Debt-ridden Barcelona was king of the 2022 transfer window, but at what cost?

No club brought in as much quality as Barcelona did in the recent transfer window, despite its financial woes. In the long term, for better or for worse, this will be known as the Summer of Barcelona

No club brought in as much quality as Barcelona did in the recent transfer window, despite its financial woes. In the long term, for better or for worse, this will be known as the Summer of Barcelona

If every football transfer deadline day had played out in a physical market, one would notice distinct characters caught in the mad rush to complete deals before the window slammed shut. There are the panic buyers, the freeloaders, the content-with-my-lot window shoppers, the loaners… and then, there’s Football Club Barcelona in 2022.

On the final day of the recent summer transfer window, Barcelona was the trader that wheeled in a cart filled with shiny merchandise in a desperate attempt to offload some quality wares at any cost, to balance the books after months of burning cash in the market – cash that they apparently do not have.

It is not uncommon for European football clubs to send off players towards the end of a transfer window. In fact, Paris St. Germain, another big-spending club, also went about offloading dead weight on deadline day. But, Barcelona’s activity was noteworthy, because of the crises this highly successful club has gotten into.

The debt crisis

“Barcelona are the only club that has no money but then… buys every player they want. I do not know how (they do it). It’s kind of weird, kind of crazy,” Bayern Munich head coach Julian Nagelsmann said at a press conference.

To sum up Barcelona’s troubles, the club’s debt rose to €1.3 billion last year, and having crossed a stipulated ‘salary limit’, the club was blocked by the Spanish league – La Liga – from registering a host of new players ahead of the 2022-23 season. This ‘salary limit’ is essentially a calculation of revenue against the value of the squad.

Barcelona has gone about circumventing the money problems by restructuring short-term debt into long-term debt by signing huge sponsorship deals – including a €280-million one with Spotify – borrowing €600 million from Goldman Sachs and partial sale of club assets, such as its TV rights and in-house production studio.

FC Barcelona President Joan Laporta with new signing Jules Kounde sign contracts during the defender’s unveiling on August 1, 2022
| Photo Credit: Reuters

All this financial manoeuvring finally allowed the club to register world-class signings such as Robert Lewandowski from Bayern Munich, Raphinha from Leeds United, and Jules Kounde from Sevilla for a reported sum of €140 million. There were free transfers, too, of players who are presumably paid high wages, including defender Andreas Christensen, midfielder Franck Kessie, and defender Hector Bellerin.

Barcelona President Joan Laporta has played a large part in both the financial and transfer activity since his return to presidency last year. Laporta inherited the financial mess left behind by predecessor Josep Bartomeu and has publicly spoken about the economic ‘levers’ — selling of club assets to raise funds and clear the debt — to reassure fans and stakeholders that all hope is not lost. By their manoeuvers, Laporta, the club’s director of sport Mateu Alemany and sporting advisor Jordi Cruyff have made it clear that the club prioritises immediate success to make its way out of the woods of financial stress.

The club could continue to pledge yet suspend debt repayments for a few more years while continuing to bolster the squad with new signings and keep its audiences excited. For super clubs like Barcelona, this luxury is afforded to them by decades of success and brand building. But the reality could catch up with the club, as the team continues to be affected by the off-field problems.

The identity crisis

For all the action that happened in the summer transfer window, nothing could perhaps top the way the club’s greatest player and asset, Lionel Messi, was shunted out last year. Messi’s contract had ended and the club just could not afford a new one for the seven-time Ballon d’Or winner. It was a teary exit for Messi after over 15 years of service for the club. But the Argentine was leaving a franchise that was now functioning very differently from the one that he joined.

Over the years, the club has strayed from its long-held identity as a team that was built on the passing ability of players. Possession of the football was the hallmark of the Golden Generation under Pep Guardiola between 2008 and 2012, and Luis Enrique’s treble-winning 2015 side benefited from it, too. But the big signings of Kounde, Lewandowski, Raphinha, and Kessie in a single transfer window prove that the club no longer wants to build on players who have come through the system.

File picture of Lionel Messi tearing up during his farewell press conference at Barcelona’s Nou Camp on August 8, 2021

File picture of Lionel Messi tearing up during his farewell press conference at Barcelona’s Nou Camp on August 8, 2021
| Photo Credit: Getty Images

History shows that Barcelona has always succeeded when products from its famed La Masia youth academy formed the core of the squad. And though Barcelona continues to use the ideologies of the revolutionary Johan Cruyff to groom its youth squads, fans have blamed the club hierarchy for signing big when there was a deficit, rather than promoting and developing youth.

It is not that there weren’t talented youngsters in the team. The likes of Pedri, Gavi, Ansu Fati, Alejandro Balde, Sergino Dest, and Riqui Puig showed tremendous potential. But Dest was sent on loan to AC Milan, and Puig left for LA Galaxy with Barcelona reserving the right of repurchase and 50% of any future sale. The other youngsters remaining will now be overshadowed by the newcomers.

Other youngsters who left the club this summer include attacker Ferran Jutglà, who joined Club Brugge, and loanees Alex Collado and Ez Abde. In January, Barcelona even let go of highly-rated 19-year-old Guinean striker Ilaix Moriba.

Bringing in club legend Xavi as a coach last season was supposed to solve the identity crisis, and while it was hoped that his arrival would have a similar effect as Guardiola’s arrival did in 2008, the immediate financial crisis has prevented Xavi from harnessing the Barcelona DNA to build a long-term dynasty with the youth coming through.

The criticism that the club’s player trades are influenced more by business decisions than by squad requirements is evident in the players Barcelona wanted to offload on the transfer deadline day.

FC Barcelona midfielder Frenkie de Jong in action against Rayo Vallecano. Barcelona tried desperately to convince de Jong to take a pay cut or leave the club in the summer, but he stayed

FC Barcelona midfielder Frenkie de Jong in action against Rayo Vallecano. Barcelona tried desperately to convince de Jong to take a pay cut or leave the club in the summer, but he stayed
| Photo Credit: Reuters

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was bought only six months ago, and the player reluctantly left for Chelsea. Memphis Depay, who was a rare spark of brilliance under Ronald Koeman, could not find a buyer. Martin Brathwaite, a signing that never worked, was released as a free agent. And 21-year-old Dest was loaned off to AC Milan.

Aubameyang, Brathwaite and Memphis ultimately proved to be short-term investments with new boys Lewandowski and Raphinha considered upgrades over them.

Frenkie de Jong, arguably one of Barcelona’s best players, had been tussling with the club all summer as the club wanted to slash his high wages to clear the wage bill for fresh recruits. And while de Jong refused to do so, Barcelona set about looking for a buyer. The Dutchman eventually stayed after much discussion. The club still owes him €17 million in deferred wages.

The market crisis

The Exodus of top players – including that of Luis Suarez – was caused by years of extravagant spending, the Genesis of which could be traced to the sale of Neymar in 2017 – a transfer that has, without doubt, had a tectonic impact on not only transfer valuations, but also on the fortunes of numerous clubs in Europe.

Ever since Neymar was sold for a world record fee of €222 million in 2017, Barcelona’s finances have spiralled out of control. It spent the money on his sale by buying Ousmane Dembele and Philippe Coutinho, both for fees above €140 million each. The pair have not lived up to their billing, with Dembele marred by injuries and Coutinho sent on various loan spells. Coutinho was finally sold to Aston Villa this summer.

The Neymar sale had a domino effect, inflating transfer fees around Europe and big clubs began to splash the cash. It took the COVID-19 pandemic, when clubs’ finances were hit, to bring parity to the market again. But after Barcelona began inserting difficult clauses in player contracts and sales, clubs around the continent now harbour a distrust when negotiating sales with the Spanish side.

Barcelona’s money problems also put La Liga, Real Madrid and other Spanish clubs under duress, as any sanctions imposed on it for failing to meet financial fair play norms could affect the running of the club, which would in turn affect the Spanish league coffers, considering Barcelona and Real Madrid attract the most revenue. According to Forbes, Real and Barcelona are the two most valuable football teams in the world – both teams are valued at roughly $5.1 billion.

Aware of its brand power, Barcelona played a major role in the formation of the failed European Super League, to break away from the league along with Real Madrid to have full power over the revenue they could pull along with other major clubs from around Europe. The Super League dream collapsed, but the lingering long-term debt could further Barcelona’s desperation to bargain for larger slices of the financial pie from La Liga or attempt another shot at a Super League. Whichever path the club chooses, the league and the market at large will be wary of Barcelona’s moves.

Despite the troubles, the short term, or at least the season ahead, looks optimistic for Barcelona. The team is flying high at the start of the season, having managed to rope in big names in one of its best summer transfer windows in many years. No club brought in as much quality as Barcelona did this year. The lure of a legacy club remains for players like Lewandowski. In the long term though, for better or for worse, this will be known as the Summer of Barcelona.

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