By George Simms
Broke, recently humiliated on and off the pitch and awash with internal strife, FC Barcelona look increasingly as though they’re heading up a certain proverbial creek without a paddle.
On March 1st, Catalan police stormed the Nou Camp and arrested former President Josep Bartomeu, current CEO Oscar Grau, Head of Legal Services Roman Gomez Ponti and Bartomeu’s former Head of Staff Jaume Masferrer.
These arrests are connected to accusations surrounding Barcelona’s €1m per year contract with I3 Ventures and NiceStream Group to work on their club image and social media profile.
Dubbed ‘Barcagate’ by the media, these companies are accused of creating thousands of troll accounts, on social media platforms like Twitter, to damage the reputation of those seen as a threat to Bartomeu’s power, both within and outside of the club. These include club legends Lionel Messi, Pep Guardiola, Carles Puyol, Gerard Pique and Xavi.
However, it isn’t these social media dark arts that have brought about the arrests. The temporarily imprisoned quartet are charged with misappropriating club funds. Apparently, the over €3m paid to I3 and NiceStream was done in a series of smaller payments which didn’t trigger the club’s financial internal checks.
It doesn’t exactly scream legitimacy on Bartomeu’s behalf, which is why six board members resigned as soon as the allegations leaked. Bartomeu resigned in October 2020.
This is, unfortunately, the tip of the iceberg as far as Barcelona’s troubles are concerned. Joan Laporta, previously President from 2003-2010, was re-elected on Sunday with promises to keep Lionel Messi at the club, bring in the likes of David Alaba and Erling Haaland, and replicate the glories of his last term.
He’s not the first person running for office to be somewhat ambitious and liberal with the truth, but I have a few qualms with Laporta’s winning campaign promises. Firstly, while it’s true that Laporta and Messi have a good relationship, which certainly wasn’t the case with Bartomeu, the Argentine magician has gone on record saying he did not speak to any of the presidential candidates before the election.
Given how publicly he attempted to leave last summer and his contract expiring in July, I question Laporta’s certainty that he can retain Barcelona’s greatest asset. I’m also sceptical as to whether he should want to.
As Laporta said in a recent interview, ‘Messi is not ruled by money. He wants to end his career at the highest level possible.’ Messi, above all, wants to win games and trophies as he enters the twilight of one of the great footballing careers.
At the moment, Barcelona is second in the poorest quality La Liga in recent memory, lost the Supercopa de Espana to Bilbao and recently crept through to the Copa del Rey final after Sevilla uncharacteristically collapsed.
They’ve just unceremoniously crashed out of the Champions League in the Last 16, less than a year after last season’s 8-2 quarter-final defeat to Bayern Munich. This is not a side well-equipped for winning and recent results have shown that Messi isn’t in the position to carry them to titles single-handedly.
Barcelona is also staring into a black hole of debt. €1.173bn worth of debt, all things considered. They have conducted some terrible pieces of transfer business over the past few years, with a lot of it appearing to be handled by Klarna.
They still owe €40m on Coutinho, €48m on Frenkie de Jong, €9.8m on Trincao, €52m on Pjanic, €8m on Arthur (who they sold to be replaced by Pjanic), €6m on Emerson (who hasn’t arrived yet) and €10.14m on Malcolm (who has played for Zenit St. Petersburg since 2019).
Of those players, de Jong is the only one who can be assessed as a success. Alongside this, they sold Ivan Rakitic, Arturo Vidal and Luis Suarez for just €1.5m upfront.
Transfer business aside, the club’s financial position is perilous at best. Something akin to a tightrope walker in a strong easterly wind, with cramp and 400 metres of fresh air beneath their bare feet.
Wages make up 74% of the budget, they have a negative working capital of €602m and need to raise €200m this summer alone to avoid bankruptcy. Laporta believes he can do this by selling Barcelona’s French contingent of Antoine Griezmann, Samuel Umtiti, Clement Lenglet and Ousmane Dembele.
Given the financial toll of the COVID-19 pandemic across the footballing world, it remains to be seen whether those players are worth €200m, or whether there’ll be anyone to pay for them if they are.
With all this considered, Mr Laporta, in the unlikely event that you’re reading, I have a suggestion. PSG and Manchester City have both publicly courted Lionel Messi and given how much I’m sure you love him, let him go.
His last four-year contract totalled €670m and Barcelona haven’t added any silverware since May 2019. Whilst you’re promising Alaba and Haaland, interim President Carlos Tusquets just revealed that the club was unable to sign Eric Garcia in January due to budget restraints.
Garcia would have cost Barcelona a whopping €250,000 this season. All things considered, there is still hope at the Camp Nou. Ansu Fati, Frenkie de Jong, Pedri, Ronald Araujo, Sergino Dest and Francisco Trincao are some of the most highly-touted youngsters in Europe. There are the makings of a brilliant squad in their ranks already.
However, the longer they continue to hold on to Messi like a child with a comfort blanket, the more problems are going to pile up. Laporta has to accept that he is building a new future for Barcelona, not trying to recreate their Messi-centric former glories. Financial prudence and talent development have to be the buzzwords in the Catalonian capital, or else they may just end up as another of football’s fallen giants.
Image: Luke Brooks via Flickr