Barcelona in crisis: The problems facing Barca as explained by the author of the definitive book on the club
FC Barcelona are expected to play their opening game of the 2022/23 La Liga season on August 13. But who will actually step onto the field for them is unclear as the club find themselves in a complicated situation of their own creation which is unprecedented for a club of this magnitude.
The Blaugrana are a year away from losing the biggest star in football history on a free transfer because league rules restricting player spending relative to earnings prevented them from making an offer to sign Lionel Messi to keep. Now they are reportedly trying to lay off players (and their contracts) or force current players to accept lower wages to offset the significant spending spree that engulfed their last offseason.
To fund acquisitions costing $168.3m in transfer fees, Barca have twice sold percentages of future TV rights to an American investment firm. And it has reportedly demanded an advance from UEFA on future Champions League earnings, even though participation in the tournament is subject to qualification each year.
“You didn’t sort anything. They didn’t even manage to register Robert Lewandowski and Raphinha because they have to sell Frenkie de Jong first,” Simon Kuper, who went to Barca to write the definitive book about the club, told The Sporting News. “Now, with all this borrowed future money, they have to lose a dollar in salary before they can add a dollar in salary.
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“So they have to lose Frenkie de Jong because everything is mortgaged to the future. They said to Frenkie, look, you’re going to make very little right now, but in the years to come we’re going to pay you all the money we owe you. In the next few seasons he should earn around 30 million euros a year. And they say: We can’t pay you 30 million a year and Manchester United and Chelsea want you to go. And he says: But you owe me tens of millions of euros.
“Nothing is sorted that way. Frenkie de Jong can hold the club hostage. You can’t force him to leave, and if he doesn’t leave, Lewandowski won’t be able to play. So are you ready? No.”
It will be much easier to understand the current chaos at FC Barcelona after reading The Barcelona Complex, Kuper’s colorful book about the club, which will be published in paperback on August 16.
As the author of previous sports books such as ‘Ajax’, ‘Soccer Against the Enemy’ and ‘Soccer Men’, Kuper knows the culture of FC Barcelona better than anyone who has never been employed by the club.
From 2019 to 2020, until the COVID-19 pandemic limited him to one last visit before release, the club granted him access to operations as well as staff from the top of the organization to the bottom. He also drew on previous interviews, including ones he conducted with legendary player and manager Johan Cruyff, who helped build the style of football that has defined Barca for generations.
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Kuper’s book beautifully explains how unique FC Barcelona is among the great powers of sport, due to its structure, both in terms of its operations and support base, and the heightened sense of regional pride built on the Catalan identity based.
“But Barcelona is not a business. It’s a neighborhood club run by local merchants who plan to live in the city until they die and care about their reputation there first and foremost,” he wrote.
The team president is elected by the club members every six years and appointed by the president directorate, or Board of Directors. With Barca technically having no owner, management has focused on the club’s success on the pitch rather than being financially viable.
“Barca presidents were usually calm when it came to overpayments,” writes Kuper. “After all, the money they spent was never their own money or anyone’s in particular.”
Overspending issues ultimately prevented the club from signing Messi last August, a year after he threatened to leave. It was a heavy blow to Barca’s reputation as an elite club. Did it have to happen for Barca to resume operations and start rebuilding for another era of success? It may have seemed like it a year ago, but this summer’s quirky dealings suggest this was just another chapter in the club’s broad decline.
“I think in the end he had to go. The payroll was just unaffordable for them,” Kuper told TSN. “Even though he was still the best player in the world, you can’t really play Barcelona football because the guy doesn’t defend anymore. It’s not because he’s lazy; he no longer has the power to go either way. So you have eight guys who sit back and defend and run around and they get the ball and they take it to Leo and… they usually score. And it’s not really a system.
“And there was no longer the finance to support this model; he got older. The mistake they made was that they should have sold him in 2020 when he asked to be allowed to leave. You could have gotten 200 million euros and lost his salary. And then you have the means to build a new team. And then a year later they let him go for free with no money to build the new team.”
Messi was Barcelona’s ultimate success story. He was the product of Barcelona’s famous La Masia, the innovative academy that attracted Messi from Argentina at the age of 13, paid for growth hormone treatments and allowed him to capitalize on his amazing genius. In The Barcelona Complex, Kuper details the rise and fall of La Masia, which produced such future legends (and World Cup winners) as Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Sergi Busquets, Carles Puyol and Gerard Pique.
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“I think 20 years ago La Masia was ahead of football so you bring out players that other academies just don’t bring out. Now everyone has adopted the ideas of the Masia. Even England, which has always been a backward footballing nation, produces players like Phil Foden or Raheem Sterling who look like Barcelona players because they all copied the way Barca did.
“So if you’re Barca, what’s your specialty? Your academy is no better. So the idea that a lot of people in Barca have that the local fans have: ‘We should just let the Masia guys grow into it; It’s going to be like 20 years ago and we’re going to beat the world with Masia kids – I don’t think so.”
It will be a challenge for Barcelona to become what it was in any way because their academy is no longer unique and because there is unlikely to be another Messi. There’s no certainty that if another phenomenon came through the ranks it wouldn’t end up at Manchester City, Liverpool, Chelsea or, heaven forbid, Real Madrid.
“You can be reasonable at times when you’re winning,” Kuper told TSN. “When you lose as a big club, you have to panic. So does the model still work? Ten years ago they were a rowdy populist democracy and it worked. Their earnings have kept pace with the other big clubs.
“So it’s more difficult because you have voters who are always pushing you to spend money, whereas with Liverpool or Manchester United the owners don’t even live in the UK. United fans have been angry for 16-17 years. The Glazers don’t care, I mean, they’re in Palm Beach. The noise barely reaches her.
“But when you’re Barca president, you live in this city and every day people you know – your friends, your family, your business partners, the waiter in the café – say to you: ‘Why are we? Why didn’t we buy him?’ ”