Joan Laporta has always followed Johan Cruyff. Growing up, he cut his hair like Cruyff; during his first term as president at Barcelona, the Dutchman who changed the club and the game like no one else was his advisor, an ideologue and a spiritual leader. And now, in Laporta’s second spell, he still is, even after his death. “I always have Johan with me because of everything he taught; deep down, he always guides us,” says Laporta. Cruyff’s son, Jordi, is the club’s sporting director, and there’s a recurring question that those affected by Cruyff often ask themselves, especially in times of uncertainty: what would Johan say?
One of Cruyff’s most famous maxims was “money in the field, not in the bank”. And that’s the plan, but it’s not that simple. Last Sunday, 83,021 packed the Camp Nou for the Gamper Trophy, Barcelona’s traditional presentation game, and witnessed a hugely impressive demolition of Pumas as optimism returned. It was an exciting first glimpse of a new era and new recruits: Robert Lewandowski, Raphinha, Jules Koundé, Franck Kessié and Andreas Christensen.
Including variables, Lewandowski cost Barcelona €50m. Koundé’s cost could amount to €62.5m and Raphinha’s total fees are expected to reach around €70m. There was also the re-signing of Ousmane Dembélé with 16 million euros more variable per season, a fortnight after he became a free agent and six months after being ordered to leave. No one has spent more than Barcelona this summer, and they continue to seek other signings, including right-back Marcos Alonso and Bernardo Silva. All of this begs the question: how?
How a club in debt of 1.3 billion euros, whose salary limit was set at less 144 million euros in March and losses of more than 400 million euros last year, a club described by its own leaders as “clinically dead” then “in intensive care”, fielding a team like this?
The short answer is: they couldn’t, not before less than twenty-four
hours before their season opener. And even then, Koundé
was still waiting to be included as Barcelona looked to complete their
attempt to make sufficient cuts by cutting wages or moving players,
or bring enough money to fully comply with the La Liga financial fair
game criteria and register all their players. Far from Barcelona being allowed to do whatever they want, as the ill-informed complaint says – remember Lionel Messi? – La Liga has the strictest control in Europe. Based on income and expenses, a limit salary is set by the league which defines what you can spend on your playing staff, through transfers, salaries and amortizations, and if you don’t comply you simply cannot register on the system.
This largely explains their evolution over the past two
months and why, on Friday evening, against the clock, they had succeeded in
record Lewandowski, Christensen, Raphinha, Kessié, Dembélé and Sergi Roberto.
Others are less convinced, concerned about the consequences, doubt that this can really be a long-term solution, or angry at what they see as their absence. Earlier this summer, Bayern Munich head coach Julian Nagelsmann insisted that Barcelona were the “only club in the world that don’t have the money but then buy all the players they want. It’s a bit strange, a bit crazy, I don’t know how they do it.
How, although it is a good idea or if it is applied in the best way is another question. When Laporta took over the presidency last year, one of his first steps was to take out a 500 million euro loan from Goldman Sachs which allowed them to restructure their debt. Then there’s what Barcelona call palancas, or levers. It’s a word that hasn’t just entered the lexicon, but almost entered a kind of footballing folklore and eclipsed everything else in the past two months, the summer spent imagining Laporta standing in front of a lifting machine, sweating and pulling frantically at the levers.
There were many, many signatures too. Every time you thought surely that must be it now, another player appeared and another lever was lowered. Just when you were convinced they couldn’t buy anymore, they did. And they’re not done yet, or at least that’s what they hope.
Basically shoot palancas means selling assets, raising funds against future income to balance your books. Usually for a football club that would mean players, but that’s not so easy to do when the few salable players you have aren’t so eager to go, and so Barcelona have looked elsewhere. The first one panel came at the end of June with the sale of 10% of their La Liga TV rights over the next 25 years to a company called Sixth Street. The second came three weeks later, with a further 15% going to Sixth Street for €315m. At the current value of the TV deal, €166 million per year, that would mean handing over a total of €1,867.5 million over 25 years – bread for today, hunger for tomorrow, some fear – but Barcelona said the deals would bring a capital gain of €667m immediately.
The third panel came in early August with the sale of just under 24.5% of Barca Studios, the club’s content production company, to crypto firm Socios for €100m. And the planned fourth would see another 24.5% of Barca Studios go to investment fund GDA Luma for €100m. Ultimately, on Friday, that deal was announced instead with Orpheus Media, owned by Jaume Roures, whose company Mediapro is La Liga’s broadcast partner. At the members’ meeting, the Barcelona board had also been given permission to sell up to 49.9% of the club’s merchandise and licensing arm, BLM.
All the while they have continued to try to cut costs, seeking departures for players and pay cuts for those who remain. Philippe Coutinho, Clemente Lenglet and Oscar Mingueza were among those to leave. Samuel Umtiti tries to get an exit. Pressure has been put on Martin Braithwaite and specifically Frenkie de Jong, who has been told to leave or accept a 50% cut on a salary which, with amortization, will cost Barcelona more than €30m next year. He is already owed 18 million euros in deferred payments. There was even a letter from the club informing him that the extension he signed under the previous regime could be part of a series of four renewals which they claim were fraudulent – seen by De Jong’s camp as a unsubtle attempt to heavily weaponize it. However, he continues to insist on his desire to carry on, even if things get toxic.
When Barcelona introduced Koundé, Laporta claimed that having also signed a new sponsorship deal with Spotify worth around €70m a year, Barcelona had raised €868m in just two months. “We think we can register players with everything we’ve done,” he said. “The risk is under control: we did it to save the club and sign players. I hope we won’t have to pull the levers anymore. If there is a situation that requires us to do so, we will consider it. The interpretation of the rules of fair play has its complexities. I hope our interpretation is the same as the league’s.”
It wasn’t, and so they had to shoot more. The league did not accept the calculation on the first two pallets, judging that Barcelona had used €150m of their own money to inflate the value of deals and told them they still hadn’t reached the threshold where they could freely register players. After all, the gap between minus 144 million euros limit salary they were in March, the last time the figures were made public, and the €560m wage bill they actually had was huge. And this mass had increase during the summer. On Friday, the fourth lever was pulled, with Roures coming to the rescue.
These documents were to be presented to the league for verification, with no guarantee that it will be done in time for tomorrow. Barcelona also informed that their calculations suggested they would need an extra €20m or €30m to register all their players in time for the opening night of the season, and so meetings continued, everything went smoothly. accelerating towards opening night.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who only came in January, could be the next out. Memphis Depay, who signed up just in time for matchday one last season but only after Gerard Pique took a pay cut to take Barcelona under the limit, and whose No.9 shirt was given to Lewandowski, could follow him. And still De Jong resists.
If there are any sales, they are unlikely to be completed and cleared in time for Saturday. Meanwhile, Pique, who is said to have over €50m in wages on hold, has been approached to accept further cuts, as have Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba.
The pressure is mounting and the fans are waiting to see if the season starts with the money on the pitch or in the stands. At least some of them.