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Lionel Messi, Barcelona and the Crippling Cost of Success

The careful plan hatched by Barcelona, the richest soccer club in the world, fell apart almost as soon as its negotiators entered the room.

On a sweltering late summer afternoon, Barcelona’s executives had come to one of Monte Carlo’s most exclusive hotels to strike a deal with the German club Borussia Dortmund for one of the most exciting young prospects in Europe: the French forward Ousmane Dembélé.

Barcelona had decided on its strategy, and its price: Dembélé, in Barcelona’s eyes, was worth $96 million, and not a cent more. No matter how hard Dortmund pressed for a higher fee, the men from Barcelona would hold firm. The two executives steeled themselves as they headed to the suite the Germans had booked. They embraced before knocking on the door. And then they stepped inside, only to find that Dortmund’s executives had decided on a strategy, too.

The Germans told their guests that they had a plane to catch. They had no time to exchange small talk, and they were not here to negotiate. If Barcelona wanted Dembélé, it would have to pay roughly double the Spaniards’ valuation: $193 million. The price would make the 20-year-old Frenchman the second-most expensive soccer player in history.

Barcelona’s president, Josep Maria Bartomeu, was stunned. But he did not walk away. He quickly agreed to pay almost the entire amount, settling at a fee of $127 million up front, with a further $50 million in easily-achieved performance bonuses. For all his intentions of playing hardball, he felt he did not have a choice.

Only a few weeks earlier, Barcelona had seen one of its own crown jewels, Neymar, plucked by Paris St.-Germain. Bartomeu could not risk disappointing a fan base still reeling from that blow by returning home empty-handed. He needed a marquee signing, a trophy, a trinket. He had to pay the price.

Fans at Camp Nou in 2019, the year Barcelona surpassed $1 billion in revenue. The club’s structure gives members a strong say in team affairs but also makes executives eager to please them.
Lluis Gene/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

F.C. Barcelona has, for much of the last decade, had the look of a sporting and commercial colossus. This century, its on-field success and its off-field wealth have made it the envy of even its most bitter rivals.

It is the first (and only) team to surpass $1 billion in annual revenue. It employs arguably the finest player in history, Lionel Messi. On matchdays, the cavernous, iconic stadium it calls home fills with almost 100,000 card-carrying, dues-paying club members.

But Barcelona has been living on the edge for much of its recent history, a consequence of years of impulsive management, rash decisions and imprudent contracts. For years, soaring revenues helped paper over its worst mistakes, but the coronavirus has now changed the math.

One former board member believes the pandemic will eventually cost the team more than half a billion dollars in revenue. Its salary bill is the highest in Europe. It has already broken debt covenants it agreed to with its creditors, which will almost certainly mean higher interest costs in the future.

The result is that the club that brings in more money than any other in world soccer now faces a crisis: not only a crushing financial squeeze, but a contentious presidential election and potentially even the loss of its crown jewel, Messi. Its hurried pursuit of Dembélé, among others, is only one part of how it got here.

Even as Bartomeu finalized that deal, in August 2017, Barcelona knew it had been stung. The club had banked $222 million from the sale of Neymar weeks earlier and now needed a flashy signing to change the conversation. Every seller in Europe, though, knew Barcelona was cash-rich and time-poor. “You have a weaker negotiating position,” said Jordi Moix, Bartomeu’s former vice president for economic affairs. “They’re waiting for you.”

If any club could afford to overpay, though, it was Barcelona. Over the previous decade, it had been transformed into not only the best team in the world — the winner of three Champions League titles in seven years — but also its greatest moneymaking machine.

Its revenues were then inching ever closer to the target of one billion euros set by Bartomeu in 2015. It hit the mark — in dollars, at least — in 2019, two years ahead of schedule. Plans for a sleek entertainment and leisure district around the team’s stadium and the launch of the Barcelona Innovation Hub would keep the river of money flowing.

At the same time, though, the club was walking an increasingly delicate financial tightrope. There is another billion-dollar watermark it has passed: its total debt, including the amount owed to banks, tax authorities, rival teams and its own players, has ballooned to more than 1.1 billion euros.

More than 60 percent of that is considered short-term debt — more than any team in Europe — but that did not stop the lavish spending in the transfer market: not only the price paid for Dembélé but, a few months later, the $145 million committed for the capture of Philippe Coutinho from Liverpool — another negotiation in which Barcelona folded, and agreed to a price it could not afford to pay.

The burden of paying the players already on the club’s books, too, has continued to grow. According to Carles Tusquets, its interim president since Bartomeu was deposed last year, Barcelona’s annual salary bill of $771 million now eats up 74 percent of the club’s annual income, a much larger slice than its contemporaries, many of whom aim to keep that percentage no higher than 60. “It is an awful lot,” Tusquets said.

F.C. Barcelona

In some ways, Barcelona was a victim of its own success. The more its players won, the greater the figures they could command in salary negotiations. The fact that so much of its squad — the likes of Messi but also Gerard Piqué, Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba — were seen as the spiritual soul of the club, visible proof of the road from the club’s La Masia academy to the first team, gave the players, not the club, leverage.

“Clearly a lack of leadership, the leadership of the board being afraid to say no, is one of the key things that needs to be avoided going forward,” said Víctor Font, one of the candidates to become the club’s next president when elections are held in March. “Wages had gone too high.”

But when the club could rely on revenues tipping $1 billion every year, paying out almost $700 million in salaries was “a stress, but affordable,” Moix said, adding: “It did not give us much room for savings, but they were the backbone of the team. If we did not make the agreements, they would have gone.”

Moix admitted that Bartomeu and his board made mistakes, but he is convinced that it was an event outside of their control that finally tipped the club off its high-wire. “As time goes by things will be put in perspective,” he said. “How much is due to management, how much to Covid? It’s a subjective discussion.”

Joan Monfort/Associated Press

Either way, the scale of the damage is vast. In its most recent financial reports, Barcelona announced a loss for the year of $117 million. It estimates that it already has lost $246 million as a result of the pandemic. Moix suggested the total hit eventually will top $600 million.

At the same time, its debt to financial institutions and other clubs has risen by $327 million. Barcelona executives believe that figure — despite drastic efforts to cut costs — will climb further in 2021. Both its stadium and museum, two of Spain’s most popular tourist destinations, are likely to remain shut to visitors for at least the rest of this season.

With its forecast revenues for the next year revised down by $250 million, its players’ salaries may soon account for as much as eighty cents of every dollar brought into the club. The same squad that brought Barcelona such glory in the recent past seems, now, to foreshadow toil in the immediate future.

And there is no clearer example of that than the player who — above all — has come to symbolize this Barcelona, the player on whose shoulders its rise to global pre-eminence rested and whose salary, now, represents its single greatest financial commitment: Lionel Messi.

Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The contract Messi signed with Barcelona — in the fall of 2017, in the aftermath of Neymar’s departure — runs to 30 pages, according to a Spanish newspaper that was leaked a copy of the document. It contains a screed of eye-watering figures: a signing bonus of $139 million. A “loyalty” bonus of $93 million. A total value, if Messi meets every clause and every condition, of almost $675 million.

Last month, the newspaper that revealed its contents, El Mundo, described it as “Pharaonic,” a deal that was “ruining Barcelona.” That Messi was the world’s best-paid player was not a surprise: It had been reported at the time the contract was agreed that he would earn an annual salary of around $132 million.

To those outside Barcelona, it was seeing the sheer scale of the deal in black and white that was most striking. To those inside the club, though, the problem was not the figures but that they had been revealed to the public. Ronald Koeman, Barcelona’s coach, called for anyone found responsible for leaking the contract to be excommunicated. The club threatened to take legal action. Messi, too, was furious at what he perceived as an attempt to sabotage his standing at the club.

Messi’s relationship with Barcelona has been strained for some time. But last summer, after a third consecutive season of disappointment and a historic 8-2 humbling in the Champions League, his frustration boiled over and he gave the club formal notice that he intended to end his contract and leave.

Bartomeu refused even to countenance the idea. If any suitor wanted to sign Messi, he declared, it would have to pay a fee. Though Messi saw that as the breaking of not just a promise but a contractual obligation, he eventually backed down, unwilling to take the club he has represented since he was 13 to court in order to force his exit.

Six months later, his future is no more certain. His deal expires in June. Since Jan. 1, he has been free to agree to a move this summer to any club outside Spain. In a television interview last month, he said he would “wait until the season ends” before making any decision. “If I do leave,” he said, “I want to leave in the best way possible.”

Marcelo Del Pozo/Reuters

Though it is taboo for it to be said in public — and though nobody would welcome it — there are those inside Barcelona who believe Messi’s departure may be a necessary evil. Last summer, a few whispered that it made sense to cash in on Messi while the club still could, and not just because the transfer fee and the savings on his nine-figure salary could add more $250 million to the team’s bottom line.

Given his status, and his impact, few believe Messi himself is overpaid, but some members of the previous board wondered if he had an inflationary effect on the squad as a whole. Barcelona was paying out salaries worth hundreds of thousands of euros a week to fringe players. Messi’s earnings had raised the wage ceiling so high that the salaries of his teammates — especially the senior, home-reared ones — were rising quickly alongside it.

Moix, for his part, did not share that logic. “We can’t negotiate with an asset like this,” he said. Nor could Barcelona, really, negotiate at all; there are only a few clubs in the world capable of meeting Messi’s salary and his ambition, and none were eager to pay a premium for a player they might be able to get for free this summer.

Regardless, according to Moix, fixing a price for Messi proved irrelevant. “It is a theoretical question whether we would have sold him for 100 million euros,” he said. “Nobody made an offer.”

Oscar Del Pozo/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

As the club’s presidential election draws closer, each candidate is trying to position himself as the only man — and they are all men — with a solution to the financial crisis.

But Barcelona’s charm, in a sense, is also its curse: Every move the club makes has to be made not only with the support of whoever wins the election on March 7, but with the backing of its 140,000-strong membership.

“It makes it a bit more difficult to manage,” Moix said. “But that fact is also one of the differences we use to try to attract sponsors and business. The members are the real owners.”

In the past, that has contributed to the club’s largess: Bartomeu might not have been so desperate to land Dembélé, whatever the cost, had he not feared a fan revolt if he failed. Font, one of his potential successors, is convinced the lack of professional experience among previous boards has led to some of the poor decision-making.

Joan Laporta, a former president now running for his old post, last year labeled Barcelona “the club of three billion: one billion in income, one billion in expenses and one billion in debt.” He, like his rivals, has vowed to repair the team’s financial fortunes.

“It’s not your money but you can’t just do what you want,” Font said. “It has nothing to do with ownership structure, it has to do with poor governance, people who are not equipped to make decisions. For them it’s fun. It’s like a fun toy, I play with it, and I make decisions I believe make sense. That’s why you need people that understand playing with a toy in the wrong way can be dangerous.”

Now, though, it leaves the three remaining candidates for president with the toughest of electoral sells: promising cutbacks while continuing to meet the fans’ expectations. Most accept that the club’s salary commitments will have to be reduced, though that is rather easier said than done.

Just as Borussia Dortmund realized that Barcelona, in 2017, was in no position to haggle, European soccer — ravaged by the pandemic — is well aware that it is now, in effect, a distressed seller. Its players are unlikely to command premium prices, if buyers in a position to pay distorted salaries for aging stars can be found in the first place.

That has forced executives to examine other measures to try to alleviate the financial strain. Some of the costs — like an annual payment of five million euros to Atlético Madrid, a putative rival, for first refusal on any of its players — make little sense. Others, like seven-figure payments for past signings, are already baked in.

Enric Fontcuberta/EPA, via Shutterstock

For now, the club has been scrambling to renegotiate some of what it owes with its creditors, but it is likely that any attempt will mean doing so on worse terms.

It is exploring whether it can be granted an advance on future television income — worth around $190 million per season — or strike an innovative deal, designed by Goldman Sachs, to raise $240 million by selling a stake in a basket of Barcelona’s nonsporting assets — including its content creation business and its merchandising operation. The response, according to people familiar with the offer, has been positive.

Font said officials had pitched details of the money-raising plans to him, but he remains unconvinced. “We have a saying in Spanish: bread for today, hunger for tomorrow,” he said.

Goldman Sachs has also has agreed on a proposal with the club to arrange financing for a $988 million refit of the Camp Nou, a stadium that does not have a single sky box and is mostly uncovered. The project — which requires member approval — also includes for the creation of other properties, including a smaller, secondary stadium.

There is, of course, one other option. Allowing Messi to leave might solve many of the problems on the balance sheet in one fell swoop, and buy the club some breathing space. But while all of the candidates talk of the need to restore financial sanity, that is a road nobody is willing to take.

“The best player in the history of such a sport generates a lot of commercial value,” Font said. He is so determined to ensure that Messi stays that he would offer him a lifetime contract, one that would bond the player to the club even after he has retired. It would be fitting reward, after all, for the player who — more than any other — brought Barcelona here.

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