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De Jong, Lewandowski and Raphinha: The devil at Barcelona is in the financial detail

“Now it is time for the office work, which could be more important than what happens on the pitch,” said Barcelona coach Xavi Hernandez after the team’s trophyless 2021-22 season ended on another bum note with a 2-0 home defeat to Villarreal.

The former playmaker had a message to send to his club’s disappointed fans, and also perhaps to his fellow senior decision-makers at the Camp Nou — club president Joan Laporta, sporting director Mateu Alemany and technical secretary Jordi Cruyff.

“We have to strengthen to compete for all the trophies,” Xavi continued. “Many things must be changed. The president, Mateu, Jordi… they tell me these changes are possible and we can strengthen well. At a club as big as Barca, you have to change a lot of things when you do not win trophies.”

When Xavi returned to work on June 27, he did not find much progress had been made in the offices.

Xavi, head coach of Barcelona, prior to the La Liga match between Barcelona and Villarreal in May (Photo: Jose Breton/Pics Action/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

The month had been filled with speculation of players Barcelona wanted to sell — from Manchester United target Frenkie de Jong down to long-serving benchwarmers, such as Samuel Umtiti, and La Masia graduates who are never going to be first-team regulars, such as Riqui Puig.

There was also talk about who Barca wanted to buy, including Bayern Munich centre-forward Robert Lewandowski, Leeds United winger Raphinha, Manchester City playmaker Bernardo Silva and Sevilla defender Jules Kounde.

However, on Monday evening, as Xavi took charge of the team’s first training session of this summer’s pre-season, there were no exciting new faces looking back at him. The most important parts of that office work had yet to be done.

The date of June 30 became important for many Barca fans, especially after Laporta set it as a deadline for gaining permission to activate two more “economic levers” at a special assembly of club members.

Regular Laporta watchers will not have been surprised that the activation of the first lever came right on the deadline. Barca announced around noon on June 30 that they had secured €207.5 million (£178 million) via the sale of 10 per cent of the club’s La Liga TV rights over the next 25 years to US financiers Sixth Street.

Instead of ending their 2021-22 financial year with a loss of around €161 million, they could now show a surplus in their annual accounts. As a result, La Liga will view the club’s finances more positively, which Barcelona hope will loosen their salary limit for 2022-23.

That remains to be seen. La Liga does not make its salary limits public until after the summer transfer window shuts on September 1. Barcelona’s official club accounts will not be made public until the autumn, before the next club AGM.

Still, the story being sold to the club’s fans, other clubs and the wider football public was a positive one.

“We are activating economic levers and executing on our patient, sustainable and efficient strategy to strengthen the club’s financial footing,” said Laporta in the club statement announcing the deal.

Another way of looking at the situation is that the club spent €161 million more than it brought in during the 2021-22 season, the first full campaign of Laporta’s second term. Just as the team did not perform as well as expected, the club did not come close to meeting its predicted revenues. So to fix this hole in the accounts, they have taken money from their future in the hope they will not need it so badly then.

Sources involved in the deal told Barcelona that this was much better value for the club than going into La Liga’s CVC operation, both in terms of the money raised and the time frame involved. Talks were held with different potential funders, including CVC. The final auction was held with help from Key Capital Partners, which is also involved in the stalled Super League plan. Another quirk of the situation is that in May this year, Sixth Street provided Real Madrid with €360 million for a 30 per cent share in revenues from its upgraded Estadio Santiago Bernabeu for 20 years. 

The main thing, from Barca’s point of view, was they needed to secure the money. The way they did fits with the pattern since Laporta was elected as president for a second time. After winning the election in March 2021, he then had to scramble together the deposit needed for him and his new board to take office. The end of the last two transfer windows has also seen hectic action in the Camp Nou offices to find the money to register players they had signed in the months and weeks before.

The sense is of constant improvisation, and that is a word many critics of Laporta tend to use. It also came up last week during a surprise showing by Victor Font, the candidate who came second in last year’s vote.

Font made public a meeting with Barca’s institutional vice-president Elena Fort, where he had put forward proposals that he said would help make the club more transparent and democratic in its decision-making. “I don’t want to criticise for criticism’s sake, but there has been no plan, there has been improvisation,” said Font, whose “Si al Futur” campaign remains active.

Font questioned why Barca had not entered the CVC arrangement last summer — “that way, Leo Messi could have stayed,” he claimed. He also used the word “mortgage” to describe the TV rights sale to Sixth Street. “If you are going against the clock, you have less capacity to negotiate,” he said. “This is not something we had contemplated.”

Selling TV rights was not the only “lever” that Laporta’s board had available. Last October, they received permission from club socios to sell 49 per cent of the club’s Barca Studios arm. Then, in the most recent EGM, the club members voted to allow the directors to sell 49 per cent of the club’s BLM licensing and merchandising department.

Before the vote authorising the board to activate these “levers”, Laporta and vice-president Eduard Romeu said the club really needed €600 million to get their finances back into the kind of order where they could start acting as they wanted in the transfer market. But talks with various different potential partners who could take a stake in either Barca Studios or BLM have not brought any breakthroughs.

Instead, The Athletic has now been told that the first lever, the TV rights, will be pulled again in the next few weeks. They still have permission to sell another 15 per cent and are aiming to get €400 million for this. Sources potentially involved in another auction say there will be no set deadline for the further deal to be closed. However, Laporta and the board want it done soon so that this new money can be used to buy new players.

Hence the optimism with which Laporta talks about Lewandowski, Raphinha, Bernardo and Kounde. Some at the Camp Nou even predict this business can be done soon enough for new signings to be on the plane to the US for their summer tour, and feature in the showpiece Clasico against Real Madrid in Las Vegas on July 23.

This optimism about Barca being able to shift gears and do quick business comes just as another vital part of their future financial planning is stalling almost completely.

In early June, The Athletic published an XI of players that Xavi could do without next season. That was part of a bid to cut last year’s wage cost of around €560 million down to a more manageable figure of €400 million.

All of those players are still among the 31 Barca first-teamers with contracts for next season, but some progress has been made. Philippe Coutinho’s loan to Aston Villa was turned into a permanent exit in a cut-price deal so Barca could book his transfer fee in the 2020-21 accounts. Youth-team forward Ferran Jutgla has been sold to Club Bruges for €5 million. Last season’s loans Luuk de Jong and Adama Traore have been sent back to parent clubs Sevilla and Wolves. Dani Alves, 39, has been told he will not get another short-term deal.

At least 13 of the 31 players are openly available for transfer. They know that the club is trying to sell them but many are digging in their heels. Xavi had told Puig, Neto, Umtiti, Martin Braithwaite and Oscar Mingueza he was not counting on them, and the club said they could take extra holidays to sort moves away, but Puig and Neto showed up anyway on Monday.

The earliest to arrive on Monday morning was Francisco Trincao, pulling up outside the training ground in a taxi well before 9am for his first day back following his loan to Wolves last season. US international defender Sergino Dest was present for tests, as was Miralem Pjanic, back from a loan at Besiktas last year and still with two more lucrative years left to run on his Barca deal. All three are well aware that Alemany and Cruyff are working hard to find them new clubs, whether they like it or not.

Absent from the training ground on Monday were those players who had international commitments running deep into June, including others Barcelona are hoping to sell, such as Braithwaite, Memphis Depay and De Jong.

De Jong’s situation remains difficult to predict. The former Ajax midfielder has been on holiday in the USA, where last week he got engaged to Mikky Kiemeney. He has now returned to Spain, where his professional future remains up in the air — despite comments from Laporta last weekend claiming he would do “everything in my power” to keep De Jong at the Camp Nou.

The Athletic believes that Barca are still actively working to sell him, whether that is to United or any other club willing to meet their €80 million asking price, but De Jong is happy in Barcelona and wants to stay, and Xavi is happy to keep him. Manchester United remain interested in reuniting the player with his former Ajax manager Erik ten Hag, although De Jong himself still needs convincing, especially with United in the Europa League next season.

The situation is also complicated by De Jong being one of Barca’s highest earners, and also being owed the salary he deferred in a previous concession to help the club out of a financial hole.

One player who has accepted it is time to leave is France international centre-back Clement Lenglet, who is close to joining Tottenham on a season-long loan. Lenglet knows he did not figure in Xavi’s plans for the season and Tottenham are in next year’s Champions League and making ambitious transfer plans this summer.

That deal was close to completion on Tuesday, although it was not yet clear whether Barca would have to cover a portion of his wages while he was playing for Spurs.

Once more, the devil at Barca is in the financial detail.

Monday morning at the Camp Nou also brought confirmation of the free transfer arrival of former Milan midfielder Franck Kessie. The Ivory Coast international, 25, has signed a contract to June 2026 and would have a (theoretical) release clause of €500 million. Kessie was training with Xavi and his new teammates on Monday evening and will be presented as a new signing today.

Monday afternoon saw the announcement that ex-Chelsea centre-back Andreas Christensen had also signed until June 2026, and also with a (hypothetical) €500 million clause. The Denmark defender will have his presentation on Thursday and is due to join up with the team along with the returning internationals next week.

Everyone involved knows that until Barca make serious progress on their salary limit, neither Kessie nor Christensen can be registered with La Liga for 2022-23.

Nevertheless, the Camp Nou hierarchy remain very confident that more players will also be joining soon, once the TV rights economic lever is pulled again. Also crucial to this plan is La Liga’s acceptance that their finances are heading in the right direction, as otherwise they will only be able to spend a maximum of 33 per cent of any money raised on new signings. 

The top target remains Lewandowski, and Barcelona believe that Bayern can be persuaded to accept their €40 million offer for a player who turns 34 in August and has just 12 months on his contract. Salary terms have already been agreed with the Poland international and his agent.

Lewandowski remains on holiday in nearby Mallorca, and last week both he and Xavi happened to make short trips to Ibiza, where they ate at the same restaurant and exchanged a few short words.

Barca are also confident they will be able to get a deal done with Leeds to sign Raphinha for around €50 million. This is despite an awareness at the Camp Nou that Chelsea are willing to out-bid them. Their confidence stems from the Brazil international himself being firm in his insistence on only moving to Barca, and also on the close links between Laporta and former player Deco, who is now Raphinha’s agent.

The optimism about the club’s future financial strength is such that very senior sources at the Camp Nou say that as well as bringing in Lewandowski and Raphinha, Barca could also re-sign Ousmane Dembele to a new deal.

The Athletic has been told that Barca’s latest offer to Dembele’s camp is a contract worth 40 per cent less than he was on before — close to the money earned by youngsters Ansu Fati and Pedri in mid-rank of the dressing room’s salary scale.

The club believe this could be accepted — Dembele really wants to stay and Xavi really wants to have him. This is despite sporting director Alemany saying last January that Dembele had to leave. Xavi dug in then and insisted on playing him through the second half of the season.

The France international really appreciated that support from his coach and is willing to accept lower terms, but perhaps not quite the salary cut being suggested.

Xavi would be very happy to have Lewandowski on board, and also likes City’s Bernardo and Sevilla’s Kounde, but he does not share all of the optimism over the club’s finances being projected from above him in the hierarchy. Hence the former playmaker’s wish to get Dembele, a bird in the hand, to stay.

The next big date in Barca’s summer is July 16, when the team fly out to the US for their summer pre-season games against Inter Miami in Miami, Madrid in Vegas, Juventus in Dallas and New York Red Bulls in New Jersey.

If De Jong makes the plane, it would suggest he has succeeded in holding firm against being forced out. If Lewandowski or Raphinha are on board, it could mean the TV rights lever has been activated again, and Xavi really will have a significantly strengthened squad for the coming season. The presence of other players with uncertain futures, such as Dest, Depay and young midfielder Nico Gonzalez, could also be significant.

Experience suggests that nothing is likely to happen quite so quickly at Barca. Another important date is July 12, when Lewandowski is due to report for pre-season with Bayern. July 30 is a deadline Barca have set themselves to provide a financial update to La Liga regarding next season’s salary limit. August 13 brings the first La Liga game at home to Rayo Vallecano at Camp Nou. Then comes the summer transfer window shutting on September 1.

More improvisation is almost certain. Laporta was fully confident last year that Barca would be able to keep Messi, until he wasn’t. Maybe Lewandowski, Raphinha and Kounde will all take to the pitch against Madrid in Vegas, or maybe Kessie and Christensen will be sitting unregistered in the stand as Xavi’s team kick off their La Liga season. 

Predicting exactly what will happen is difficult. At some point, all involved will have to make tough decisions and judgement calls. The optimism emanating from the Barca hierarchy and some fans clashes with the scepticism of those who worry that the club’s finances are getting worse, not better.

Meanwhile, Xavi just wants the most competitive team possible on the pitch to compete for next year’s La Liga and Champions League titles. As Barcelona’s 2022-23 pre-season begins, the most difficult part of their summer is yet to begin.

(Top photo: Getty Images)

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