Investigation: Barcelona’s financial crisis and what the rest of football thinks of it

As the football industry shuddered from the reverberations of the COVID-19 pandemic, the bright minds in the Barcelona boardroom concocted a plan. With the club beset by financial angst, one of their executives approached UEFA, the organiser of the Champions League, with a proposal. 

Barcelona required loans to ease the pain caused by years of poor decision-making in the transfer market and extravagance on player salaries, all of which was exacerbated by a pandemic that shattered commercial and matchday income.  

The idea, therefore, was to apply for a loan from a bank and use anticipated future broadcast revenues from playing in the Champions League as the security for the loan.

UEFA’s response was a straightforward “no” and European football’s governing body explained to the Barcelona official that they could not use several years’ worth of future Champions League television money as security because there was no guarantee they would qualify for the tournament in every season. This is because Champions League qualification is secured through sporting merit, rather than a birthright.

The Barcelona official was described as genuinely surprised by the rejection.

When approached this week, UEFA told The Athletic it was unable to comment publicly due to “the confidentiality of the process”. 

Perhaps, though, this is the kind of desperation and, at times, hubris that has led many rival club executives and football supporters across the world to eye Barcelona with bewilderment in recent times.

This summer, the curiosity has, in places, developed into envy and resentment, as Barcelona spent a combined €140million (£117m, $142.8m) to sign Brazil winger Raphinha from Leeds United, Poland forward Robert Lewandowski from Bayern Munich and France centre-back Jules Kounde from Sevilla. They also picked up Andreas Christensen and Franck Kessie from Chelsea and AC Milan respectively on free transfers.

Barcelona also still hope to sign two further Chelsea players, with defensive pair Cesar Azpilicueta and Marcos Alonso both targets.

Along the way, they have exasperated clubs across Europe, most notably in beating Arsenal and Chelsea to Raphinha, before outflanking Chelsea once again over Kounde. Barcelona have also re-signed France winger Ousmane Dembele after his previous deal expired in June, while beating arch-rivals Real Madrid to Racing Santander’s promising teenager Pablo Torre.

And they would still quite fancy adding Bernardo Silva from Manchester City. 

The tension has been exacerbated by an extraordinary economic backdrop to Barcelona’s activity.

Only two months ago, club president Joan Laporta said the Camp Nou side had been “clinically dead” when he was elected in March 2021. He added that Barcelona “remained in the ICU”. 

Last August, Laporta gave a press conference in which he revealed a debt of €1.35billion (£1.13bn, $1.38bn) before outlining how the club’s salary obligations accounted for 103 per cent of income (even after Lionel Messi had left the club as a free agent once his deal expired) and said the club’s net worth stood at minus €451million.

A loan worth €80million had been taken out to cover player wages earlier in the calendar year. Another line of credit worth €550million had been required from Goldman Sachs to restructure the club’s debts.

Long-serving defender Gerard Pique accepted a wage cut last summer so that Barcelona could actually register new signings Eric Garcia and Memphis Depay.

The club’s chief executive Ferran Reverter — who has since departed amid disagreements with Laporta — said that an audit of the club’s finances revealed Barcelona to be “technically bankrupt” and added they would have been “dissolved” if they had been a PLC (Public Limited Company).

Reverter has not been replaced, with Laporta simply expanding his portfolio.

Barcelona have spent €140million on Raphinha, Robert Lewandowski and Jules Kounde this summer (Photo: Getty)

In short, it was a shambles and, at face value, the temptation is to reach for the recent conclusion of Bayern head coach Julian Nagelsmann. He said: “Barcelona, 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.”

At Camp Nou, however, they see matters differently, and their argument is that investment will drive growth and turbocharge the club’s return to the summit of European football. 

There are, also, no shortage of observers within football who view the summer endured by Barcelona midfielder Frenkie de Jong with real unease.

De Jong, who joined from Ajax for £65million three years ago, is now deemed expendable and the Spanish media has relentlessly reported this summer how the club needs the Dutchman to leave in order to register their new signings while remaining within La Liga’s economic controls.

The problem, however, is De Jong is still owed £17million in deferred wages, which he wants to be paid if he leaves the club, while he is under pressure to take a pay cut if he stays. Former Manchester United captain and UK TV pundit Gary Neville called it “bullying” and said the global union for footballers, FIFPro, should support De Jong.

Laporta, speaking to CBS, said: “I respect all the opinions but they don’t have the information to say these statements. The players we signed this summer are an investment. Some people consider it as an expense. Existing players understand perfectly our investments because the players we are signing are adjusting their salaries to a new structure. If we don’t do anything, then probably the club would disappear.”

The Athletic has spoken to numerous contacts around the La Liga club, as well as across boardrooms and governing bodies, to ascertain just how the football world currently views the most fascinating story of this transfer window. Our report will detail: 

  • That with just over a week until their 2022-23 season begins, doubts remain as to whether Barcelona will even be able to register their cast of stellar signings to play for the club
  • How an advisory firm close to Real Madrid president Florentino Perez helped Barcelona secure investments worth hundreds of millions this summer
  • The extent to which several leading Barcelona first-team players have felt themselves to be victims of smear campaigns as the club sought to reduce its wage bill 
  • The distrust of clubs negotiating sales to Barcelona and the hyper-vigilance paid to agreements 
  • How Barcelona’s pre-season fixtures were dictated by the fallout of the collapsed European Super League and why their rivals view them as the most likely of the remaining breakaway clubs to fall back into line. 

To understand Barcelona’s behaviour this summer, we must recall the club’s experience in recent seasons.

After eight La Liga titles in 11 seasons between 2009 and 2019, Barcelona have now endured three seasons without winning their domestic championship, while it is seven years since they reached a Champions League final.

While many supporters of less successful clubs will be reaching for the world’s smallest violin, this has triggered a collective nervous breakdown in Catalonia, with Barcelona’s fiercest rivals, Real Madrid, winning four Champions Leagues since Barcelona last lifted that trophy in 2015.

Last summer, Barcelona were further emasculated by the loss of talisman Messi on a free transfer to Paris Saint-Germain, and their financial situation was so dismal that former Newcastle United flop Luuk de Jong, signed on loan from fellow La Liga side Sevilla, was the underwhelming individual to inherit Messi’s old locker at the training ground.

The season that followed was underwhelming, as Barcelona tumbled out of the Champions League in the group stage after winning two of their six matches and then lost in the Europa League quarter-finals to German club Eintracht Frankfurt. (Since the pandemic began, Barcelona have also been embarrassed 8-2 by Bayern in a one-off tie in the last eight of the 2019-20 Champions League and suffered a 4-1 home defeat by PSG in a last-16 elimination the following season.)

Many close observers believe the start of the decline can be traced back to the world-record sale of Neymar to PSG for €222m in the summer of 2017 and the manner in which Barcelona subsequently misspent those winnings.

They committed a combined €375million on Philippe Coutinho, Dembele, Paulinho, Nelson Semedo, Gerard Deulofeu and Malcom. The following season, a further €273million went on Antoine Griezmann, De Jong, Martin Braithwaite, Neto, Junior Firpo, Emerson and Marc Cucurella.

It is difficult to describe any of those players as clear-cut successes in a Barcelona jersey.

In the case of Griezmann, they took out a loan to fund his transfer from Atletico Madrid. As for Coutinho, the most farcical night came when, while on loan at Bayern two years after joining Barcelona from Liverpool, he came off the bench and scored twice against his parent club in that 8-2 Champions League hiding.

Perhaps most gallingly, there have since been claims Barcelona turned down the chance to sign Kylian Mbappe, then of Monaco and now at PSG, when the option was presented by the Spanish agent Junior Minguella. Erling Haaland was, in his younger days, also judged to be the wrong profile for them.

Barcelona did hold a series of meetings, including a trip to Germany, to try to sign Haaland from Borussia Dortmund this summer, but he has instead joined Manchester City.

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Barcelona held meetings to try to sign Haaland this summer, but he instead joined Man City (Photo: Getty)

In short, it has been an ordeal and Barcelona’s sense of crisis became sufficiently grave that the wife of their previous coach, Ronald Koeman, started lighting candles in a Buddha statue at the couple’s apartment before key matches, before avoiding the live coverage and instead socialising with De Jong’s girlfriend, as neither woman wished to put themselves through the trauma of the games.

That story is told in Barca, a recent book by Financial Times journalist Simon Kuper, who offers a further window into Barcelona’s desperation when he recounts a conversation with a UEFA official.

In his book, Kuper claims the UEFA official dined with a Barcelona counterpart in February 2020 and, during the meal, the Camp Nou official complained about what he perceived to be the governing body’s light touch on Financial Fair Play when it came to Manchester City and PSG, who are both owned by funds or individuals linked to nation-states. This, the argument went, had created an environment in which Barcelona would struggle to compete financially, such is the wealth at the two clubs’ disposal.

Kuper writes: “Eventually, the Barca official asked, ‘Is there anyone in your FFP department we could pay?’. The UEFA official understood that his counterpart was trying to find somebody to bribe.” 

It is an extraordinary allegation and it was even more remarkable this week when The Athletic asked UEFA if their official in question had internally disclosed this conversation, in which a member club appeared to be testing the water on how to induce European football’s regulator. We also asked whether any investigation had been launched.

UEFA said the organisation “is unaware of any such meeting or request”. Barcelona have been approached for comment.

It should be said that this allegation, along with the appeal to UEFA to advance television money, precedes the Laporta regime.

The club, under their new president, are pursuing a different approach to returning to their former glories, instead heading down the route of activating several economic “levers” designed to inject cash into the coffers, fund new signings and get the good times rolling once more.

Laporta spent some time last month in Las Vegas, where Barcelona defeated Real Madrid in a pre-season Clasico, and perhaps it was a fitting metaphor for a man who is rolling the dice on his club’s future.

The need for action was clear.

Having inherited huge debts when he began his second spell as president, Laporta was faced with a choice.

One option was to sell off the squad to reduce debts and accept the club would spend years in the wilderness. “This would mean fading into irrelevance,” says one former Barcelona commercial executive, who wishes to remain anonymous to protect his relationships at the club.

The alternative was to take risks by investing further in the playing squad.

In the corridors of power, Barcelona executives call this approach “The Virtuous Circle”, which was the method they followed in 2003, when now Manchester City chief executive Ferran Soriano was on the board. The theory states that investing on the pitch – signing talented players, creating brands (such as Ronaldinho back then), implementing Barcelona’s style – will make everything else tick financially.

This time around, Lewandowski is viewed as the essential marquee acquisition and considered the man to drive shirt sales and demonstrate that Barcelona really are back.

The flip side is that the Pole turns 34 years old this month, has been handed a lucrative four-year contract (albeit at a slight reduction on his previous wages at Bayern) and there are some in Munich who actually consider the perennial German champions, who received over €45million for a player who was entering the final year of his contract, to be the real winners here.

This is partially because Bayern coach Nagelsmann has different tactical ideas for how to shape his forward line and the club did not foresee any club, besides Barcelona, spending this kind of money on a player in the autumn of his career.

Barcelona were also reported to have committed to €20million in agent fees to Lewandowski’s representative Pini Zahavi over the four years of the striker’s contract, although sources close to the deal insisted to The Athletic that only €5million worth of commission from the transfer will go to the Israeli intermediary.

At the time of publication, however, while Lewandowski’s signing has been announced, his La Liga registration is still to be formalised. This is the case for every Barcelona signing this summer, as well as Dembele, who counts as a new signing as he signed fresh terms after his previous deal had expired.

So signing players is one thing, actually getting them cleared to go on the pitch while complying with La Liga’s economic controls (essentially their version of Financial Fair Play) is another.


Lewandowski’s signing has been announced, but his La Liga registration is still to be formalised (Photo: Getty)

The Spanish league scrutinises a club’s audited accounts and sets a limit predicated on income against outgoings, which, in basic terms, essentially subtracts operational costs and debt repayments from their revenue for the following season.

Barcelona must satisfy these regulations before La Liga approve a player’s registration. This has been a major issue for them in recent years, with the club often relying on existing players to defer or accept lower wages to allow new team-mates to be registered.

The scale of Barcelona’s salary mismanagement is extraordinary.

In 2019, their €501million wage bill was 33 per cent higher than Manchester United’s — and United were the second highest payers in Europe.

A leak of Messi’s contract in Spanish newspaper El Mundo in January 2021 revealed the four-year extension the Argentinian signed in 2017 was worth a total of more than €550million gross if all conditions and clauses were met.

Barcelona had become the first team in world sport to hit €1billion in revenue in 2019, but a former executive, who wishes not to be named to protect business relationships, explained that wage obligations ate into those revenues: “The red flags were the salaries; every year at a meeting with the socios (Barcelona fans who are members of the club), the board and president need to present and approve the numbers. In the analysis, there was always the warning that sporting salaries were above all recommendations and that was a problem for the club.

“There was a year they said it could reach 70 per cent of the budget of the club and some people were saying we need to stop to protect the club, but nobody did anything about it.

“If you tell the fans we need to be careful with money and they can’t have Messi, the fans will say they want Messi. Here we have the circus element. A president knows he is gone in five years and then he wishes good luck to the next guy.

“Even those years where we passed $1billion in revenue, the profit was peanuts.” 

It would be wrong to say Barcelona have not taken steps to ease the pain.

Their wage bill was eased by over €200million when Messi left upon the expiry of his contract (although he, too, is still owed a chunk of money for deferred wages). Atletico now cover the entirety of Griezmann’s wages following his return to them on a two-year loan deal.

But the borrowing has continued.

Laporta received permission in October from the socios to seek more money, this time a further €1.5billion from Goldman Sachs to remodel the club’s Camp Nou stadium and its surrounding area in an attempt to help generate more income in the long-term.

This summer, Barcelona have sought to appease La Liga by triggering several economic levers.

They announced a new major deal with Spotify in March, which is said to be worth €62.5million per year to sponsor the men’s and women’s teams (Barcelona women’s side were reigning European champions at the time), the training kits and the Camp Nou. The previous long-term agreements with first-team jersey sponsor Rakuten and training kit sponsor Beko were worth slightly more combined and did not include the women’s team or stadium naming rights.

Barcelona have agreed to sell 25 per cent of their La Liga television rights income for the next 25 years to global investment firm Sixth Street. The first 10 per cent of this agreement is worth a total capital gain of €267million, while the figure for the rest has not been publicly disclosed but is understood to be worth over €300million.

This has divided opinion.

Barcelona currently receive around €160million for domestic and international La Liga television rights, which means that, in effect, they will be giving up €40million next year (as 25 per cent of the TV rights), but this figure would be expected to rise or drop relative to increases or decreases in the value of La Liga’s broadcasting deals.

Barcelona, along with Real Madrid and Athletic Bilbao, had rejected a collective agreement secured by La Liga to inject funds into clubs last year when they refused to sign up to a 50-year agreement with the private equity firm CVC, which proposed to take eight per cent of the clubs’ television revenues each season.

On Monday, while announcing the signing of Kounde (another who is not yet registered to play), Barcelona announced they had sold a 10 per cent stake of their Barca Studios production house to the blockchain-enabled fan token platform, for €100million. That money, however, will not be presented in its entirety upfront.

Laporta also has approval to sell up to 49 per cent of Barcelona’s merchandising and licensing operation, but critics argue this would also represent the club seeking cash in the short term at the expense of the long term.

Or, more figuratively, they have food for today but may starve tomorrow.

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Summer signing Jules Kounde is not yet registered to play for Barcelona this season (Photo: Getty)

The aforementioned former Barcelona executive sets out the dilemma: “These funds like Sixth Street are being smart.

“Instead of being owners, where you have to operate the club, they instead get direct access to the revenue stream without the hassle of having to run the thing. You don’t get the headaches, you don’t have the fans against you. Nobody knows who you are. Who is Mr CVC or Mr Sixth Street? It can appear impersonal, which is a little scary to me.

“The big question mark is whether it is a good decision, medium to longer term? But Laporta doesn’t have a choice, really; it is this path or shutting down or not competing at all and becoming irrelevant, a slow way to death for a club like Barcelona. The next presidents, who follow Laporta, will deal with the repercussions.” 

Barcelona believe these agreements will be enough to register their flurry of new signings, yet sources close to La Liga feel it is more likely the club will only register some of those players before the season begins at home to Rayo Vallecano on August 13, and that it may be closer to the end of the transfer window (which is on September 1), after they have offloaded some unwanted players and their wages, that they are able to register the rest.

Talks with La Liga are expected in the coming days. During negotiations with Leeds over Raphinha, Barcelona’s anxiety became apparent. For example, at one point, they wanted Leeds to legally agree the player’s transfer in this window, but potentially wait until the next one in January to actually process it and receive the cash for him if it turned out that Barcelona could not register him before deadline day at the start of next month.

Leeds were not prepared to play ball and also stipulated that much of the money had to be paid upfront, while inserting a penalty clause into the contract, committing Barcelona to forfeiting an additional €10million if they failed to meet a fixed payment date.

One La Liga club’s chief executive, who spoke on the condition of anonymity due to sensitive relations between the two clubs, has told The Athletic that his team would indisputably be injecting penalty clauses into any sales to Barcelona, such is the concern over the Catalans’ long-term ability to pay instalments.

The same executive also questioned whether Barcelona mortgaging their future to fund the present is in the spirit of the sustainability encouraged by La Liga’s economic controls. His club, while working strictly within the limits, have been unable to get much done in terms of incomings this summer and have found themselves being outbid by Italian clubs on player salaries. “Then we look over at Catalonia and we wonder, ‘How the hell is it happening?’”

Within league-wide La Liga meetings, the executive said the situation at Camp Nou is rarely mentioned, with clubs instead whispering quietly because they recognise the Spanish top flight needs a strong Barcelona to grow the product. 

Laporta said: “I have the feeling that we are completing a task, despite the challenges. Interpreting the fair-play (La Liga’s rules) is not easy, and our rivals take advantage of the situation, saying this and that about Barca. The message is one of optimism and confidence. We have done operations to be able to do that. I hope our interpretation is the same as La Liga’s and they are not going to block the registration of players.”

Barcelona’s wiggle room was further marginalised by a La Liga rule change last month, which closed a loophole that had allowed clubs to register younger players as “B” team salaries, which would be exempt from the salary cap even if the youngsters largely turned out for the first team in La Liga.

As such, Barcelona’s focus now is on moving players out, but this is not proving easy when those they want shot of are on high salaries — or are still wrangling over deferred payments in the case of De Jong. Even Clement Lenglet, who Barcelona managed to move to Tottenham Hotspur on loan, will have over 50 per cent of his salary covered by his parent club.

Barcelona are also looking for clubs to take Samuel Umtiti, Miralem Pjanic, Riqui Puig, Depay and Braithwaite, while Francisco Trincao signed for Sporting Lisbon last month.

“We are working on the exits (of unwanted players),” Laporta said, “but it is not easy.”  

On July 5, Madrid-based newspaper Marca published leaked details of Frenkie de Jong’s Barcelona contract.

Its report claimed De Jong is owed €88.58million in salary and bonus payments over the remaining four years of his deal, in addition to €8million if he plays more than 60 per cent of matches in each of those four seasons, while he could earn up to €12.8m if the club win league titles and Champions Leagues in that time.

The situation is further complicated as De Jong’s salary was reduced to €3million for 2020-21 and €6million last season, as he agreed to salary cuts and deferrals to help the club through the pandemic.

His reward for doing so has been a summer of breathless speculation about his future.

The long and short of his situation is this: Barcelona need to offload players, head coach Xavi has other midfield options in Pedri and Gavi, as well as new addition Kessie, while Bernardo Silva could yet join, too. De Jong, while rated by Xavi, is therefore deemed a possible high-worth sale and Barcelona do not have many of those at their disposal right now.

The catch, though, is that De Jong is still owed €17million in deferred wages and wants this to be resolved before he agrees to leave; the player also remains genuinely happy in Barcelona.

Manchester United have spent several months in conversations with Barcelona and reached an €85million agreement to sign De Jong. United agreed to pay a guaranteed fee of €75million plus add-ons potentially worth another €10million.

Yet the move has not materialised and Chelsea, whose new American co-owner Todd Boehly recently dined with Laporta in Barcelona, are considering hijacking United’s key summer target, who is keen to play in the Champions League (United have not qualified for the 2022-23 competition, Chelsea have) and would prefer to live in London if he is to be forced out of Barcelona. United, however, continue to pursue the player and remain hopeful.

In public comments last week, Laporta appeared to be putting pressure on De Jong to accept lower wages if he remains with Barcelona.

Laporta said: “He wants to stay and we want him to stay. What is clear is that we have a new salary scale and all the players have to fit into it.

“We are trying to make these players understand the reality of the club. We find ourselves with a salary mass triggered by more than 40 per cent. We all have to make an effort. We are going to do everything possible to make him stay and we hope that the player will also do everything possible to stay.”

Frenkie de Jong, Barcelona

Laporta has appeared to be putting pressure on Frenkie de Jong to cut his wages this summer (Photo: Getty)

Representatives of Barcelona players have noted how the Messi, Griezmann and De Jong contracts have all found their way into Spanish newspapers and several told The Athletic this made them suspect the leaks may have come from Barcelona themselves as attempts to put pressure on players by shaping public opinion against them. Barcelona were approached for comment.

Agents of Barcelona players wonder privately who will be next, feeding a paranoia within the squad. Some wondered whether goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen, whose contract is set to rise in value significantly next year, may be the next one to come under pressure.

In January, it was the turn of Dembele, who both Laporta and director of football Mateu Alemany were keen to sell as he had been refusing to renew his contract on the terms offered by the club. As such, Alemany told Barcelona’s own television channel that the Frenchman needed to find a new club by the end of the month.

When Barcelona threatened to leave Dembele in the stands for the rest of last season, Spain’s players’ union, the AFE, sprang to his defence. It said: “The AFE considers that not reaching an agreement to renew a contract does not imply a labour breach, so it cannot have any consequences. Not picking a player for a period of time without any injury, illness or physical impediment supposes a devaluation of his image that will negatively affect his future contracts.”

For too many players, this has been a common experience at Barcelona in recent years. Promised and gifted the world when they sign, they are then chewed up and spat out on the other side.

Depay, for example, took a pay cut to join Barcelona last summer compared to the terms on offer to stay with French club Lyon, such was his desire to play for the club. One year on, he is one of the players Barcelona would like to sell.

His countryman De Jong, meanwhile, spurned both Manchester City and PSG to move from Ajax to Barcelona, the club he dreamed of playing for as a child. De Jong is described by one peer as a “very normal guy, a good kid, quiet, does not go out, does not misbehave”.

A source close to Xavi insisted it is untrue that he has asked De Jong to reduce his salary if he wishes to stay at the club, arguing it is more likely the coach set out clearly that the 44-cap Netherlands international was unlikely to be a key figure in his starting team in the coming season, a point which was emphasised when De Jong was asked to play as a centre-back rather than in midfield on the club’s recent pre-season tour.

As the season nears, these discussions are expected to become more frantic.

Last January, for example, defender Umtiti took one of the four wage cuts or deferrals he has accepted during his six years at the club to allow Barcelona to register Ferran Torres, a forward signed from Manchester City.

Umtiti was one of those, along with Puig, Neto, Braithwaite and Oscar Mingueza, who was told by Xavi in May that they would not feature for him in 2022-23. The club even sent the players messages to say they could take further holidays to arrange transfers rather than begin pre-season. FIFPro, the players’ union, is monitoring the situation but would only become involved if directly asked to do so by a player, representative or the respective Spanish and Dutch players’ unions in the case of De Jong. As of now, this has not happened.

Even for those players left out of the tour, Barcelona are continuing to manage the situation carefully to comply with contractual obligations. They provide space for the players to train at their HQ along with physios and coaches.

Should La Liga insist that Barcelona reduce their wages further, representatives are concerned that divisions will emerge in the dressing room, particularly if there is a situation where headline new signings are framed as being unable to play because of the supposed greed of players the club no longer wants to keep.

The tension between players and the club precedes the current presidency.

Under Laporta’s predecessor, Josep Maria Bartomeu, Uruguay-based communications company i3 Ventures was accused of creating fake online media accounts to defend the record of Bartomeu and undermine opponents, including players such as Pique and Messi, as well as rival candidates for the presidency. The company denies this.

Bartomeu said it was only a form of social media monitoring and no attacks had been requested. Nonetheless, it led to a spate of director resignations and he spent a night in jail in March of last year as police investigated the affair.

Striker Luis Suarez, meanwhile, was left furious when Barcelona’s then-coach Koeman told him in a 40-second phone call in the summer of 2020 that he would no longer be needed at the club. Nobody from Bartomeu’s board called to thank Suarez for scoring almost 200 goals in Barcelona colours.

The players themselves have not always been faultless. For example, there was a period under previous coaches where they did not train because it was deemed too cold outside, while some felt there was some kind of unwritten rule not to tackle Messi too hard in sessions.  

In light of these experiences, it is all the more remarkable this summer to witness the extent to which the world’s most talented footballers remain besotted by the idea of playing for Barcelona.

In January, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang took a flight to Catalonia on deadline day to accelerate a move to Arsenal and accepted terms that will see him paid less in the short term. Adama Traore joined Barcelona, his hometown club where he was on the books in his youth, on loan from Wolverhampton Wanderers in January and accepted a pay cut in the hope he would play well enough to earn a permanent move back to Camp Nou, an aspiration which proved unsuccessful.

When Christensen signed on a free transfer, the unveiling was accompanied by a note he’d written as an eight-year-old declaring his ambition to play for Barcelona. Raphinha, meanwhile, saw Leeds agree a fee with fellow Premier League side Chelsea, but he held on for several weeks until Barcelona were able to fund a transfer.

In the latter case, their hopes were aided by the fact Raphinha’s representative, Deco, is a former Barcelona player, a friend of Laporta and a current employee at the club. Deco is said to have waived a direct agent’s fee for this specific transfer.

Deco is their external scout for South America and part of meetings with Alemany and Jordi Cruyff, the technical secretary, over transfer targets.

It does, at times, seem to be a small world at Barcelona under Laporta, whose son Guim was the assistant coach of Gabon’s national team previously while Deco was working as an advisor to that African country’s football association.

This is all said to have helped when it came to edging Gabon international Aubameyang’s move from Arsenal over the line in January.

For so long, Barcelona and Real Madrid have been defined by the things that separate them, yet in recent times, these two clubs, at least at presidential level, appear to have more in common.

On the domestic front, Madrid chief Perez and Barcelona counterpart Laporta are regularly jousting with La Liga’s chairman Javier Tebas, while Madrid and Barcelona, along with Italian giants Juventus, are the only clubs who remain publicly committed to the European Super League project.

Domestically, Madrid and Barcelona both believe they are the key generators of interest and revenue for Spanish football and therefore deserve larger slices of the financial pie.

This is arguably the key reason Madrid, in particular, have clashed with La Liga during Tebas’ nine years at the helm, with the club filing dozens of legal complaints against the league.

Laporta’s relationship with Tebas has also been fraught, most notably earlier this summer when Tebas suggested Barcelona could not afford to sign Lewandowski. Laporta, for his part, is said to have started to send documents to La Liga in the Catalan language rather than Spanish.

Barcelona’s own dedication to a Super League is long-standing.

When Bartomeu resigned as president in October 2020, he publicly stated during his farewell speech that the club had agreed to join a Super League.

During Laporta’s recent successful presidential campaign, he said he would renew Messi’s contract and this was partly guided by the fact he had anticipated €300million worth of signing-on money from JP Morgan, the bank that was financing the mooted breakaway. As such, the Super League’s collapse had implications for Barcelona that arguably went a long way to them losing their Argentine superstar.

Perhaps most intriguing is that Key Capital, a Madrid-based advisory and brokerage firm, oversaw the auction that led to Barcelona selling that share of their future TV income to Sixth Street.

Key Capital has a long association with Perez and one of the company’s partners, Anas Laghrari, was even thought to be in the running to be general secretary of the Super League, with Perez set to be the chairman. The Financial Times has previously reported that Perez has known Laghrari since he was born, after previously working with the financier’s father on construction projects in Morocco.

As such, hardcore Madrid supporters may find it ironic that close associates of Perez have greased the wheels of Barcelona’s recovery this summer, but they should arguably be pleased, as Madrid need their traditional sparring partners to be in better health to drive the revenue of both clubs, the domestic league and any future Super League.

Separate sources speculated that these moves could weaken Barcelona in the long term.

More likely, however, is that Madrid and Barcelona consider themselves “frenemies” (friendly enemies), who are united by what they perceive to be the threat posed by clubs who benefit from owners linked to nation states, such as PSG and Manchester City, which they both argue has triggered inflation in salaries and transfer fees.

Florentino Perez, Real Madrid

Close associates of Perez have greased the wheels of Barcelona’s recovery this summer (Photo: Getty)

In Las Vegas last month, the two clubs unusually met for a pre-season friendly and that day, July 23, there was a lunch meeting of Perez, Laporta and Juventus chairman Andrea Agnelli.

Between the three executives, there is also concern that England’s Premier League, due to its huge broadcast revenue, is becoming a Super League of its own. Their three clubs continue to seek a landmark victory against UEFA in the European Court of Justice and hints of the bitterness have even emerged even in pre-season scheduling.

For other clubs across Europe, fixtures against the three Super League hold-outs appear to be frowned upon. It is not a coincidence that the three ‘rebel’ clubs did not play any of Europe’s other top clubs during their respective visits to the US, with the two guests being Mexican sides Club America and Club Deportivo Guadalajara (Chivas).

In a court filing in New York in mid-April, American businessman Charlie Stillitano alleged that Aleksander Ceferin, the UEFA president, had declared “war” on him for attempting to organise matches in North America featuring the Super League hold-out clubs.

The New York Times reported that a text message from Ceferin to Stillitano had been included in the lawsuit.

In it, Ceferin wrote: “I have heard about your ‘business’ with the three clubs. Those clubs didn’t ‘cause issues with UEFA’. They tried to destroy UEFA, football, and me personally. It’s a shame that you don’t understand it. The fact that you work with them means that me, UEFA or anyone I can have influence on will not have any business or private relation with you until you’re on the other side.”

Ceferin previously told the New York Times: “When I realised that he is actually cooperating with them at the same time, I decided to finish any relationship with him. I have more important things to deal with than dealing with Stillitano.”

There have been other curious things happening.

Barcelona invited Serie A’s Roma to play in their traditional curtain-raising Gamper Trophy game at Camp Nou on August 6.

In mid-June, Roma agreed to play, and the Italian side’s coach Jose Mourinho, a one-time Barcelona assistant and formerly in charge of Real Madrid, was useful in generating interest and ticket sales. Yet less than two weeks later, Roma suddenly pulled out, citing calendar difficulties. Barcelona did not buy this excuse and publicly said they would consider legal action for losses incurred.

The suspicion at Camp Nou, and among the Super League organisers, is that UEFA, as well as the European Club Association chairman (and PSG president) Nasser Al-Khelaifi leaned on Roma’s American president Dan Friedkin to get him to take their side in the ongoing dispute. Officially, however, Roma’s statement attributed the decision “as a consequence of the need to modify the plan for summer friendly matches”.

Roma had already spent a fortnight training in Portugal and then flew to Israel for an exhibition match against Premier League club Tottenham, another of Mourinho’s former employers, last weekend. Hopping across to Barcelona after all that was considered excessive in the new light shed by the release of the 2022-23 Serie A fixtures that have Roma playing away from home in four of their first six league games.

Perhaps, then, it was not a political decision coherent with Roma’s stance as one of the clubs that came out fighting against the Super League. And, if this was a political decision, why would they have signed up for the Gamper Trophy in the first place?

Nevertheless, it was curious that fellow Italians AC Milan also pulled out of participating in the Soccer Champions Tour with Barcelona, Real Madrid and Juventus in the US, an event worth millions in commercial and sponsorship revenue.

These events are just a snapshot of the tensions currently gripping European football and executives across Europe are sharpening their knives as they glare at Barcelona.

The Catalans’ spending has, for example, provided fuel for clubs such as PSG and City, who are the regular recipient of condemnation from La Liga chief Tebas, who described Mbappe’s contract renewal in Paris this summer, having been widely expected to join Real Madrid as a free agent, as an “insult to football”.

In a statement, La Liga said: “It is scandalous that a club like PSG, which last season reported losses of more than €220million after accumulating losses of more than €700million in prior seasons (while reporting sponsorship income at doubtful valuation), with a squad cost of around €650million for this season, can close such an agreement, while those clubs (Real Madrid) that could afford the hiring of the player without seeing their wage bill compromised are left without able to sign him.”

The statement continued: “La Liga will file a complaint against PSG before UEFA, the French administrative court and fiscal authorities and European Union authorities to continue to defend the economic ecosystem of European football and its sustainability.”

Privately, PSG think Barcelona’s spending this summer, funded by mortgaging their future, raises even more questions about the sustainability of football.

One source close to the French club told The Athletic they feel Barcelona are just a corporate version of the Glazers, the American family who have owned Manchester United since 2005 — a “fan/member” backed model that is actually beholden to Wall Street.

Intriguingly, Laporta’s relationship with PSG is the most progressive of the three Super League clubs and there had, for some time, been hope that Barcelona may be the most open to giving the notion up, particularly compared to the dogmatism of Agnelli and Perez. For now, however, it has gone quiet.

Speaking to The Athletic in April, Al-Khelaifi said: “We can talk about FFP but we should also look at other investment models, particularly the debt. A big Spanish club came to me here at the ECA General Assembly and said, ‘Nasser, Barcelona are €1.5billion in debt, now they are taking another loan, now they may do stuff on their stadium for another billion. That is the key, to stop clubs going into bankruptcy and have cost control’. This is what I was told by another Spanish club yesterday!”

This summer will only set tongues wagging further yet.

Other contributors: Dermot Corrigan, James Horncastle and Phil Hay

(Main graphic — photos: Getty Images/design: Sam Richardson)

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