Barcelona are playing the smoke and mirrors game.
The signings of Memphis Depay, Sergio Aguero and Eric Garcia, allied with the likely resigning of club legend Lionel Messi on a new contract will all be seen as a boon for new president Joan Laporta, a man who has returned to the role he last held in 2010 with the remit of fighting the financial fires that rage at the Nou Camp.
But as those fires rage, a perfect storm of reckless spend, bullishness that the market would never contract and the financial catastrophe that has rained down on football due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there is still the expectancy from supporters that Barcelona be the best.
There is little room for excuses, hence the reason why their presidential elections are often won, as is the case at rivals Real Madrid, by those who promise the grandest vision and the biggest stars.
Depay, Aguero and Garcia have all joined on free transfers, albeit bringing with them hefty salaries, while Barca know that in order to keep hold of Messi they will have wield the axe on a number of high earners and big names to facilitate his mega money deal, one that was worth almost £500m including bonuses for its last four year cycle that came to an end on July 1.
The era of excess at Barcelona is over, at least for now. It has to be.
Fans will no doubt be heartened by the signings of Depay, Aguero and Garcia, delighted by the re-signing of Messi, but such a mess is the club’s finances that there is an impending fire sale that they cannot avoid.
Last month the club, who remain stuck on the idea of the European Super League along with Real Madrid and Juventus, agreed a £430m restructuring loan from US investment bank Goldman Sachs. That loan was vital to ensure that Barcelona, a club with near £1bn of total debt, met their short term debt obligations, much of it transfer payables.
Liverpool fall into that bracket.
When Barcelona signed Brazilian playmaker Philippe Coutinho from the Reds in 2018 they shelled out £142m, with £106m of that guaranteed and the remaining £36m due in add-ons.
In Barcelona’s published financial accounts, filed on October last year, it showed that they still owed Liverpool a £35.5m debt, although the Reds have received their full entitlement after selling the debt to a third party finance company.
Selling that debt meant that the Reds could realise the cash sooner, although a grey area remains over what would happen should Barcelona default on that debt. But given the restructuring loan received that likely won’t be an issue moving forward.
But while Liverpool may be able to rest easy, Barcelona certainly can’t do the same.
By some distance Barcelona owe the most in transfer fees to other clubs, a whopping £276m, with £108m of that due before the end of the fiscal year. They are followed by Juventus £256m and then Inter Milan with a transfer debt of £177.4m. Of the three clubs that remain espoused to the idea of the European Super League that Liverpool and eight others renounced back in April, Barcelona, Real Madrid and Juventus owe a combined £664.8m to other clubs for transfer fees. Their desire to join the doomed project and receive the £300m-plus windfalls has a clear motive.
Liverpool’s own transfer debt stands at around the £76m mark for both short and longer term payables. That figure means that they don’t feature in the top 20 European clubs with the highest transfer debt. The estimate of £76m is reached by assuming 90 per cent of short and longer term debt is made up of transfer payables.
While Liverpool’s own transfer strategy has its critics, the Reds do at least have the ability to approach the summer market with a view to adding where they need to and trimming who they no longer require, although those two things will likely be closely linked when it comes to how much money is actually available
For Barcelona there is a now a rush on to get players out of the door after sealing their big name free transfer additions, with their desire to engineer an exit for £250,000-per week Coutinho at the top of their priority list, although finding a suitor willing to take on such mammoth wages will be a stretch, the Brazilian likely to have to take a huge wage cut.
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Jean-Clair Todibo has already departed the club for French side Nice, while Leeds United are closing in on Junior Firpo. But bigger names such as Ousmane Dembele, Samuel Umtiti and even the likes of Antoine Griezmann and Sergio Busquets now find themselves in the crosshairs, with Barcelona knowing that to get within the wage cap that La Liga have imposed they can’t just trim squad players and expect to be allowed to register Messi for the new campaign.
“Barcelona have exceeded their wage cap,” Tebas told Spanish media.
“I hope they can keep Messi, but to do so, they will have to make cuts elsewhere.”
The La Liga salary cap for the 2021/22 season stands at €382.7m (£328.5m), a figure just £3.5m above where Liverpool’s wage bill stands presently. Last year, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Barcelona had the largest cap in La Liga for 2019.20 at €671 m (£576m), although last season they were given some leeway to try and reduce that bill.
The deal to sign Coutinho back in 2018 was seen by the Catalan club as a display of their strength, the fact that they remained the biggest draw despite their on-pitch successes being in decline. Now, three years on, that deal is a millstone around the neck of a club who look set for a barren spell when it comes to challenging for Champions League honours in the coming seasons. A club suffocated by debt and reckless spend, the red flags that Barcelona represent should be seen as a warning.