There comes a point when a player has stayed at a club long enough to become forever etched in their fabric. Think Paolo Maldini at AC Milan. Ryan Giggs at Manchester United. Francesco Totti at AS Roma. They become utterly synonymous with their team, so much so that imagining either party without the other feels wrong, like some sort of cosmic imbalance.
On Thursday, football was sent into a cosmic imbalance, the likes of which no one could have foreseen. In three, concise paragraphs released on their social media and website, FC Barcelona announced that Lionel Messi would be leaving the club.
Despite becoming a free agent after his previous deal expired on June 30th, Messi was poised to sign a new contract with his boyhood club. However, Barcelona claimed they failed to finalize Messi’s contract due to “financial and structural problems.”
Those problems pertain to La Liga’s annual salary cap, which dictates how much each club can spend on their squad including players, coaches, and other staff members for the upcoming season. The limit is determined by evaluating the club’s overall financial health and has been implemented to try and ensure Spanish clubs are run in a sustainable and sensible manner.
Barcelona’s salary cap has continually declined in recent seasons, from €671m during 2019/20 to €347m last season and an expected €160m for this season. While part of that decline can be attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic and its affect on sponsorship, broadcast, and stadium income, it’s not the whole story. La Liga president Javier Tebas claimed that the club have been so hard hit by the pandemic-induced revenue loss because they “have always been at the limit in terms of wages” to an extent that is simply “not normal.”
The data certainly supports Tebas’ assertion. According to the football business Twitter account Swiss Ramble, Barcelona’s wage bill of €443m in 2020 was the highest of any club in Europe, as is the €960m they’ve spent on buying players over the past three years.
What makes that spending even more worrying for Barcelona is that it’s primarily been financed through credit. A financial report released by the club showed they are currently €1.2 billion in debt, more than half of which comes from short-term loans that must be repaid within the next year. At present, Barcelona have no revenue stream that’s lucrative enough to pay that money back. To put it mildly, they have not been run as a stable operation, and it’s no surprise they’ve faced punishment from La Liga through their salary cap.
Since Barcelona’s spending is currently higher than their salary cap, they cannot register new players — such as Memphis Depay, Sergio Aguero, Eric Garcia, and of course Lionel Messi — onto their wage bill until they are under the limit. Lulene Servent of the Spanish outlet Sport reported that Barcelona “must knock 200 million euros off their wage bill” if they are to be under the salary cap of last season.
Remembering that this years is about half of that, they would need to reduce their expenditures even further. Until they return to spending within their salary cap, as Sid Lowe explained in The Guardian, “of every four euros they save or raise, only one can be invested.”
The quickest way for Barcelona to raise revenue is through moving players out of the club, which they have already made some progress in through loan moves for Carlos Alena and Francisco Trincao and the sales of Junior Firpo and Jean-Clair Todibo.
However, the players Barcelona want to sell due to their high wages — Phillipe Coutinho, Miralem Pjanic, Samuel Umtitti, and Ousmane Dembele — have no clear buyers, leaving Ronald Koeman saddled with players who have woefully underperformed in recent campaigns. The players who are attracting some interest and who could be sold for significant value, such as Frenkie de Jong, Ilaix Moriba, Pedri, and Ansu Fati, are among the club’s brightest young prospects who are meant to be the pillars around which the squad is constructed in the future.
😢 Lionel Messi at @FCBarcelona…
🏆x10 La Liga
🏆x7 Copa del Rey
🏆x4 Champions League
🏆x3 Club World Cup
🥇x20 Top Scorers
🥇x6 Ballon d’Or
🥇x3 UEFA POTY
🥇x1 Fifa Men’s POTY
🏟 778 Games
⚽️ 672 Goals
🅰️ 305 Assists
🐐 End of an era. pic.twitter.com/1U0Hng5hML
— SPORF (@Sporf) August 5, 2021
It is an utter catastrophe, and in its wake, Barcelona have been forced to part ways with the world’s greatest footballer. Club president Joan Laporta, once optimistic about being able to resign the Argentine, struck a very different tone in his press conference on Friday addressing the situation. “We can’t live of dreams. I love dreaming but it’s not the case, we have to talk about the reality” he stated pragmatically in response to being asked about whether La Liga could tweak the rules to permit Messi’s signature.
Perhaps that is what makes this so shocking. Barcelona’s financial issues have been well-reported for some time, but there’s always a sense in football that no matter what they do, the big teams always get their way eventually. Rules and regulations seem to take a back seat when someone with enough power, prestige, and money starts showing resistance. But La Liga, at least for the moment, are holding firm.
So for now, the lens has to be turned towards Barcelona and the series of issues that culminated in this saga. Losing talented players from La Masia because of failures to keep the pathway to the first team open. Turning away from a recruitment strategy centred on youth development to one of big-money acquisitions.
Being forced to run down Messi’s contract because he refused to sign one last season due to disagreements with former president Josep Bartomeu. These and other decisions have led Barcelona down their current path of gross mismanagement and disarray, and it may take years for them to stray away from it.
It’s a damning indictment of the debt-dependent spending many top clubs embark upon and should be a warning to other footballing superpowers to reign in their expenditures before it’s too late.
Lionel Messi’s exit from Barcelona was far from the fairytale ending we expected, but given the latter’s calamitous operation, perhaps it’s the ending they deserve.