Tuesday, August 9, 2022

Barcelona are back from the abyss but are playing with their future again

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Given he was once assured that he was ‘the future of Barcelona’, Frenkie de Jong might roll his eyes at stories like the one below. A few months ago, the Catalan club talked about a potential summer destination but this at a time when La Liga’s salary cap meant they couldn’t register any signings. The player was interested but understandably skeptical and the situation formed a large part of the discussions. However, Barcelona were persistent. They assured the player that they would find a way. In the meantime, they sold their image. Everyone still wants to play Barka.

The sales club, which originated from Germany, was not so confident. They didn’t want to do business. Frankly, they were skeptical about getting the full reward. They have a completely different image of Barca now.

It’s one that’s becoming more and more common in the game. Therefore, FC Bayern Munich demanded the transfer for Robert Lewandowski in the storm. Because of this, some sellers have increased asking prices for players when Barcelona call, while inflating the market just in case the third installment doesn’t arrive. Other clubs have since decided not to do business with them on principle.

It says a lot about where Barca stand. It’s also having a real impact as so many clubs have their plans thrown into disarray by their rotating platters.

Barca may no longer dictate the transfer market in the sense that they will be the club to buy the best players in the world, but they have influenced this summer’s window more than anyone else. These two facts are deeply connected.

Equally related are the recent question of how Barca are actually doing this and the more relevant question of what happens next. if that is sustainable.

After all, La Liga rules meant the club had to muster around €600m to even hit the market this summer. These questions are all the more pressing as Barca are yet to figure out the definitive numbers to actually register four signings in Lewandowski, Raphinha, Franck Kessie and Andreas Christensen.

The immediate answer, and one that is more acute for Spanish football as a whole, is that there is a way around La Liga’s salary cap. Namely through individual entries in the balance sheet – including installment payments – into the coming year in order to increase the “cash in flow”. Barcelona has replicated this through massive borrowing, most notably from Goldman Sachs, effectively converting short-term debt into long-term debt. These 600 million euros must now be repaid in 10 years and not in one.

Other stores have contributed – for now. A new €70m sponsorship deal has been signed with Spotify, but this will cover naming rights for the shirt, training kit and stadium. This gives them less room for future negotiations, which is related to the short-term nature of other deals. Barca have also sold 10% of their La Liga TV rights to investment firm Sixth Street for €207.5m for 25 years and intend to sell up to 49.9% of Barcelona licenses and merchandise.

In other words, they’re selling their image in more ways than ever before.

Industry metrics have a number of descriptions for this as well.

“Like taking out multiple risky mortgages on future earnings.”

“Sell the family silver.”

“I’m going to the casino.”

“Extraordinary.”

There was general astonishment within the game.

The main question these figures ask is how the club will get all this money back – and with huge interest on top of that.

The extent of their deal is all the more revealing given that Barcelona have actually been ruled out. They just didn’t have to go that far.

After a relatively idle spell from their illustrious academy, Barca have been blessed with a truly brilliant next generation in the form of Gavi, Pedri and Ansu Fati. Announcing a thoroughly sustainable new three-year project, as Joan Laporta pretty much did during one of her final crises in 2003, would surely have been the easiest sale in the world. It would have been based entirely on her most idealized image: youth production; Patience; Romance; a soccer identity.

It would also have been directed by one of the high priests of it all. A young side playing under Xavi and based on Gavi, Pedri and Fati would certainly have been a vision. There would have been so much time to let the club grow and do the very best once again.

Instead, Xavi has insisted on this approach as well. He has asked for “experienced” signings to suit Laporta’s yearning for a star.

“We have to strengthen ourselves to fight for all the trophies.”

That’s quite a giveaway. They want everything and they want it now.

But why? Why the rush? Why the risk? Why not wait and build something bigger; something that better suits her story and her best sides?

It feels unnecessary.

Ironically, some of this is based on her old self-image. Some of it is based on all these investment deals.

At a very low level, there are characters at Camp Nou who just can’t accept that they are no longer the greatest in the game. There’s an understandable resentment at how state clubs in Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain took their stars and – worse – their ideas and used them to become better than Barca. It partially explains some choices that often seem like desperation. In that sense, and somewhat notably, they haven’t adapted as well as their new Super League counterparts at Real Madrid. The European champions have accepted their new status more and tried to build on it with so much youth.

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