FC Barcelona are somehow staying afloat and making squad improvements despite debts reportedly in the region of $1.4 billion
After three debt- and scandal-ridden seasons with little success both on and off the field, FC Barcelona are once more set up to challenge for honors in 2022/2023.
Big arrivals such as former Bayern Munich forward Robert Lewandowski and exciting Brazilian winger Raphinha, coupled with the likes of precocious Spanish talent Pedri, have fueled cautious optimism among the Camp Nou faithful again.
But how have the cash-strapped Catalans managed to bolster their squad, considering their alarming financial predicament?
How did Barca find themselves in dire financial straits?
Thanks to accusations of gross mismanagement where expensive misfit signings and overinflated salaries were a hallmark, Josep Bartomeu achieved eternal infamy among FC Barcelona fans for almost financially destroying the club. For this, he will arguably go down as their worst president in a mostly proud 123-year history.
Bartomeu resigned in October 2020 in a cloud of controversy, and was forced out of Camp Nou thanks to a vote of no confidence from club members triggered by an embarrassing 8-2 loss to Bayern Munich in the Champions League and a transfer request from all-time great Lionel Messi that summer.
With the pandemic finishing the Blaugrana off, Bartomeu was discovered to have left the club in debts of €1.35 billion ($1.39 billion) with a negative balance of €481 million ($493 million) when he was succeeded by Joan Laporta after an election in March 2021.
Laporta and his board went on to make other alarming discoveries, such as players' wages representing 110% of the club's expected income, which resulted in having to let Lionel Messi walk to PSG as a free agent a year ago when they could not navigate a strict La Liga salary cap.
As now former CEO Ferran Reverter put it in October last year, Barca would have been dissolved if they were a PLC, with Laporta and his henchman inhering a club that was "technically bankrupt".
"There was no cash flow and we had difficulties paying salaries. Debt and future liabilities amounted to €1.35 billion and there was an urgent need for refinancing," Reverter added.
Rather than sit back and take it on the chin, however, Laporta has been busy finding ways to wake a sleeping giant out of its slumber.
How have Barcelona managed to buy players?
A smooth-talking ex-lawyer that tried and failed to get into Catalan politics between his two stints as Barca president, Laporta, who never misses an opportunity to blow his own trumpet, quipped in June that Barca were "clinically dead" when he took over, in remarks that echoed Reverter's.
"Right now we're in the ICU," he added. "[But] the economic levers will allow Barca to go from the ICU to a regular [hospital] room.
"And later on, we'll leave the hospital and have a long life," he predicted.
Taking a €595 million ($609 million) loan from Goldman Sachs in August last year, Laporta then had to hold a members' vote in mid-June that decided in favor of activating the 'levers' he mentioned.
As of Tuesday, four of these have been pulled so far. First off, Barca sold 25% of their TV rights for the next 25 years to American investment firm Sixth Street in two separate deals.
The first deal, for 10% of the rights, was worth a capital gain of €267 million ($273 million). And while the figure for the remaining 15% of the rights has not been publicly disclosed, some outlets have said it is worth more than €300 million ($307 million).
Last week, Barca sold 24.5% of Barca Studios to fan token site socios.com for €100 million ($102 million), and they then offloaded an identical stake in the same body for the exact same amount to the GDA Luma investment fund on Tuesday, according to reports.
At the members' vote, socios also agreed to the 49.9% sale of Barca Licensing and Merchandising (BLM), though this is not expected to be completed until 2023 while the club already claims to have rejected an offer of €275 million ($281.4 billion) for the stake, according to the club’s vice-president for finance Eduard Romeu.
While some fans and pundits suggest Barca should get their house in order and rely on the prodigious talents of young players such as Pedri, Ansu Fati and Gavi to lead them forward, Laporta has instead insisted on wheeling and dealing as part of his belief in the "virtuous circle" philosophy.
Though he is risking everything with his agreements, despite previously refusing to cave into La Liga's CVC televisions rights deal while insisting it was "mortgaging" the club's future, he believes that investing in on-pitch success will rectify matters off it.
To this end, he has overseen the signings of Robert Lewandowski (€45 million/$46 million), Raphinha (€58 million/$59.3 million) and Jules Kounde (€55 million/$66.6 million), while there are reports Barca will also go after Bernardo Silva who could cost up to €100 million ($102 million).
Furthermore, Franck Kessie and Andreas Christensen have arrived on free transfers.
Has the plan been successful so far, and can Barcelona register their new players?
This approach has proven a masterstroke in that Barca have somehow managed to land marquee names despite their financial woes.
But problems remain with La Liga, who on Friday afternoon reportedly informed the club that even given the activation of the first three levers, they will still not be able to register their five new players plus two existing squad members – Sergi Roberto and Ousmane Dembele – that have signed contract renewals.
Barca were apparently aware that the fourth lever would still be necessary to register the players, but COPE reported on Monday that it still won't be enough as at least €60 million ($61.4 million) more must be generated "through sales or other income."
Since the beginning of the summer, Barca have been trying to offload midfielder Frenkie de Jong with an €85 million ($87 million) deal for his transfer already agreed with Manchester United.
Intent on enjoying success under coach Xavi Hernandez, however, the Dutchman has dug his heels in and doesn't want to go anywhere.
How has the football community reacted to their conduct?
Barca's methods have divided opinion on social media.
They have been compared to the friend that owes you money, claims to be broke, but is always on a night out living it up. Others though admire Laporta's brazen maneuvering and the barefaced cheek he has exhibited while still getting what he wants and placing Barca to once again become a force at home and on the continent.
While relations between the clubs' fanbases weren't always the best given the controversy of a 2009 Champions League clash at Stamford Bridge where a late Andres Iniesta screamer sent Barca to the final, the Catalans have definitely made a new enemy in Chelsea.
This is because, on two occasions, players the west Londoners had closed in on eventually wound up in Catalonia.
Can’t escape the feeling that Todd Boehly is learning why there’s no substitute for an experienced Sporting Director. Hard not to conclude Barça have been toying with Chelsea this window….. https://t.co/ILpnsBPjJn
— Rob Draper (@draper_rob) July 25, 2022
Under the rule of new owner Todd Boehly, who led a consortium that bought them from Roman Abramovich for £4.25 billion ($5.15 billion) in May, the Blues agreed a £55 million ($66.6 billion) fee with Leeds United for Raphinha only for the Brazilian to hold out for Barca to make an approach for him and accept their terms.
Weeks later, the exact same phenomenon occurred with ex-Sevilla defender Kounde, and tensions between the two European giants' supporters have reached boiling point on Twitter.
With De Jong leaving central to their plans, Barca have also been accused of "bullying" the 25-year-old by Manchester United legend and pundit Gary Neville.
I actually don’t care if he signs for United or not! However it has highlighted a situation I’ve always been passionate about which is employers/clubs taking the piss out of workers/players and not paying them their due money! Barca are a disgrace to their great name! https://t.co/tHB1HrP5Vx
— Gary Neville (@GNev2) July 28, 2022
What are the other issues?
Neville made his accusations as in addition to United not being able to offer De Jong Champions League football, unpaid and deferred wages of €18 million ($18.3m) owed to the player by Barca have been cited in reports as another motive for him not wanting to leave just yet.
On Monday, The Athletic revealed how Barca allegedly accepted United's offer on July 15, and then, less than 24 hours later, informed De Jong that the agreement he made on October 20, 2020 with Bartomeu's board to defer parts of his salary and extend until 2024 had thrown up evidence of 'criminal activity'.
The contract needs to be annulled in order to avoid potential legal proceedings against all concerned, Barca say, with De Jong one of three players that agreed to such deals alongside Gerard Pique, Marc-Andre Ter Stegen and Clement Lenglet, who has left for Tottenham Hotspur on loan.
And while Pique has already reportedly agreed to lower his salary and go back to his previous arrangement as the club wants with all four men, doing so would see Ter Stegen and De Jong become free agents in 2023 and 2024 respectively.
Wedged between the stories on La Liga refusing to let Barca register their players and potential legal action against De Jong and Co., COPE has also claimed that Barca set up a third company with Sixth Street that the Americans put €517 million ($529 million) into whilst Barca invested €150 million ($153 million) of their own money.
Barca then declared the sale of the television rights to be €667 million ($682 million), which included their own €150 million that was amortized over the next 25 years to show spending of €6 million ($6.1 million).
This generated an additional €144 million ($147 million), probably to coincide with a previous negative La Liga salary limit of -€144 million (-$147 million), on top of the actual €517 million ($517 million) they received.
Yet rather than successfully pulling the wool over the league's eyes with their alleged accounting tricks, the discovery means Barca might have to pay an additional €37.5 million ($38.3 million) in corporate taxes.
Elsewhere, The Athletic has reported that Barca attempted to borrow their potential Champions League TV earnings from UEFA – which they are lodged in a Super League legal battle with alongside Real Madrid and Juventus – upfront when looking for ways out of their financial black hole, and allegedly explored bribing an official from the European football governing body if possible.
Is Messi coming back next year?
While Barca now boast a strong squad that could prove the perfect mix of experienced veterans, peaking talents, and young promises, and therefore might not necessarily need the aging Argentine on the pitch, rumors in recent weeks have placed Messi as rejoining his boyhood club of over 20 years next summer.
This is when his current two-year deal with Paris Saint Germain will expire, and Radio Catalunya reported on Sunday evening that talks between Barca and Messi's camp headed by his father and agent Jorge are already underway for a sensational return to Camp Nou in 2023.
By signing a one or two-year contract, Messi could end his career as a Blaugrana icon and Laporta would therefore pay the "moral debt" he recently said he owes the seven-time Ballon d'Or winner for the manner in which he left the club in tears a year ago.
At the same time, however, Messi is believed to have the option of extending his arrangement with PSG for another year and is finally finding his feet at the Parc des Princes with three goals and an assist already across two games this term.
Messi has also described plying his trade in the United States as a "dream," but there is a feeling that the player and Culers, as Barca fans are known, should be allowed to give each other the farewell they deserve after Messi's last season at the club was played behind closed doors thanks to the pandemic.