Economic levers and buying players who can’t play: Explaining Barcelona’s unexplainable summer

·10 min read

Barcelona have been exceptionally busy this summer, with work on and off the pitch ensuring they have rarely been out of headlines and frequently perplexing those on the outside.

From jumping in on big-money deals, back-and-forth battles with Spanish football authorities and the seemingly eternal battle to reduce the contracts of those already at the club, Joan Laporta has had a to-do list longer than most other clubs’ and their work is far from over yet.

Given the constant updates which seem almost at-odds with each other and the remarkable team rebuilding exercise they have embarked on, it begs the difficult question: exactly what are Barcelona doing this year?

Economic levers

For most onlookers from beyond LaLiga, the major question marks revolve around the issues of Barcelona’s transfers and, specifically, registering those new players when they don’t appear to have funds to pay those they already own.

So far this summer, Barca have sold, loaned or otherwise offloaded seven senior players, the most high-profile being Philippe Coutinho. He’s also the only one who brought in any kind of notable fee. On the incoming side, there’s a current outlay of around £140m: Robert Lewandowski (£42.5m/€50m), Jules Kounde (£42.5m/€50m), Raphinha (£55m/€65m), Franck Kessie (free) and Andreas Christensen (free).

A side question apart from the fees is over their salaries, which range from around a reported €120,000 a week for the former Leeds and Chelsea pair, to €180,000 for Lewandowski. These added salaries are far from cheap, though in relative terms they are reduced for the Catalan side: lower than the Polish striker was earning at Bayern Munich, for example, and lower than the salaries of players signed previously too.

This all forms the basis of the real issue as far as LaLiga were concerned in terms of registering those new additions: can the club afford what they are spending?

In the first week of August, Barcelona attempted to register their new faces - and re-signed up old ones - but were prohibited from doing so by the league. That was as a result of the club’s finances not covering their expenses for the year ahead. All Spanish clubs must submit this documentation each campaign. Herein lies the impact of the “economic levers” we’ve heard so much about this year: these are the mechanisms that the Barcelona president has put into action to bring extra income into the club, allowing the extra expenses - salaries and signings, in other words - to be paid for.

The levers have included the massive sponsorship deal with Spotify covering kit and stadium, the sale of part of the Barca Studios company and the sale of two television rights packages which - added to other commercial revenue and player sales - the club claimed tallied over an €850m (£720m) fund dump into the organisation.

It wasn’t enough to convince La Liga, though, who Cadena Cope claim rejected part of the deal on the basis of €150m of that money having come back into Barcelona from the club itself, after they paid it to another company it part-owned to part-fund the TV rights package sale.

Laporta was displeased that the league did not “interpret” the finances in the same way Barcelona had done so, enforcing a fourth lever to be pulled: the €100m (£85m) sale of a stake in their audiovisual production company.

 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Finally, four new additions could be registered - Kounde the odd man out, the decision made easier as he wasn’t fit.

Ferran Correas, a Catalunya-based journalist of Diario AS, explained to the Independent how it was not just the Camp Nou club but others too - Betis and Almeria were name-checked - who couldn’t register players for similar reasonings, while others further opt against signing players in the first place if they fear not being able to register them. But why bring them all in now instead of across multiple windows in a more manageable approach? The reasoning is twofold, he believes.

“La Liga has its rules and you have to accept them. What they did was to not accept capital gains from the sale of the TV rights which Barcelona believed were valid,” Correas explained. “I think LaLiga should change its rule structure - they are more strict than the other big leagues. If they don’t be more flexible, LaLiga will lose compared against the Premier League or Bundesliga.

“Laporta wants to embark on the virtuous circle which brought success in his first era at the club. He wants to win to bring in more funds, which helps eliminate the debt and strengthens the team.

“Many good players have been signed as well to pressure those who are not wanted, so that they leave. Those which have arrived earn less money in the [new] salary structure; the club want those who were already there to join that same pay structure as they currently pay many of them outside the market value.”

That’s a view largely shared by LaLiga TV commentator Andy West.

Barcelona finished second in the league table last year but viewers could be forgiven for not having realised it, given how far off the pace they were, how far down the ladder they were when Ronald Koeman departed and the fact they haven’t seriously challenged in Europe for several years now. “The view of Joan Laporta is that he had no choice: he believes that a club of Barca’s size and pedigree is obliged to challenge for major titles every season, and setting his sights any lower would have been failing his position as club president,” West told the Independent.

But there’s still more work to do, and time is running out during this transfer window.

Salary cuts and Frenkie de Jong

The quite obvious elephant in the room right now remains Dutch midfielder Frenkie de Jong.

Across pre-season he was used in defence, was shown the players ahead of him in midfield and informed of how the club needed his departure for “the good” of their future, banking on his emotional understanding of the situation. So far that hasn’t materialised, with De Jong having agreed to defer around €17m in wages when his contract was extended during the pandemic.

 (AFP via Getty Images)
(AFP via Getty Images)

He was still on a basic salary of €9m last term (around €180,000 a week), with that deferred money due to be split and paid across the remaining years of his contract. That’s the finances De Jong understandably wants paid up if he leaves early, and which Barcelona are asking him to either forgo receiving or renew a new deal entirely, bringing him in line with the new payment structure at the club.

Naturally, plenty of other enormous contracts at the Camp Nou are still holdovers from when the last president, Josep Maria Bartomeu, was still in charge - an era of absurd excess, overpayment and dreadful recruitment.

“Barcelona recognise that the enormous contracts handed out during the Bartomeu era were unsustainable, so they’ve been trying to bring their wages down to a more reasonable level,” said West. “So the new signings are coming in on significantly lower wages than Barca have paid in the past.

“Against that backdrop, their attempts to lower Frenkie de Jong’s wages are more understandable – he is by no means the only player they’ve been negotiating with. Sergi Roberto, for example, agreed a new contract with a 60% pay cut.”

“Frenkie de Jong has a very expensive contract the club cannot pay,” Correas agreed. “They want him to either lower it or leave - he’s also the player who could bring in a big fee to sign others. Whichever option emerges, the other players can be registered. Martin Braithwaite is different - Xavi doesn’t want him and there’s no space in the squad with several other forwards.”

While De Jong did feature in the season opener, Danish striker Braithwaite was omitted entirely, with Sport reporting that the Danish Players’ Association chief Michael Sahl Hansen labelling the Catalan side “completely unreasonable” with their treatment of him. Fans jeered the forward in pre-season when it became evident the club wanted him to depart and Hansen said it was “somewhere between bullying and harassment. It is disgraceful how FC Barcelona are trying to get him out of his contract, out of his job.”

What’s next for Barcelona?

First, spending. Then, success. That’s the plan, the virtuous circle Correas referred to, but it doesn’t always go the way you want it to in football.

A 0-0 home draw with Rayo Vallecano attests to as much on the opening weekend, with Sergio Busquets sent-off, Lewandowski very quiet and January additions Ferran Torres and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang on the bench alongside new recruit Kessie.

Miralem Pjanic was also there, as a reminder of the strange and costly errors Barca have made in the market in recent years. They cannot afford for that to be the case with the latest crop, but there’s another variable at play: Xavi Hernandez, absolute icon but totally unproven as a head coach.

 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

“The worst-case scenario is that Xavi fails as a coach and has to be fired, and then the new coach decides he wants to overhaul the squad,” West said. “That would leave Barca once again in the position of wanting to make several signings without having the option of Laporta’s levers to finance them – they would be very reluctant to sell off more commercial assets.

“This squad and this coach really must succeed and Xavi himself was spot on when he acknowledged two things: anything less than winning La Liga or the Champions League would make this season a failure, and the pressure is now on him as a coach to make this squad deliver.

“But the worst-case scenario being touted by some sections of the UK media – that the whole club will collapse under the weight of its debt and cease to exist – is enormously overblown. That just won’t happen.”

That latter point is correct, and is probably the safety net Laporta doesn’t want, but knows is there just in case. The sums spent are enormous, the risk of failure severe in a sporting sense. But Barcelona is an absolute money machine. Earlier this year, Forbes’ list of most valuable clubs put Barcelona second at over $5bn (£4.2bn). Deloitte’s Money League listed Barcelona’s 2022 revenue as just over €580m, fourth in Europe.

They didn’t have to go as big as they have, not this year, but the lure of chasing sporting success - especially for those elected to a position - perhaps has as much of an impact on decision-making as anything else.

Kounde, De Jong, perhaps Bernardo Silva. One or two other names - Juan Foyth, Marcos Alonso, Aubameyang - could all still make up the final ins and outs at the Camp Nou this tumultuous summer.

Then it really will be full focus on the football, and we’ll see the answers start to emerge as to whether Xavi is the leader they hope, the recruitment is a rousing success and whether their approach in the summer of 2022 was the correct one to take at all.