Joan Laporta has always followed Johan Cruyff. Growing up, he cut his hair like Cruyff; in his his first spell as president at Barcelona, the Dutchman who changed the club and the game like no one else was his advisor, an ideologue and spiritual leader. And now, in Laporta’s second spell, he still is, even after his passing. “I always have Johan with me because of all he taught; deep down he’s still guiding us,” Laporta says. Cruyff’s son, Jordi, is the club’s sporting director, and there is a recurring question that those touched by Cruyff ask often, especially in moments of uncertainty: what would Johan say?
One of Cruyff’s most famous maxims was “the money on the pitch, not in the bank”. And that’s the plan, but it’s not so simple. Last Sunday, 83,021 people packed the Camp Nou for the Gamper trophy, Barcelona’s traditional presentation game, and watched a hugely impressive demolition of Pumas, optimism flooding back. It was a first, exciting glimpse of a new era and new signings: Robert Lewandowski, Raphinha, Jules Koundé, Franck Kessié and Andreas Christensen. The problem is that they might not get a second six days on when the season starts against Rayo Vallecano on Saturday night.
Including variables, Lewandowski cost Barcelona €50m. Koundé’s cost could rise to €62.5m and Raphinha’s total fee should reach around €70m. There was also the re-signing of Ousmane Dembélé on €16m plus variables per season, a fortnight after he had become a free agent and six months after being told to leave. This summer no one has spent more than Barcelona, and they continue to pursue other signings, including a right-back, Marcos Alonso and Bernardo Silva. All of which poses a question: how?
How could a club €1.3bn in debt, whose salary limit was set at minus €144m in March and returned losses of over €400m last year, a club described by its own directors as “clinically dead” and then “in intensive care”, field a team like this?
The short answer is: they can’t, not yet. With 24 hours to go, Barcelona face a race to make sufficient cuts by reducing salaries or moving players out, or bring in enough money to comply with La Liga’s financial fair play criteria – an automated system that is preventative rather than punitive. Far from Barcelona being allowed to get away with doing whatever they want, as the ill-informed complaint has it – remember Lionel Messi? – La Liga has the strictest control in Europe. Based on income and outgoings, a limite salarial is set by the league that defines what you can spend on your playing staff, across transfers, salaries and amortisations, and if you do not comply you simply cannot register on the system.
The focus thus becomes the short term, building the best possible team while meeting the criteria any way possible. Barcelona may get there, even if it is only with some of the players, and they have until shortly before kick-off against Rayo Vallecano. It is also only one game – registration is open until the end of August – but the fact that they have reached this point is indicative of the problems implicit in their approach, and as it stands none of their signings or those with new contracts can play against Rayo. That’s nine players waiting.
Barcelona have one goalkeeper, five defenders, six midfielders and four forwards available, and those aren’t the ones they would like to be available, a portrait of the difficulties they face and the risk they take as Laporta tries to kick start what he refers to as a virtuous cycle, pulling Barcelona from the mess he inherited. Others are less convinced, concerned at the consequences, doubtful that this can really be a solution long term, or angry at what they see as the lack of them. Earlier in the summer, Julian Nagelsmann, Bayern Munich’s head coach, insisted Barcelona were the “only club in the world that have no 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.”
Here’s how, although whether it’s a good idea or is being applied in the best manner is another issue. When Laporta took over the presidency last year, one of his first moves was to take out a €500m loan from Goldman Sachs that enabled them to restructure their debt. Then there’s what Barcelona call palancas, or levers. It is a word that has not just entered into the lexicon but almost entered into some kind of footballing folklore and has eclipsed all else over the last couple of months, the summer spent imagining Laporta standing in front of some heaving machine, sweating and frantically pulling at levers.
There have been a lot of them, a lot of signings too. Every time you thought surely that must be it now, another player turned up and another lever was pulled down. Just when you were convinced they couldn’t buy any more, they did. And they haven’t finished yet, or at least that’s what they hope.
In essence, pulling palancas means selling assets, raising cash against future earnings to balance your books. Usually for a football club that would mean players, but it’s not so easy to do when the few sellable players you have are not that keen to go, and so Barcelona have looked elsewhere. The first palanca came in late 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 arrived three weeks later, with a further 15% going to Sixth Street for €315m. At the current value of the TV deal, €166m a year, that would mean handing over a total of €1867.5m 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 palanca came at the start of August with the sale of just under 24.5% of Barca Studios, the club’s content production company to crypto company Socios for €100m. And the planned fourth would see another 24.5% of Barca Studios go to investment fund GDA Luma for €100m. As it turned out, on Friday that deal was instead announced with Orpheus Media, owned by Jaume Roures, whose Mediapro company are La Liga’s broadcast partner. At the members’ assembly, the Barcelona board had also been given authority to sell up to 49.9% of the club’s merchandise and licencing arm, BLM.
All the while, they continued trying to cut costs, seeking departures for players and salary reductions for those who stay. Philippe Coutinho, Clemente Lenglet and Oscar Mingueza were among those to leave. Samuel Umtiti is trying to secure an exit. Pressure was brought to bear on Martin Braithwaite and most notably on Frenkie de Jong, who was told to leave or accept a 50% reduction on a salary that, with amortisation, will cost Barcelona over €30m next year. He is already owed €18m on deferred payments. There was even a letter from the club informing him that the extension he had signed under the previous regime might be part of a raft of four renewals they claim were fraudulent – seen by De Jong’s camp as an unsubtle attempt to strong arm him out. He, though, continues to insist upon his desire to continue, even as things turn toxic.
When Barcelona presented 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 the players with everything we have done,” he said. “The risk is controlled: we did it to save the club and to sign players. Hopefully we don’t have to pull any more levers. If there’s a situation that obliges us to, we will consider it. Interpreting the fair play rules has its complexities. I hope our interpretation is the same as the league’s”.
It was not, and so they had to pull more. The league did not accept the calculation on the first two palancas, judging that Barcelona had used €150m of their own money to inflate the value of the deals and told them that they still did not reach the threshold where they could freely register players. After all, the gap from the minus €144m limite salarial they had been at in March, the last time figures were public, and the €560m salary mass they actually had was huge. And that mass had increased over the summer. On Friday, the fourth lever was pulled, Roures coming to the rescue.
That paperwork needed to be presented to the league for verification, with no guarantee that will be done in time for tomorrow . Barcelona were also briefing that their calculations suggested that they would need a further €20m or €30m to register all their players in time for the opening night of the season, and so the meetings continued, everything accelerating towards the opening night.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who only came in January, might be the next one out. Memphis Depay, who was registered just in time for the opening day last season but only after Gerard Piqué took a pay cut to get Barcelona under the limit, and whose No 9 shirt was given to Lewandowski, could follow him. And still De Jong resists.
If there are sales, it is unlikely they will be completed and cleared in time for Saturday. Meanwhile, Piqué, who reportedly has over €50m in salary pending, has been approached to accept further cuts, as have Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba.
The clock ticks, the pressure builds and the fans wait to see if the season starts with the money on the pitch or in the stands.