When I began writing a book about FC Barcelona in 2019, I thought I would be explaining the club’s rise to greatness, and I have. But I have also ended up charting its decline and fall.
Before the pandemic, Barcelona became the first club in any sport ever to surpass $1 billion (€850 million) in annual revenues. Now its gross debt is about $1.4 billion, much of it short-term.
Spain’s La Liga has blocked it from spending any more money it doesn’t have. Barça has faced obstacles to giving a new contract to the world’s best and highest-paid footballer, Lionel Messi, even though he reportedly agreed to cut his pay by half. His departure from the club was announced this week.
The club has put most of its other players in an everything-must-go sale, with few takers so far.
The pandemic hurt, but it was only the coup de grâce. Almost invisibly, Barcelona has been in free fall ever since the night in Berlin in June 2015 when it won its fourth Champions League final in 10 years. The club had achieved dominance on the cheap, thanks to a one-off generation of brilliant footballers from its own youth academy. Back then, Barça could afford to sign almost anybody in football. In any talent business, the most important management decision is recruitment. But Barcelona lost the “war for talent”. What went wrong?
Barça’s process for buying players is unusually messy. Rival currents inside the club each push for different signings, often without bothering to inform the head coach. Candidates for the Barça presidency campaign on promises of the stars they will buy if elected. The sporting director of the moment will have his own views, as will Messi.
The man overseeing Barcelona’s disastrous transfer policy between 2014 and 2020 was Josep Maria Bartomeu. An amiable chap, he runs a family company that makes the jet bridges that take passengers from plane to terminal. In January 2014, he went from obscure Barça vice-president to accidental president when the incumbent, Sandro Rosell, stepped down. Bartomeu was considered a mere caretaker. However, in July 2015, a month after the win in Berlin, grateful club members gave him a landslide victory in Barça’s presidential elections.
The problem was that he knew little about either football or the football business. His sporting director, the legendary Spanish goalkeeper Andoni “Zubi” Zubizarreta, had signed players like Neymar and Luis Suárez, who gelled with Messi into the “MSN” attack, the best in football. But Bartomeu soon sacked Zubi. In all, the president had five sporting directors in six years.
Barcelona’s descent began with the loss of Neymar. The Brazilian was a hyperefficient winger who ran on to Messi’s passes. Expected goals (xG) is a measure of how many goals a team is likely to score based on its quality of chances. In the 2015/16 season, Neymar by himself accounted for 1.2 xG per game, only slightly behind Messi’s staggering 1.4. But Neymar wanted to be Messi: the main man of his team. In 2017, he joined Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) for a transfer fee of €220 million, a world record. Barcelona never managed to replace him.
When a club sells a player for €220 million, it doesn’t actually have €220 million to spend. There are taxes, agents’ fees and payments by instalment. Still, every other football club in 2017 knew Bartomeu had a wad of money in his back pocket and a need for a human trophy to wave in front of Barça’s 150,000 Neymar-deprived club members.
Almost any footballer will listen to an offer from Barcelona. “Sometimes you cannot reach an agreement,” Rosell told me, “but everybody sits at the table.”
In 2017, the Spanish agent Junior Minguella offered Barcelona’s board the sensational 18-year-old French forward Kylian Mbappé. But Minguella didn’t even hear back from Barça until finally a WhatsApp message arrived from a board member, Javier Bordas: “Neither the coaches nor Presi [THE PRESIDENT]wanted him.”
Bordas would say years later that Barça’s technical staff had also rejected the young Norwegian Erling Braut Haaland, because he wasn’t considered “a player in the Barça model”. Today, Mbappé and Haaland are the two most coveted young men in football.
Instead, Barça targeted another young Frenchman, Borussia Dortmund’s Ousmane Dembélé. Three weeks after Neymar left, Bartomeu and another Barcelona official flew to negotiate Dembélé’s transfer with their German counterparts in Monte Carlo, a favourite hub of the football business.
The Barça duo landed with a firm resolution, reported the New York Times: they would pay a transfer fee of at most €80 million. Anything more and they would walk away. Before walking into the assigned room, the two men hugged.
No wonder Barcelona face a peculiar hurdle in the transfer market: many potential signings feel they aren't good enough for Barça
But in the room, they got a surprise. The Germans said they had no time to chat, had a plane to catch, wouldn’t negotiate and wanted about double Barcelona’s budgeted sum for Dembélé. Bartomeu gave in. After all, he was president of the world’s richest club, and still something of a football virgin. He committed to pay €105 million up front, plus €42 million in easily obtained performance bonuses - more than Mbappé would have cost.
Not six months later, Barça paid Liverpool €160 million for the Brazilian creator Philippe Coutinho. Neymar’s transfer fee had been blown, and more. A transfer fee of more than €100 million should be a guarantee against failure, but neither Dembélé nor Coutinho succeeded at Barça.
Some of this may be due to the anxiety inherent in joining this club. The English striker Gary Lineker, who came from Everton in 1986, told me: “The moment I got off the aeroplane, there were hundreds of photographers and press. I was there with [WELSH STRIKER] Mark Hughes. We’d just signed and we were told, ‘We’re going to train on the pitch today, it’s when they introduce you to the crowd,’ and we thought, well, who’s going to turn up? Maybe 30 people, maybe 40. There was about 60-odd thousand people there, just to cheer the new players and watch a bit of training.”
Lineker agreed that Hughes, who failed at Barcelona, may have been one of the players who are said to “die” of nerves in the Camp Nou. “I think he was a bit too immature. But the expectancy levels there!”
No wonder Barcelona face a peculiar hurdle in the transfer market: many potential signings feel they aren’t good enough for Barça. These men are experiencing possibly justified imposter syndrome. Rosell said, “Sometimes an agent comes and says, ‘No, no, no, we are not ready.’ This is very honest. I liked it when it happened to me.” Bartomeu told me of similar rejections from “very important players now playing in other clubs”.
In early 2019, when Barcelona approached Ajax Amsterdam’s young midfielder Frenkie de Jong, a Barça fan since childhood, he was torn. He worried he wouldn’t get on to the team. Accepting an offer from Manchester City or PSG felt more realistic. He lay awake at night fretting over what might prove the biggest decision of his professional life. Reassured when Bartomeu made the effort to visit him in Amsterdam, De Jong finally decided he had to take the risk of joining Barça, rather than spend the rest of his life wondering whether he could have made it there.
Barcelona paid Ajax a transfer fee of €75 million. According to football agent Hasan Cetinkaya, advising the Dutch club, this was nearly double what Ajax had initially hoped to get. Cetinkaya said: “There was tremendous pressure on Barcelona’s sporting management to get the deal done, and they really wanted to protect themselves. Those in Barcelona’s sporting leadership were so relieved that the then sporting director Pep Segura began crying as soon as the papers were written.”
Messi's calling the shots. He knows he can take out anyone. He's not looking for fights — he's a nice guy. But he knows he has the power
Barça was used to overpaying. Whereas most clubs target a type – say, a young playmaker who costs under €30 million – Barcelona until 2020 shopped at the top of the market, and could afford to target an ideal. In this case, Barça didn’t want a “De Jong type”. It wanted De Jong himself. As so often when bidding for a player, it had no alternative in mind, and the selling club understood this. “You know you will pay more than another club,” shrugged Rosell.
In early summer 2019, Neymar messaged Messi to say he wanted to leave PSG. (“MSN” lived on in a WhatsApp group.) Messi saw the chance to repair Barcelona’s mistake of 2017. He replied: “We need you to win the Champions League.” He summoned Bartomeu and let him know. Messi made the same case in the media, putting pressure on the club.
But Barça took one look at the injury-prone, fun-loving, then 27-year-old Neymar and decided it wasn’t going to pay PSG’s asking fee of about €200 million. By this time, Barcelona was running out of money, partly because of its run of bad purchases and partly because the pay rises Messi’s father Jorge kept extracting for his son were bleeding the club dry.
Between 2017 and 2021, Messi earned a total of more than €555 million, according to extracts from his 30-page contract published in El Mundo newspaper. Neither Messi nor senior Barcelona officials denied the figure. One senior Barça official told me Messi’s salary had tripled between 2014 and 2020. But he added, “Messi is not the problem. The problem is the contagion of the rest of the team.” Whenever Messi got a raise, his teammates wanted one too. Messi’s salary finally made it impossible for Barcelona to buy the player Messi most wanted.
Barça spent summer 2019 more or less pretending publicly to sign Neymar, so that it could eventually go back and tell Messi, “Sorry, we tried everything but we couldn’t get him.” Instead, Barcelona paid Atlético Madrid €120 million for Antoine Griezmann, the 28-year-old Frenchman who had rejected the club a year earlier. It was a record fee for a footballer older than 25. It also enriched Barcelona’s rivals Atlético over and above the peculiar arrangement of Barça paying the Madrileños millions a year for “first refusal” on their players.
Barça’s ostentatious pursuit of Neymar doesn’t seem to have fooled Messi. Asked if the club had done everything possible to get the Brazilian, he replied, “I don’t know...not everything is very clear.” Asked if he ran the club, he issued his usual irritable denial: “Obviously I don’t direct things, I’m just another player.”
A club staffer who has worked with Messi since before his first-team debut in 2004 disagrees. “He’s calling the shots,” this man told me. “He knows he can take out anyone. He’s not looking for fights - he’s a nice guy. But he knows he has the power.” When Messi lost a battle, the staffer said, he would say nothing but metaphorically “write it down in his notebook”.
The failure to buy Neymar was Messi’s biggest defeat inside Barça and it went into his mental notebook. He couldn’t forgive Bartomeu. Messi didn’t particularly want power. He would have preferred that the directors and coaches handled everything - but only as long as they bought exactly the players he wanted.
Players who join Barcelona have often been the stars of every team they have played for since age six. At Barça, they become watercarriers for Messi. The drop in status was hard for a veteran superstar like Griezmann, especially when, for the first time in his career, he was benched. He rarely reached his best at Barça.
In total, Barcelona spent over €1 billion on transfers between 2014 and 2019, more than any other football club, yet as veteran defender Gerard Piqué admitted, “Every year we were a little bit worse.” By January 2020, when Barça needed a striker to replace the injured Suárez, the club was reduced to discount shopping. Sporting director Eric Abidal contacted the agents of Cédric Bakambu, a French-Congolese forward at Beijing Guoan.
When Bakambu got the phone call that every journeyman footballer dreams of, he jumped on a plane to Hong Kong, from where he could catch a flight to Catalonia. He sat wide-awake with excitement during the four hours to Hong Kong. As the plane came in to land and the signal on his phone resumed, a message from Abidal arrived: Barça had changed its mind. Instead the club signed a different journeyman, the Dane Martin Braithwaite, who had flopped at Middlesbrough in the English Championship.
Yet the strangest purchase of the Bartomeu era was Matheus Fernandes. In January 2020, Barça signed the unknown 21-year-old reserve midfielder from the Brazilian club Palmeiras. The transfer fee was €7 million, plus €3 million in potential add-ons. Fernandes was almost a secret signing. Barça never gave him an official presentation. After a spell on loan at little Valladolid, where he played just three matches, he returned to the Camp Nou and was given the “Covid” shirt number 19, which nobody else wanted. Last season, “the Brazilian Phantom” played 17 minutes for the first team.
Nobody could work out why Barça had bought him. Palmeiras’s sporting director, Alexandre Mattos, explained later that he had somehow lured Abidal to come and see the club’s reserves train. “At that moment, they called me crazy: ‘You want to sell a player from Palmeiras reserves, who doesn’t play much, to Barcelona?’” One wonders what Messi made of Braithwaite and Fernandes.
The club has gone from discount shopping to only signing out-of-contract players who carry no transfer fees at all
By summer 2020, Barça’s transfer deficit was haunting Bartomeu and his board members. Under the rules that govern Spanish member-owned clubs such as Barça, directors had to repay losses out of their own pockets. The board needed to book profits urgently before the financial year ended on July 1st. And so a bizarre swap transfer was concocted. The counterparty was Juventus, also eager to improve its books. Juve “sold” Bosnian midfielder Miralem Pjanic to Barça for a basic fee of €60 million, while Barça sold Brazilian midfielder Arthur Melo to Juve for a basic €72 million.
These sums would never actually be paid. They were invented for accounting purposes. Under bookkeeping rules, each club could book its handsome supposed selling price as immediate income. The notional payments would be spread out over the years of the players’ contracts. Only €12 million in actual money would end up changing hands, the difference between the two players’ fictional prices, paid by Juve to Barça. What mattered was that the swap helped both giants clean up their books.
It was a good deal for Bartomeu’s board, but not for Barça: the ageing squad acquired another 30-year-old in Pjanic, who was soon a fixture on the substitutes’ bench. By last August, after an 8-2 thrashing by Bayern Munich in the Champions League, Barça’s financial crisis became acute. The club needed to offload overpaid older players for whom there was little demand. Suárez (33) was informed in a one-minute phone call that his services were no longer needed. He joined Atlético. Barcelona continued to pay a portion of his salary.
Bartomeu does deserve credit for signing 17-year-old Pedri from Las Palmas that summer, for an initial fee of just €5 million. The boy became a sensation. He shone for Spain in this summer’s European Championship and should play in Saturday’s men’s Olympic football final against Brazil. Still, that success cannot outweigh all Bartomeu’s failures.
Barcelona ended last season third in the Spanish league, its worst performance since 2008. Atlético Madrid won the title, largely thanks to Barça’s gift of Suárez. The Uruguayan scored 21 league goals, and was the striker that Barcelona lacked all season. After scoring the winner in the last match, he sat on the field crying with happiness as he phoned his family. “The way they showed contempt for me at Barcelona at the start of the season,” he had said earlier. “Then Atlético opened all its doors for me.”
This season could be worse for Barça. La Liga has been indicating it will only let the club spend about €160 million or €200 million on player costs this year, less than a third the amount of three years ago. Barcelona isn’t merely paying unaffordable wages. It’s also still amortising failed transfers of years ago. The club has gone from discount shopping to only signing out-of-contract players who carry no transfer fees at all. Even then, La Liga will only register them to play if Barça can first slash its wage bill.
Barça has offloaded a few relatively modestly paid reserves, without noticeably denting the wage bill. Fernandes received an email saying his contract was being terminated; he is reportedly taking legal action for unfair dismissal. Barça would love to sell some expensive players, but Dembélé is injured and Coutinho recovering from injury.
The club may end up having to sell its most treasured young players, Pedri and De Jong. Rival big clubs are pitiless. Barça needed to lower its sights for a while, another senior club official told me, “not try to win every year La Liga or the Champions [LEAGUE]”.
I have sometimes felt I was writing a book about Rome in 400AD with the barbarians already inside the gates.
Simon Kuper is an FT columnist. This is an edited extract from his book Barça: The Inside Story of the World's Greatest Football Club, published by Short Books on August 12th
- Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021