A version of this article was originally published on October 13.
Around Camp Nou, it was mostly an eerie silence on the final whistle of Barcelona’s 3-3 draw with Inter Milan, as it dawned on the home fans that their club were almost certainly eliminated from the 2022-23 Champions League already, with two group games still to play.
As Inter’s players, coaches and fans celebrated in their small pockets, most of the 92,302 crowd were stunned and exhausted — as were the Barcelona team, their coach Xavi Hernandez, and the club’s president Joan Laporta.
On Wednesday night, the killer blow arrived, with Inter defeating Viktoria Plzen 4-0 to knock Barcelona out of the Champions League at the group stage for the second season in a row.
Barcelona out of Champions League after Inter win
This was not supposed to be happening after Barcelona’s eventful summer 2022, with the noise of a series of financial levers being pulled and the excitement generated by new signings such as Robert Lewandowski. That was all designed to make sure the club were ready for big nights like this with a rebuilt team that could again compete for the top trophies.
Just two months into the season, that theory is looking very shaky indeed.
Barcelona’s new team began the season impressively in La Liga, with Lewandowski scoring goals and most of the other new signings appearing to settle quickly. The last few weeks have brought back-to-back Champions League group defeats to Bayern Munich and Inter, but Barcelona had told themselves that they had been unlucky. Next time, when they renewed hostilities with Inter on October 12, they could turn things back in their favour.
Ninety minutes of huge excitement and chaos later, it became clear Laporta’s plan to mortgage the club’s future to become instantly competitive had not worked.
Xavi’s team are returning to the Europa League’s less glamorous and less lucrative knockout phase, and further financial problems and drama are certain.
The possibility of such a disaster was not talked about at all during the club’s AGM on October 9, which was held at the Auditorium 1899 hall by Camp Nou.
Laporta said that “together we have saved Barca”, reminding everyone of how the club had been almost bankrupt when he replaced Josep Maria Bartomeu as president in March of last year.
He explained how using various financial levers to borrow from projected future earnings would create a “virtuous circle”, in which the club will be boosted to success on and off the pitch and a winning team will grow its revenues so much that paying off the loans will not be difficult.
The delegates present on behalf of almost 150,000 “socio” members definitely seemed to agree, as all the votes put forward by the board were carried with huge majorities.
The vote on the club’s 2021-22 accounts, which showed a surplus of €98million (£86m) due to the inclusion of €267million raised by selling 10 per cent of future La Liga TV rights to Sixth Street, was carried easily with 548 in favour, 43 against, and 24 blank.
The 2022-23 budget, predicted to show profits after taxes of €275million due to the inclusion of €600m from three other levers, was also voted through by a huge margin — 478 delegates for, 35 against and 15 blank.
There were also votes on the details of the Sixth Street TV rights arrangement, and the creation of a new company, Barca Digital Entertainment, which would manage the club’s crypto and NFT plans, along with partners Socios.com and Jaume Roures’ Orpheus Media. Both carried easily, with the backing of around 90 per cent of delegate socios.
Even during the questions from the floor at the AGM, there were few doubts about where the club was headed.
The message was again that pulling those levers mean that Barcelona are back — their finances are better and the team is competitive again.
A more realistic summation of Barcelona’s finances came when the club’s financial vice-president Eduard Romeu admitted last week that “without the income from the “levers”, last year we would have lost €106million, and this year (the loss would be) €210million”.
That was a reminder that the Catalans are still living beyond their means and continuing to pay off the mistakes of the past.
Most obviously, their squad still costs way more than it should. In 2021-22, the total spent on salaries and amortised transfer fees was €518million but the budget confirms that, in 2022-23, it is up by 27 per cent to €656million after the signings of Lewandowski, Raphinha and five more new players in the summer.
Short-term fixes from past seasons keep coming back to cause problems.
A big one is player salaries that were deferred in past seasons, and are now due. The focus last week was again on Frenkie de Jong, Marc-Andre ter Stegen and the three “captains” — Sergio Busquets, Gerard Pique and Jordi Alba — who each cost the club more than €40million a year. Of these, only Ter Stegen has started the season well, while the current level of veterans Busquets, 34, and Pique, 35, was to be cruelly highlighted last night by Inter.
The accounts published earlier this month also show that Barelonca still owe transfer fees dating back years, including for players who are no longer at the club such as Philippe Coutinho, Miralem Pjanic and Neto Moura. More than €100million of this total is due to be paid for these players in the next seven months.
The AGM also brought a focus on the efforts of the board to increase the club’s “non-lever” revenues. The predicted budget for this season expects commercial and sponsorship income of €369million — 38 per cent above last year’s €267m and also well above 2019-20’s €324m, when Lionel Messi was still at the club.
The enthusiasm surrounding last summer’s transfer business has seen attendances rise significantly.
Last season’s average Camp Nou attendance was 55,026, down from 76,747 in the last full campaign before COVID-19. The average across the first four La Liga games in the new one plus the opening Champions League group game against Viktoria Plzen was 81,890 — a 19 per cent increase, or 13,199 spectators more each game.
This has been trumpeted as evidence that the virtuous circle was already working. In particular, that the money spent to bring in a proven star such as Lewandowski was a good investment. The striker’s arrival from Bayern was widely celebrated even as Spanish radio station Cadena Ser reported that the club has committed to pay him about €100million in total over the next four seasons, going well past his 37th birthday.
All that seemed too far away to be worrying about when Lewandowski began the season with 11 goals in his first eight games for the club. But the risks involved should have been clearer when the Poland international drew blanks in defeats to Bayern and Inter, with fellow summer signings Raphinha and Marcos Alonso not impressing either.
But still, nobody at this month’s AGM was seriously considering they could end up back in the Europa League after Christmas.
“Last season, the impact of being eliminated in the Champions League groups was €12million,” Romeu said. “We were counting on income we didn’t get, but we also saved costs. This year, we are aiming to win La Liga and reach the Champions League quarter-finals.”
That projection will almost certainly not be reached now, and €12million is a very conservative estimate of the cost of another group-stage elimination.
Even if they had progressed in the Champions League, their broadcast revenue was still predicted to fall by six per cent this year to €236million because from this season, they have started to pay Sixth Street 25 per cent of their La Liga TV income — €41million per year.
It is proof that, whether or not activating the levers actually pays off, they will have to be paid back.
Beyond the numbers, making the Champions League knockout phase is also vital to the club’s image.
Momentum is crucial to growing their fanbase and increasing their revenues from commercial partners. It’s not hard to see why nobody at the AGM wanted to even think about their clash with Inter on October 16 going badly.
“We know we cannot function forever based on levers,” said Laporta at the AGM, although he soon added that “we have to respond to demands for immediate results as soon as possible”. As usual, Romeu was clearer. “If we do not do something, with the current structure we will lose €200million each year,” he said.
That “doing something” is pretty clearly continuing to try to move more high-earning players off the payroll.
This season’s budget has a provision for €85million being raised from elsewhere, with profit on player trading the most obvious route. “We have to accelerate the exits or eliminate the contracts that are still above market rate,” Jaume Guardiola, president of the club’s economic commission, said at the AGM.
Barcelona have already been dealt a blow on this, with Atletico Madrid’s brinkmanship over Antoine Griezmann’s permanent transfer meaning that the Camp Nou hierarchy eventually accepted around half of the €40million that had initially been agreed. They would love to sell De Jong, too, and other players could be pushed out in January or next summer.
Antoine Griezmann has not started a single game for Atletico this season, instead coming off the bench soon after 60 minutes.@dermotmcorrigan explains the contract clause at the heart of the bizarre stand-off with Barcelona and what happens next.#FCB | #Atleti
— The Athletic UK (@TheAthleticUK) September 17, 2022
Romeu suggested that it will be 2024-25 before the club’s situation is “normalised.
By that stage, Busquets, 33-year-old Alba and Pique will be gone, although the team’s younger core of Pedri, Ronald Araujo, Gavi and Ansu Fati will be reaching stages of their careers where they will require significant salaries to keep them happy. That season, a then 36-year-old Lewandowski will be due €32million.
It was clear from the AGM that more levers will be activated along the way.
The board already have permission from socios to sell a 49 per cent stake in the club’s BLM (Barca Licensing & Merchandising) arm, although they have not yet been able to find a suitable partner willing to pay what they want. “We are looking for an industry partner but we have said we will not do any operation for less than €300million,” Romeu said.
Another potential option would be selling a share in the club’s museum, which is among the most visited tourist attractions in the Catalan capital.
Laporta’s ally Roures has already suggested he might be interested in paying up front for a stake in the its future revenues. But this is complicated by the huge renovation project at Camp Nou, which will require the museum to close for a significant amount of time over the next couple of years.
The rebuild has also added to Barcelona’s liabilities, with €1.5billion to be repaid over 25 years once the new-look stadium is completed.
In the short term, it will cost them €50million next season as construction work means the first team must play at the city’s smaller (55,000 seats) and less modern Montjuic Stadium.
The AGM also brought talk of another apparently magic solution that Laporta still hopes can save their future — the European Super League project.
He used his speech to call the Super League “the solution that football needs” and a “necessity” for the club. Barcelona, Real Madrid and Juventus are involved in a legal battle against UEFA in the European Union’s court system, but the possibility of a Super League bringing hundreds of millions of euros to turn Barcelona’s finances around any time soon remains very low.
There was a reminder of those political battles when UEFA’s Champions League anthem was whistled — as has become customary — at Camp Nou before that dramatic 3-3 draw with Inter.
The 90 minutes which followed also showed that such clever financial fixes are easier than putting together a good team who can win football matches.
Xavi was clear at the pre-game news conference the day before the Inter game. “This is a final for us,” the former playmaker said.
There was definitely a do-or-die feeling around the stadium the following night, with firecrackers and drumming outside, and an official attendance of 92,302 — Barcelona’s biggest crowd since before the pandemic hit in early 2020.
Nerves grew through the first half as Lewandowski had a header cleared off the line and Raphinha missed a simple chance at the back post. But five minutes before the break, it was 1-0 as Ousmane Dembele smashed home from close range. The roar from the crowd was one of joy mixed with relief and betrayed the fear the fans had been feeling.
That should really have settled everything down, but it did not.
Awful defending from Pique allowed Nicolo Barella to equalise. There was shock on and off the pitch as Lautaro Martinez rifled in to make it 2-1 to the visitors. Lewandowski’s deflected shot made it 2-2, but by that point, Barca were a wobbly mess. Xavi’s frantic substitutions left them without a right-back, and Inter’s Robin Gosens took advantage.
Lewandowski showed his worth with a fantastic header to make it 3-3 but Barcelona needed Ter Stegen to make two fine saves to avoid a defeat that would have confirmed their Champions League exit after four games rather than five.
“This Champions League has been cruel for us,” said Xavi afterwards.
Club captain Busquets called the Inter game “chaos” on Spanish TV, having been one of the many players overcome during the mayhem on the pitch.
The whole club, from the president to the fans, was not ready for this.
It was not supposed to happen — they had followed the plan, and really believed that “Barca were back”, as Laporta has repeated so often.
This season’s early exit from UEFA’s blue-riband club competition will be a far worse embarrassment than last year’s, when Barcelona could argue that they were still reeling from Messi’s summer exit and Ronald Koeman was struggling as their coach.
The whole point of pulling all those financial levers and gambling by borrowing from their future was to make sure it could not happen again. “Virtuous circles” of the type Laporta is aiming for are not set in motion by playing in the Europa League.
The performances in the three games against Bayern and Inter also raise the question of whether the players the board signed last summer — often through Laporta’s personal connections — were the right ones for the team. Others at the club are wondering whether Xavi is the right coach to get the most out of the talented squad the board worked so hard to assemble for him.
The evidence suggests that the drama at Barcelona is not over yet. Champions League elimination is a huge blow to the club’s self-esteem and its prospects on and off the pitch.
With Laporta having committed so publicly and forcefully to the policy of using short-term fixes to jump-start the team, more lever-pulling looks almost certain now.
Whether that is really good for the club long term or not is moot. Barcelona are in too far to pull out now.
(Top photo: David S Bustamante/Soccrates/Getty Images)
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