Given that he had once been assured he was “the future of Barcelona”, Frenkie de Jong might roll his eyes at stories like the following. A few months ago, the Catalan club were talking to a potential summer target, but this at a time when La Liga’s salary cap meant they couldn’t register new signings. The player was interested but understandably sceptical, and the situation formed a large part of discussions. Barcelona were insistent, though. They assured the player they would find a way. In the meantime, they were selling their image. Everyone still wants to play for Barca.
The selling club, who were German, were not so confident. They didn’t want to do business. Put bluntly, they were sceptical over whether they would get paid in full. They now have a very different image of Barca.
It is one that is increasingly widespread in the game. This is why Bayern Munich demanded the fee for Robert Lewandowski up front. This is why some sellers have inflated asking prices for players when Barcelona come calling, simultaneously inflating the market, just in case the third instalment doesn’t arrive. Other clubs have meanwhile decided they will not do business with them on principle.
It says a lot about where Barca are. It also has real effect, as the plans of so many clubs are swirled around by their spinning plates.
Barca may no longer dictate the transfer market, in the sense they will be the club to buy the best players in the world, but they have influenced this summer’s window more than anyone else. Those two facts are profoundly connected.
Just as connected are the recent question of how Barca are actually doing this and the more relevant question of what happens next; whether this is sustainable.
La Liga’s rules, after all, meant the club had to pretty much raise €600m in order to even go into the market this summer. Those questions are all the more pressing since Barca still have to figure out the final numbers in order to actually register four new signings in Lewandowski, Raphinha, Franck Kessie and Andreas Christensen.
The immediate answer, and one that is more acute for Spanish football as a whole, is that there is a way around La Liga’s salary cap. That is through itemising entries on the balance sheet - including instalment payments - into the upcoming year to increase the “cash in flow”. Barcelona have replicated this through enormous loans, most notably from Goldman Sachs, effectively turning short-term debt into long-term debt. That €600m now needs to be paid back in 10 years rather than one.
Other deals have aided this - for the time being. A new €70m sponsorship deal has been signed with Spotify, albeit one that covers shirt, training kit and stadium naming rights. That gives them less space for future negotiations, which ties in with the short-term nature of other deals. Barca have also sold 10% of their La Liga TV rights for €207.5m to investment firm Sixth Street for 25 years, and are looking to sell up to 49.9% of Barcelona Licensing and Merchandising.
In other words, they are selling their image in more ways than ever before.
Industry figures have a number of descriptions for that, too.
“Like taking out multiple high-risk mortgages on future earnings.”
“Selling off the family silver.”
“Going to the casino.”
There has been general amazement within the game.
What those figures are wondering, above anything else, is how the club are going to get all this money back - and with huge interest on top.
The extent of their business is all the more eye-opening because Barcelona had actually been given an out. They just didn’t need to go this far.
After a relatively fallow period from their famous academy, Barca were blessed with a truly brilliant next generation in Gavi, Pedri and Ansu Fati. Pronouncing a thoroughly sustainable new three-year project, as Joan Laporta pretty much did at one of their last crises in 2003, would surely have been the easiest sell in the world. It would have been completely based on their most idealised image: youth production; patience; romance; a football identity.
It also would have been presided over by one of the high priests of all this. A young team playing under Xavi, and founded on Gavi, Pedri and Fati, would surely have been a vision. It would have been afforded so much time, to allow the club to grow and once again afford the very best.
Instead, Xavi has been just as insistent on this approach. He has requested “experienced” signings, to go with Laporta’s yearning for a star.
“We have to strengthen to compete for all the trophies.”
That’s quite the giveaway. They want it all, and they want it now.
But why? Why the rush? Why the risk? Why not wait and build something greater; something that better fits with their history, and their best ever sides?
It feels unnecessary.
Some of it, ironically, is based on their old self-image. Some of it is based on all these investment deals.
On a very base level, there are figures within Camp Nou who just cannot accept they are not the biggest in the game anymore. There is an understandable resentment about how state-owned clubs in Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain took their stars and - worse - their ideas, and used them to become better than Barca. It partly explains some decisions that often look like desperation. In that sense, and somewhat remarkably, they haven’t actually adapted as well as their new Super League business partners at Real Madrid. The European champions have been more accepting of their new status, and sought to build from there, with so much youth.
Involving more nuance, there are also those financial negotiations. The calculation both Barcelona and their investors are making is that they’ll quickly get back to their old levels of revenue - the biggest in the world before Covid - if they have a team that can compete. That is admittedly possible with a lower wage bill and higher income.
There is also a sense of investment from a different perspective, based on the belief that so much of modern football business is based on competitiveness and, by extension, “content”. You need to be producing moments that are globally relevant. That has been the story of the super clubs. It is again the selling of that image. This is what players like Lewandowski are still buying into.
That doesn’t happen if you are languishing in fifth, or the Europa League. Many would point to how even a club like AC Milan became irrelevant for a decade. It is one of many reasons - to go with the struggle to meet repayments - that Barca have been so pushing the Super League.
That perspective still overlooks the reality that any club - but particularly a club with Barca’s historic fame - can quickly become relevant again if they win something. You only have to look at what Liverpool are now, compared to what they were for most of 2009 to 2017. Most of all, though, they are sustainable.
This is what a new plan under new stars could have offered, if they were willing to endure a potential period of frustration.
It is what fosters the sense that the stakes are now unnecessarily high. It is what gives another image of the club: one of waste and inflation and desperation, of lessons not learned and financial imprudence.
Another term has been floated within the game: “Goldman Sachs FC”.
The hinge of all this is that Barcelona do need a lot to come off in order for all this to pay off.
Which brings us back to another hinge issue, in De Jong. The Dutch midfielder may well represent “the future” of Barca, but in a way no one imagined when they used those words to persuade him to come to Camp Nou over City or PSG back in 2019.
His departure is the domino that needs to fall so everything else can fall into place. The hierarchy have told him this. They have wavered between trying to force him out to pleading with him, appealing to his love for the club.
He should be well aware of the irony there, particularly given he agreed to restructure his contract to help the club through Covid.
Now, as a consequence of that, the “offer” they have made to him is possibly more extraordinary than any other part of this.
The club are still refusing to pay him deferred wages, and are effectively forcing him out, so they can spend money on others. As much as anything, it is quite a blow to pride, let alone bank balance. It’s difficult not to empathise with De Jong’s stance.
He has been obstinate in insisting he will stay, as the club agree a deal with Manchester United. Some think he genuinely doesn’t want to go, but one of those is not Erik ten Hag. He has of course spoken to his former Ajax player. Others believe it is all about not giving Barca an out in a tense stand-off.
Dr Gregory Ioannidis, a sports lawyer and attorney at law at Sheffield Hallam University, is one of many figures who feels there is much more to this.
“It is clear, without a doubt, that this is not a legal matter, but rather a political one, and any deadlock can only be broken with effective negotiation,” Dr Ioannidis says.
“One aspect that needs to be clear is that a purchasing club almost never makes an offer to purchase unless there is an agreement with the player to join. It is true that many managers prefer to deal in a direct manner with the player, without the ‘assistance’ of third parties and, therefore, decide to bypass intermediaries. One would have to presume that such discussion has taken place. Consequently, Manchester United would have to make a political decision on whether it is worth pursuing a player that may be using them to get what he wants and/or if they believe he has gone back to his initial promise.
“We are not here to offer negotiation techniques and/or legal advice, but if the player really wants to join Manchester United, without losing his highly publicised ‘deferred payments’ with Barcelona, there are ways of making this happen, by looking at all options involving termination of contractual obligations and claiming ‘due payables’. One thing is certain, and that is Manchester United, cannot, for legal and tax reasons, make such payments for the player.
“Finally, negotiators need to make it clear to the parties involved that when a relationship between a club and player arrives at a crossroad, where the club makes it clear it no longer wants the player, the player is best advised to seek other options towards protecting his sporting career and his future earnings and potential of profit maximisation.”
The club aren’t really selling the idea of staying. They are more concerned with selling their image.