The latest setback was losing to Inter Milan in a “must-win” midweek game, which likely means elimination from the Champions League.
On Thursday morning, there was a joyful mood at Valdebebas, Real Madrid’s training facility. Real Madrid qualified for the Champions League knockout stages this week, just as they have every year since the expanded competition was introduced in 1992, and they did it with two games remaining. They are Europe’s kings.
The situation of Barça, their enduring opponents, was the subject of jokes and laughter from both the players and the staff. The Catalan club failed to defeat Inter Milan at Camp Nou midweek in a crucial match that ended 3-3, and barring a miracle, they have been sentenced for the second consecutive season to compete in the Europa League.
Barça’s finances are a shambles. The club reported losses of €487 million in the previous year. The club was unable to retain Lionel Messi in the summer of 2021 because he emotionally left to join the circus in Paris. The loan was required of Antoine Griezmann. Barça could not pay their salary. The club was deemed “technically bankrupt” in October 2021 by chief executive Ferran Reverter, a man with an exceptional background in business. The club persisted, approving a €1.5 billion investment plan for the Camp Nou restoration in December 2021. Reverter left two months later, claiming personal reasons. He is still in situ. Joan Laporta, the club’s president, has taken over his responsibilities because she didn’t appreciate his negativity.
Football can take you by surprise. The football world was shocked this past summer as Barça sold off assets, including 25% of its La Liga TV rights through 2047 and 49% of Barça Studies, to raise €865 million. This was similar to a man clinging to the rails in a casino. The money was used to pay the high salaries and bonuses for its “free” transfers, Franck Kessié, Héctor Bellern, Marcos Alonso, and Andreas Christensen, as well as contract extensions for Ousmane Dembélé, Sergi Roberto, Ronald Araujo, and Gavi. It also used the money to meet La Liga’s strict financial fair play rules.
Its three “captains,” Sergio Busquets, Gerard Piqué, and Jordi Alba, collectively earned €120 million in salary just this season.
The Covid-19 outbreak devastated all football clubs’ revenue, including Barça. The issue with Barça was that it exposed a careless spending culture. It has long overstayed its budget. 77% of its income is made up of pay. The Uefa recommended that clubs not go over 70%. Sergio Busquets, Gerard Piqué, and Jordi Alba’s salaries alone this season totaled €120 million. In particular, Piqué and Alba, whose contracts expire in 2024, are targets for the club. Both were formerly starters.
Mateu Alemany, the club’s general manager, was praised in the Catalan press for his ability to outsmart rival teams like Chelsea for players’ autographs, scoring “goals with his magic phone,” during the exuberance of the club’s summer shopping spree. Less was said about his dismal sales performance. Griezmann, who cost €135 million to purchase, was returned to Atletico Madrid for €20 million. Philippe Coutinho, who cost €160 million plus add-ons, was sold to Aston Villa for €20 million. In a player swap with Arthur Melo in 2020, Miralem Pjanic, who was supposedly purchased for €60 million, was released on a free transfer to a club in the United Arab Emirates.
The club must spend its way out of difficulty, according to Laporta, who returned to the presidency last year, or risk becoming irrelevant and unattractive for sponsors, an also-ran like the formerly mighty AC Milan, who have not been competitive in European football for more than ten years. Laporta is attempting to follow the same strategy that worked when he assumed control of the club in 2003. Barça’s debt at the time was almost two times its income. He turned the ship around because of illustrious eras led by Messi and Ronaldinho (until he stepped aside as president in 2010 for an abortive career in politics). More money was made off the field thanks to the team’s success on it. Up to the pandemic, income and salaries rose each year.
By mortgaging the club’s future, he made the audacious decision to jump-start Barça’s revenue-generating engine. This is significant because it means that the club’s president and board are no longer responsible for losses incurred while they were in office. He put up a 125 million euro guarantee to run for president. However, recent amendments to the club’s bylaws ensure he doesn’t face any personal risk. This time, he is placing a wager using club funds rather than his own.
At a members’ gathering last week, he boasted, “We’ve saved Barcelona.” His remarks reek of illusion as a Champions League elimination in October looms. He has given his troubled players and coach Xavi Hernández the task of saving him.
Madrid is smelling blood. They are eager to avenge a 4-0 loss they suffered in this matchup last spring, knowing that a crushing victory could spell the end for Xavi’s endeavors.
At the Santiago Bernabéu Stadium on Sunday, Barça will take on Real Madrid. Both teams are unbeaten in La Liga, sharing first place. Beyond the points at stake, the championship match always has a significant impact on the title race because of the emotion and momentum a victory provides. Since Barça fell 2-1 at Camp Nou in April 2012 to give up the championship and destroy Pep Guardiola’s coaching career, there hasn’t been as much riding on the outcome as there is now.
Madrid is smelling blood. They want to avenge a 4-0 loss they suffered in the matchup last spring and are aware that a decisive victory could spell the end for Xavi’s endeavors.
At the Camp Nou stadium in August, Robert Lewandowski made his debut as a member of the Barcelona team. Nearly 60,000 spectators came to see him perform keeps-puppies. Barça took a risk by paying €45 million for a striker who was turning 34 and giving him a four-year deal. To get out of Bayern Munich, he had to fight hard. The Polish striker, however, has upheld his end of the agreement.
Lewandowski has created a lot of buzz within the organization. His name is on Barça shirts that are selling like churros in the city, as they say in Spain. He has caused a startling increase in gate attendance. More than 80,000 fans are expected to attend games at Camp Nou this season compared to an average attendance of 55,000 last year. This season, he has scored 14 goals in 12 games. The refrain is “Lewandowski scores, Barça wins.” When he participates in his first clásico on Sunday, his coach Xavi hopes it will take place.
La Liga: Real Madrid v Barcelona
Sunday, Santiago Bernabéu, 3.15 pm