It’s been a busy summer for Barcelona, with marquee signings galore and some of their stars poised for exits.
But how can a club reportedly up to their eyeballs in debt afford it? And can all the players brought to the Nou Camp even be registered to play? talkSPORT got in touch with a Spanish football expert to explain…
The story of Joan Laporta’s heralded return to Barcelona already has a beginning, middle and end, but oddly enough, none of them seem to quite match up.
It began with gigantic billboards of the Spaniard trolling Real Madrid, and was soon replaced heads in hands over eye-watering debt, and now there’s pensive anticipation.
Laporta, the man who crafted Barcelona’s golden Pep Guardiola period, alongside Johan Cruyff, returned in 2021 with a poster of his face next to the Santiago Bernabeu and the simple message, ‘Looking forward to seeing you again’.
Barcelona experienced unparalleled dominance under Laporta, winning seven trophies in a single campaign, playing some of the best football the sport has seen on course to European trebles under Guardiola and Luis Enrique.
Even with Madrid’s recent Champions League dominance, the billboards were enough to make some in the capital worry.
The publicity stunt won him presidential elections he was already on course to command, and he soon grabbed the hot seat, but it wasn’t long before the realisation set in of what he’d inherited.
Disgraced predecessor Josep Maria Bartomeu had left the club in turmoil, with overspending on fees and wages combined with the COVID-19 pandemic leading to a painful press conference where Laporta stood behind a lectern with his head in his hands and announce, “As of March 21, 2021, the debt was €1.35billion.”
Even harsher than that hammer blow though, was the fact just a week earlier, the club’s greatest ever player, Lionel Messi, had stood behind the same lectern wiping tears from his eyes as Bartomeu’s mess forced an unwanted departure to Paris Saint-Germain.
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Laporta described his predecessor as ‘full of lies’ and said: “Bartomeu was plugging holes in the short term and mortgaging the club in the long term. That leaves us a dramatic inheritance.”
Isn’t that exactly what’s happening now? Well not quite.
Despite his avuncular and showy exterior shown by the Madrid banner, Laporta has been rather humble about his role in setting Barca towards footballing perfection.
The 60-year-old previously admitted that many of his biggest and best decisions, such as hiring Guardiola, were on the advice of club legend Johan Cruyff, who sadly passed away in 2016.
Instead though, Laporta has found another important figure in the shape of former Valencia director Mateu Alemany, whose financial genius has allowed the club to contend with what seems to some like an unmanageable debt.
The club has spent around £150million on Raphinha, Jules Kounde and Robert Lewandowski and brought in Franck Kessie and Andreas Christensen, despite last year being unable to afford their greatest ever player.
Thankfully though, talkSPORT had Spanish football expert and Barcelona scholar Graham Hunter to explain that not only is this all possible without any threat to the club’s security, but it’s also not too unusual.
He explained: “It’s often talked about ‘how can Barcelona spend when they’re in debt?’ but that’s a bit ludicrous because all institutions in the world accumulate debt, there’s quite a lot of debt associated with the ownership of Manchester United.
“Since they signed a deal with Spotify to sponsor the shirts and Camp Nou, that was €280m taken in, following that they’ve sold 10 per cent of their future television rights and that was just over €200m, they’re in the midst of selling another 15 per cent of their television rights and that was approved by the members.
“It’s a sick joke how the previous board and the numpty president managed the expenditure and the controls associated with that expenditure, which players they invested in.
“The previous board were a laughing stock and potentially deadly to Barcelona’s financial credibility, the truth is in this board, they’ve taken the ideas to the membership, the people that own the club that they voted heavily in favour of.
“For example selling another 15 per cent of future television rights for somewhere around €300m, that’s a total if you’re adding up of just about €700m and they’re in negotiations to sell licencing and merchandising rights for another €300m while maintaining control of it, so it’s a minority share.
“People can like or dislike selling part of your future in order to be liquid right now, but it’s not unique to Barcelona and it begins to answer the initial question about how are they signing these players.”
Before all that though, Laporta and Alemany had to restructure the debt they inherited, agreeing a huge loan from Goldman Sachs, transferring their short term liabilities to long term liabilities.
This instantly wiped out the short term risk of debts being called in within the year, leaving Barcelona in peril and unable to pay – now though, the risk is spread somewhat manageably over their future.
“[They have a] global debt of €1.2billion,” Hunter acknowledged. “But their local short-term debt is smaller than Tottenham and Manchester United.
“[Short term] debt that needs to be managed [now] and global debt that is long term – the idea about survival is not on the table.”
How do they pay it back is the next question, and the answer is simple, taking from their rivals Real Madrid and winning the Champions League, hence the signings of Lewandowski and others.
“In terms of LaLiga, it doesn’t [pay],” Hunter explained. “LaLiga’s development is slower than the Premier League, [but] the Champions League does.
“A while ago for winning the Champions League you might be taking in €85-€90m, currently if you have a good stab in the Champions League and finish top six or top four, you’re talking about €120/€130m.
“If they’re competitive for one or two seasons in the Champions League it vastly eats into the short term and long term debt, the fact about the gamble is, if you don’t pull it off, then you’ve wrongly mortgaged your future.”
So the plan is in action, Barcelona’s debt is now, in a sense, manageable, but it depends on winning. Incomings are sold off, and success in Europe will need to replace them.
In that regard the signing of a 34-year-old Lewandowski makes far more sense, especially when you look at the form of Barcelona since club legend Xavi Hernandez was appointed manager in November last year.
The instrumental serial winner as a player instantly showed he could contend with Madrid with the same resources as the man he replaced, Ronald Koeman, and a full campaign with new signings should only strengthen that.
One huge problem still remains, though, and that’s getting all of those new players registered, which is yet to happen.
It’s not the first time Barca had this issue – Ferran Torres had to wait for his debut last summer, with LaLiga’s rules the problem, not UEFA’s.
With Financial Fair Play on the slide in Europe, LaLiga still apply their own boundaries, with a squad cost limit that Laporta is currently struggling to get on the right side of.
The president has been using the word ‘palancas’ a lot in recent weeks, or ‘levers’ in Spanish, which he will pull as and when is necessary.
These have come in the shape of TV rights and merchandising deals, upping Barca’s revenue, a crucial part of the equation in what they’re allowed to spend to get under the squad cost limit.
The worry is, Laporta is now up to his fourth lever, a 24.5 per cent stake in ‘Barca Studios’ – another attempt to register the new signings just days before their league opener against Rayo Vallecano.
The third and fourth levers have been far more serious, though, selling the club’s businesses, rather than just a temporary transfer of rights.
How serious those decisions turn out to be almost entirely depend on the club’s successes in Europe over the coming years.
But for a club whose trademark used to be beauty and winning the right way, there’s now a realisation that they will have to revert to that of their rivals Madrid: success at all costs.
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