Spain will rue its failure to shackle the Barcelona debt-zombie

In the first game of the league season in Spain’s top flight on Friday night, Sevilla lost to Osasuna, with a team changed radically by the departures of their two first-choice centre-backs, Diego Carlos and Jules Kounde, who earned a trading club more than £60 million in transfer fees this summer.

Carlos made his home Premier League debut on Saturday lunchtime, having joined Aston Villa for £26 million, while surgery has meant that Kounde is not available for his new club, Barcelona, although neither is he currently a registered player. The Catalan club had chosen not to include him so far on their list submitted to La Liga’s administrators, who set a spending cap according to a club’s earning projections.

Only by Friday evening had Barcelona been able to register seven of their eight new signings after another last-minute round of revenue-raising. Robert Lewandowski, Andreas Christensen, Franck Kessie, Raphinha and Pablo Torre, as well as renewals Ousmane Dembele and Sergi Roberto were available to play on Saturday night. All except Kounde who will be, for the time being, a professional footballer by reputation only while technically ineligible to play for the club that holds his player registration.

Six of the new Barcelona players featured against Rayo Vallecano, although the 0-0 draw that followed is not a result the Nou Camp can afford this season.

There is quite a contrast between the club who have overspent to such a degree that they cannot register all their new players and Sevilla, who have no option but to sell players to them. Barcelona have spent around £160 million this summer, selling €700 million of future revenues in order to do so. Sevilla have, by comparison, spent just €15 million in fees.

For Barcelona, it is all part of the gamble that they, along with Real Madrid and Juventus, will win their fight in the European Court of Justice next year and break what they see as the Uefa monopoly on club competitions. Like every other domestic league, Spain’s opposes the case advanced by the European Super League rebel three. But this month it has done nothing to stop Barcelona, the debt-zombie, lurching onwards, selling today for the possibility of an enormous pay-out somewhere in the future.

This was the chance for Javier Tebas, La Liga’s president, to intervene. He will know better than anyone the plan for the revival of the Super League, and the part played in it by Real Madrid’s president, Florentino Perez, who requires Barcelona to be on life support long enough for the three to get their day in court. Why else would the president of Barcelona’s biggest domestic rivals this week praise the club’s debt-charged revival as a financial force in the market?

Had La Liga refused Barcelona its registrations then the message would have been clear. Yet it felt somehow inevitable that a club with a debt estimated at €2 billion would become the summer’s biggest transfer spenders in European football and still find a way to comply with La Liga’s financial fair play regulations. The concept of FFP in European football has not been eaten by Barcelona alone, but they do seem to be polishing off the final entrails this summer.

‘Jars of La Masia mist, tiki-taka gas’

The last tranche of the €700 million sale of future revenues was announced as late as Friday morning, the 24.5 per cent sale of the Barca Studios project, a subsidiary making bold claims about how a big club could leverage the future.

NFTs, digital assets, the new decentralised internet trading of crypto and tokens are central to the guarantees it has to offer about future revenues. Nevertheless, the 49.5 per cent sale of Barca Studios has collectively put around €200 million on Barcelona’s book value in the past few weeks.

None of it feels very real. The sale of €500 million worth of 25 per cent of future television rights to the American investor Sixth Street was something more tangible, even if it represented a hollowing out of the future of the club and the budgets of the presidents who will follow Joan Laporta. By the time the Catalan entrepreneur Jaume Roures, a friend of Laporta, paid around €100 million for a part of Barca Studios it could have been anything the club were selling to put some noughts on a balance sheet – jars of La Masia mist, tiki-taka gas.

For those who can afford it, like the state-owned clubs upon whom the Super League rebels have declared war, the battle against a strong FFP has been won in court. For those who cannot afford it, so long as they have a big enough reputation and enough political will, the revenue can be conjured up from nowhere. A future promise of the metaverse’s riches, something or other on Web3 – and suddenly the budget is balanced.

What will be real is the sight of Lewandowski or Raphinha bearing down on goal in the weeks or months to come, or a defence stabilised by the arrival of Christensen and, eventually, Kounde. In the real world, that defensive partnership of Carlos and Kounde contributed significantly to Sevilla’s fourth place last season, conceding the fewest goals in the league. That was a bona fide sporting achievement, and while Kounde would surely have left the club anyway, there is no such solid explanation for how the rules governing FFP permitted him to end up at Barcelona.

Just two places and three points separated Barcelona and Sevilla last season, but this summer they have been operating in different worlds. Sevilla are a selling club who walk the tightrope of transfer profits and annual Champions League qualification to have any hope of competing at the top of Spanish football. Barcelona, on the other hand, appear to operate under an entirely different set of rules.

This was a chance for Spanish football to stand up to its biggest financial basket-case and demand that it played by rules that were fair. By doing so, it would have struck a blow on behalf of the clubs who have never been able to challenge what was once considered the big two’s financial power and now, in Barcelona’s case, a power of a different kind.

For ignoring it, there will be a price to pay.

Read More: Spain will rue its failure to shackle the Barcelona debt-zombie

2022-08-14 00:00:00

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