Messi has cash-strapped Barcelona over a bar­rel

➤ Cata­lan gi­ants are star­ing at fi­nan­cial dis­as­ter in Covid world ➤ Loss of Ar­gen­tine su­per­star could solve club’s money cri­sis

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Sport Football - By Sam Wal­lace Chief foot­ball writer

When Barcelona sold Ney­mar to Paris St-Ger­main in the sum­mer of 2017, a trans­fer sen­sa­tion by any mea­sure, the board of the Cata­lan club made a very pub­lic show of their re­sis­tance to the €222mil­lion (£198mil­lion) sale that was paid in one in­stal­ment as per the league’s rules on buy­out clauses.

For the pres­i­dent Josep Maria Bar­tomeu, the scion of a Cata­lan in­dus­trial fam­ily and faced with los­ing one of the play­ing and com­mer­cial as­sets in­te­gral to the modern vi­sion of Barcelona, the sale had to be pre­sented as a be­trayal of his club. He sug­gested, not un­rea­son­ably, that it was about money for Ney­mar and that given the choice, the club would have kept him rather than take a world-record trans­fer fee paid up front. “No in­di­vid­ual in­ter­ests,” Bar­tomeu said, “can take prece­dence over the in­ter­ests of the club.”

Yet when the club’s ac­counts for the year 2017-18 were pub­lished in Oc­to­ber of the fol­low­ing year, the full im­pact of Ney­mar’s trans­fer was clear: rather than pun­ish Barcelona, it had saved them. Los­ing the bur­den of his salary kept the rev­enue-to-wages ra­tio be­low 70 per cent – it would have been 89.5 per cent oth­er­wise – and left the club in profit for that fi­nan­cial year. The fol­low­ing sea­son the club needed to open a credit line with a United States hedge fund, and al­though they have traded play­ers since then, none has re­alised the value of their for­mer Brazilian su­per­star.

Now, with a wage bill bud­get of €671mil­lion in the Covid era, the is­sue for Bar­tomeu and the board is their per­sonal li­a­bil­ity for the fi­nances of the club un­der the Span­ish law that gov­erns sports clubs owned by their mem­ber­ship. Since the Covid-19 out­break, the club, one of four along with Real Madrid, Ath­letic Bil­bao and Osasuna re­leased from the le­gal obli­ga­tion to op­er­ate as PLCs, have lob­bied for a change to the rules on li­a­bil­ity.

While the de­par­ture of Lionel Messi might be a dis­as­trous de­vel­op­ment for the club’s pub­lic face, be­hind the scenes it could be re­garded as a nec­es­sary evil that saves the board in a po­ten­tial Covid fi­nan­cial apoca­lypse. Like Ney­mar’s sale three years ear­lier, the club can ar­gue it was against all their wishes. Yet even if Messi leaves for free, the lift­ing of his wage bur­den alone solves some of Barcelona’s press­ing fi­nan­cial is­sues caused by the mis­takes of Bar­tomeu and his board.

There has been no clear dis­clo­sure of fi­nances since the pre-Covid days of last Oc­to­ber when the sit­u­a­tion was pre­car­i­ous. The board has been bullish about reach­ing an an­nual rev­enue stream of €1bil­lion – “stag­ger­ing fi­nan­cial growth,” Bar­tomeu de­scribed it as in his pre­am­ble to the Oc­to­ber re­sults for the 2018-19 sea­son. Even then, on a rev­enue of €990mil­lion, the op­er­at­ing ex­pen­di­ture was €973mil­lion with just €4.5 mil­lion in prof­its af­ter tax.

There has been no clear sig­nal yet of how much Covid has cost Barcelona since. The Cata­lan news­pa­per La Van­guardia has es­ti­mated it at €154 mil­lion. The haste with which the club ap­proached their foot­ball and bas­ket­ball stars for cuts in March sug­gested a se­ri­ous prob­lem.

What part of that wage bill is rep­re­sented by Messi’s salary is un­known, but sug­ges­tions that it is up­wards of €90mil­lion gross would make it clear that his de­par­ture would be a crit­i­cal sav­ing. So, too,

Luis Suarez, Ivan Rakitic and many of the oth­ers said to be part of the Ron­ald Koe­man purge. Once again, the club’s po­si­tion is that they wish to re­tain their cap­tain and great­estever player, but his de­par­ture would not be without its ben­e­fits.

The vote of no con­fi­dence in Bar­tomeu, be­gun yes­ter­day, would need 16,000 mem­bers’ sig­na­tures – an achiev­able to­tal, but the process it­self is likely to take up to three months, by which time Messi in­tends to have left. He has in­structed a law firm to ad­vise him on his con­tract free­dom and he clearly means busi­ness. If there is a des­ti­na­tion for him at one of the Manch­ester clubs or PSG or In­ter Mi­lan, that deal would have to be com­pleted be­fore the trans­fer dead­line on Oct 5.

The res­ig­na­tion of Bar­tomeu and the board that he se­lected might change Messi’s per­spec­tive, but it would not change the fun­da­men­tal prob­lem. Bar­tomeu has cho­sen to fo­cus on ex­pand­ing the rev­enue and the race to reach €1bil­lion first, without be­ing able to cut the wage bill. He took the mer­chan­dis­ing op­er­a­tion away from Nike, but while that has in­creased turnover it has not in­creased the prof­its.

They have not signed Ney­mar or Paul Pogba, or many of those they have been re­ported to be in­ter­ested in, be­cause there is not the fi­nan­cial power to do so. Those stars who have been signed, Philippe Coutinho, Ous­mane Dem­bele, An­toine Griez­mann, Frenkie de Jong, are yet to de­liver the up­lift re­quired and so the wage bill has grown while the star man has be­come ever more dis­sat­is­fied.

If Bar­tomeu bows to pres­sure and re­signs, one year be­fore the end of his term, then per­haps Messi will stay and a cri­sis will have been avoided. But the next pres­i­dent will find him­self with lit­tle room to ma­noeu­vre and the obli­ga­tion of his most fa­mous player’s salary still payable in an era in which rev­enues are shrink­ing.

Me­dia storm: How the Span­ish me­dia has re­acted to the bomb­shell of Messi an­nounc­ing he wants to leaves Barcelona

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