has problems.
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2. Their debt is monstrous, but debt is only a problem when it can’t be serviced
That nearly $800 million of “short-term” debt is pretty terrifying. Financial blogger Swiss Ramble explains in detail just how Barcelona’s is so huge relative to other clubs, along with why it’s a concern. However, as long you can refinance, there’s wiggle room. The fact of the matter is that right now, there is a lot of private equity money circling around football and interest rates remain low.
They might not get a great deal and, to some degree, it may be kicking the can down the road, but they will get a deal.
3. ‘Mes Que Un Club’ (‘More than a club’) rules apply, which is a double-edged sword, but probably a net positive here
Barcelona’s club structure — with a board elected by members — means that loaning them money is more like lending money to a local government. On the surface, it’s not a good thing: elected officials don’t have the same sort of skin in the game because ultimately, unlike private investors, it’s not their money they’re playing with. They may be more prone to outside pressure and taking unreasonable risks for short-term popularity so lenders charge them more.
That’s true to some degree, though, perhaps less so than in the past. On the flip side, though, Barcelona’s public status gives them a little more clout with lenders. It’s one thing for a bank to threaten legal action against a club owned by an American hedge fund or Russian oligarch if they’re late with payments. It’s another to do so against a public trust like Barcelona, with tens of millions of supporters and newly installed management that’s inheriting the mess.
From a PR perspective, if Barca owe you money, a lender is more likely to want to renegotiate and get some positive press — “See? We’re helping Barca climb out of their hole and not being mean!” — than to call in the lawyers and repo men.
4. There’s a backbone of world-class talent, and most of it is young
Let’s leave Messi to one side for now and look at the rest. Marc-Andre ter Stegen (28), Frenkie de Jong (23), Pedri (18) and Ansu Fati (18) are undoubted A-list players, among the best in the world in their roles. Ronald Araujo (22), Sergino Dest (20) and Ilaix Moriba (18) are on their way to reaching that level.
If you really want to look at the world through Azulgrana-tinted glasses, you might add Riqui Puig (21), Oscar Mingueza (21) and Francisco Trincao (21) to that list and maybe chuck in loanees Carles Alena (23) and Jean-Clair Todibo (21). I’m not going to go that far, but of the latter six there’s a pretty good chance that one will become world class and another couple will be serviceable contributors. Given their ages, that’s pretty good.
5. Despite highs and lows, there are guys who’ve been around that have shown they don’t need to be immediately replaced
Jordi Alba is 31, but he’s having his best campaign in several years and is good for another couple of seasons (and he’s locked in through 2024 anyway). Clement Lenglet (25) is also locked in through 2026 and, while not everyone’s cup of tea, is a serviceable player. Heck, even Sergio Busquets (32), who had a rocky time earlier this year, when used in the right setup can give you another year or two.
6. Everybody is hurting financially, it’s not just you … which means the football ecosystem has changed
Transfers spending and wages will almost certainly be down in the summer as there’s less cash in the system. That hurts you because it’s harder to dump assets in order to raise cash quickly. Barca had the highest wage bill in the world for several years, and other clubs simply aren’t going to want to pick up salaries of overpaid Camp Nou busts. But the lack of cash in the system works both ways. It also means there’s less competition for the guys you want to keep, in particular those whose contracts you may want to extend, like Pedri or Ousmane Dembele. And, if you do need to make signings, they should, by the same principle, be that much cheaper.
7. Bad contracts don’t stick around in perpetuity and, in some cases, can be negotiated down
This probably won’t work with guys like Samuel Umtiti or Philippe Coutinho: you’re on the hook for their contracts until 2023. The same goes for Miralem Pjanic (30) until 2024. That’s OK. They’ll magically disappear off the wage bill in a few years. (And that’s important when you make projections and put together your three-year plan.) But you can go to someone like Gerard Pique — who is 34, locked in until 2024 and genuinely adores the club — and say: “Hey, Gerard, help us out … we’re really struggling here. Can we work something out?” He’s uber-rich to begin with, he’s married to somebody far wealthier than he is anyway, he probably has ambition for a role post-retirement … why not give it a shot?
Then there’s Sergi Roberto, who is out of contract at the end of the next season. This is the only club he’s ever known, he’s been injured all season, would he say “no” to more years and a little less money?
8. Barca’s economic model means they took more of the downside with COVID-19, but they should enjoy more of the upside when it’s over
The Camp Nou is the biggest stadium in European football and its closure meant crowds went from an average of 75,000 per game, pre-pandemic, to zero since. Barcelona’s museum is the third-most visited in all of Spain — its revenues also dropped to zero.
You don’t have to be a genius to see how, in absolute terms, closures affected Barca more than most. But when things reopen, that revenue will return in a big way. And it will impact Barca more than most too.
9. Ronald Koeman only has a contract through 2022
He has made mistakes and he may or may not be a long-term solution, but the Dutchman and former Barcelona player has surpassed expectations in terms of steadying the ship and getting buy-in from players. The fact that Barcelona are still in the running for a domestic double despite Messi’s burofax, despite Jose Maria Bartomeu’s resignation, despite the summer transfer mess, despite the financial implosion … at some point, all this means he deserves credit.
The good thing, though, is that if Barca need to go in a different direction, it won’t cost much to let him go. And, if he stays, he’s in no position to make major demands the way a high-profile manager might.
10. If you’re smart, you turn Messi’s situation into a win-win
Simply put, you need to put a number on what Messi brings to the club. A real number, not Laporta’s electoral voodoo economics when he said that Messi costs Barcelona 8% of their budget but brings in 30% of revenue. And then you speak to him and treat him like an adult. You tell him that you want him to stay, but if he expects to earn close to the $100m-plus he’s making now, it won’t happen, because it would be irresponsible on the part of the club. It would mean not paying down the debt and it would mean not surrounding him with players who can win things before he retires.
You don’t need to be ashamed to ask for a “hometown discount.” He doesn’t strike you as a guy who is motivated by money anyway. It doesn’t mean he needs to be like Pau Gasol and play for (nearly) nothing. You just need to show him what you will spend the money on if he takes a substantial pay cut and how that matters, whether it’s debt servicing or acquiring/retaining talent. Give yourself a number and stick to it. And hope that he agrees.
If he doesn’t? Hey, you will have instantly slashed a huge chunk off your wage bill and relieved a ton of financial pressure.
If he does? Well, you get another season of one of the greatest players in history at a price that probably is far less than he’s worth.
11. Jose Maria Bartomeu is gone…
Let the law determine what, if anything, he did wrong. But you can draw a line under the final years of his administration and the general air of toxicity that surround everything, like Pig-Pen’s cloud in Peanuts. Even Messi was happy to be photographed casting his vote in the post-Bartomeu elections — something we’ve never seen before.
Those are 11 reasons to be cheerful. You can, no doubt, come up with many more to be terrified. And, yes, a lot of it depends on how much faith you have in Laporta. He’s not a businessman, he’s fundamentally a lawyer and a politician and, admittedly, that doesn’t necessarily bode well. But if he’s humble enough to surround himself with smart people, if he doesn’t make the mistakes of the past, if he can sell the fan base on his project, he can make this work.
Barca are neither recession-proof, nor too big to fail. But they’re darn close.