Eric Garcia was “all tied up,” they said, but somehow he escaped. “Garcia: OK,” Barcelona said. “Garcia: now,” they said. “Garcia: done,” they said. A bit like they had said, “Neymar: OK,” “Neymar: now,” and “Neymar: done.” The Brazilian had been coming pretty much every day for months, right up to the day when he didn’t. And then, they said, he was still coming. The window shut, but they didn’t shut up; they carried on regardless.
They’d said Lautaro Martinez was coming, too. You might have noticed that he didn’t, either. They had said the choice was between Neymar and Lautaro, when the reality was that Barcelona didn’t have any choice, and they didn’t have either of them. They didn’t even have Memphis Depay. And so it went, over and over and over again. This week it was Garcia, but it was also David Alaba. It was Jose Gaya and Marcos Alonso. They were “candidates,” they said.
Which was at least true: candidates for their front pages.
Reading the Catalan sports papers El Mundo Deportivo and Sport this week — and last week, and the week before, and the weeks and months before that — it was easy to be reminded of another moment’s illumination from the great philosopher of our age, the man who foresaw everything. “This,” Homer Simpson tells Lisa, sitting at the kitchen table, that morning’s “US of A Today” in his hands, “is the only paper in America that’s not afraid to tell the truth: that everything’s just fine.”
This week, Marca splashed their front page with a declaration of Barcelona’s financial situation, the punning headline roughly translating as “bottomless pit.” An economic black hole had opened up. Barcelona’s situation was, it said, “dramatic.” There was a “haemorrhage,” a “crisis.”
Ah, some said, well of course: that’s Marca, the living embodiment of what Pep Guardiola called the “Madrid milk board” — media accused of being at the behest of Real Madrid and, especially, their president, Florentino Perez. Marca, they suspected, were taking the chance to dance on Barcelona’s grave. To make it out to be a grave in the first place, in fact.
They probably had a point. Experience tells everyone that. It’s worth noting that virtually all of Europe’s big clubs have huge debts at the moment. The pandemic has hit everyone hard. It’s also true that few were swift to note the figures coming from Real Madrid. If Barcelona’s total debt is €1.173 billion and their net debt €488 million, Madrid’s is €901m and €355m, respectively. Hardly small change, either.
But the figures, quietly and unexpectedly released this week, are not some invention. They are Barcelona’s own. And, well, look at that number again: €1.173 billion.
Everyone knew that Barcelona’s financial situation was bad; it’s been reported repeatedly. Everything that has happened in the past year or so — yes, even pre-pandemic — has pointed at it. But seeing it in black and white was still quite shocking, and think about it: the fact that it occupied a front page in Madrid but not in Barcelona is pretty shocking, too. As was seeing it played out over the potential signing of Garcia.
And that’s the other thing to note here: All those headlines, all those stories, all those big names supposedly on their way — don’t make the mistake of thinking that all those are purely invented by the media, of thinking it’s not what they were told or that it’s what people want to hear, however much the urge grows to grab them and shout: You. Can’t. Sign.
Everything’s not just fine: over a billion euros in debt; wages accounting for 74% of the budget; a short-term debt of €720m; €186m in amortisations; a €488m loss in 2019-20; the need, somehow, to raise almost €200m this summer alone; a negative working capital of €602m; a long list of players to be paid for.
That list of players, by the way, makes for grim reading: €40m on Philippe Coutinho, €48 on Frenkie de Jong, €9.8m on Francisco Trincao, €52m on Miralem Pjanic (who only came as an act of financial engineering in the first place), €8m on Arthur (the man they sold while signing Pjanic, purely to bring the books in line), €6m on Emerson (who hasn’t even arrived yet), €10.14m on Malcolm (who’s been and gone). They still owe Bayern Munich for Arturo Vidal and Eibar for Marc Cucurella, and on it goes.
Yes, they’re owed €46m by other clubs too — although imagine if they default — but they owe €126m.
This week, Carlos Tusquets — the interim president who doesn’t seem too keen on the “interim” bit — said that he was in favour of signing Garcia now. Ronald Koeman is, too. And so Tusquets called the presidential candidates — Victor Font, Toni Freixa and Joan Laporta, with the club’s presidential election occurring on March 7 — to get their OK before going ahead, because the financial situation does not allow them to take decisions like this lightly. (In truth, Tusquets shouldn’t be taking them at all.)
A battle played out. Font said yes, Freixa said sign him now but for next season when he will be free, Laporta said no. Tusquets and Laporta exchanged accusatory letters, the latter already annoyed that elections had been postponed from their originally scheduled Jan. 24 date. But beyond that there is something very basic:
Garcia’s cost is €3m, plus potentially another €3m in add-ons. He would cost Barcelona just €230,000 in this year’s budget, Tusquets insisted. But it now looks like it won’t happen.
Strip away the other elements — whether this president should sign anyone, how he can propose a deal that postpones payments when that’s part of what has put them in this mess in the first place, the interests of each of the candidates, why they would spend what might amount to €6m for six months on a 20-year-old defender they’re going to get anyway — and this is the bottom line: Barcelona cannot just sign a player for €230,000.
The new president will have to restructure the debts. He may have to seek new ones for short-term stability. They will go — again — to banks and investment funds. This summer, they will have to sell — more headlines — and sell big. And yet if there’s one thing that makes selling hard, it’s having to sell — and everyone knowing it. It can be difficult enough saving on wages, let alone making money back. They have been here before.
Shaka Hislop marvels at Pedri’s rise at Barcelona and taps the 18 year old for a breakout year in 2021.
As one agent put it last summer, “If I was a big European club, I’d wait until the deadline for Barcelona’s accounts and then make a laughably small bid for their players; they’d have almost no choice and might bite.” Nelson Semedo raised €40m, it is true, but Vidal, Ivan Rakitic, Luis Suarez, all of them left; Barcelona made just €1.5m up front. Coutinho didn’t go at all. Nor did Lionel Messi. Economically, him doing so would have suited them, Tusquets admitted.
They’ll try again with Coutinho. Antoine Griezmann, too, maybe Ousmane Dembele. Anyone they can, in short. But while the good news is the quality of the new generation — any club would love to have De Jong, Pedri, Ansu Fati, Ronald Araujo, Sergino Dest — it won’t be easy. And signing players will be even harder. Just as it was last year: no Lautaro, no Depay, no Neymar.
As Messi put it: “How are they going to pay for him?” How can you buy Neymar when even €230,000 makes you think twice? How bad must things be?
Bad? Everything’s just fine.