We’ve spent the past year casting doubt upon American sports franchises’ claims of just how much an effect the pandemic had on their finances. They claim “biblical” losses left and right, while never bothering to provide any information to confirm that. Well, thankfully, unless you’re a Barcelona supporter, soccer clubs can’t get away with such cloak and dagger tactics. Especially clubs like Barcelona that are, in essence, publicly owned.
And Barca can actually claim to be, in financial terms, “utterly fucked.”
Yesterday, the club released their financial report for the 2019-2020 season, and anyone who touched it immediately had to wash their hands. Well, more so than they already do these days. Barcelona are nearly $1.5 billion, that’s with a “B,” in overall debt, and owing nearly $900M in the short-term. The club is scheduled to pay creditors hundreds of millions of dollars by the middle of June, and they’re busily negotiating with them to try and get that deadline pushed back. Some creditors have agreed, but some have not, leading some to wonder if the club might have to declare bankruptcy before the year is out.
The details of the report sketch out the same morass you might have always suspected the club has run itself into. Every direction you look is yet another calamity. The club spends about 75 percent of its income on player salaries alone. Looking over the wage bill is sure to engineer some guffaws in places — guffaws that might cause pulled muscles. Lionel Messi makes around $85 million per season. But hey, he’s possibly the greatest player to ever live, and without him Barcelona would very well be a mid-table side. But Antoine Griezmann on $54 million per year? Antoine Griezmann?! Frankie de Jong is still just 22 and one of the most promising midfielders in the world. But $24 mildo? Ousmane Dembele on $12M per year for 26 minutes of health per season? Barca famously asked their playing staff to take a wage cut during the pandemic, but it apparently had little effect, and neither did getting high-earners Luis Suarez or Arturo Vidal off the books for this season.
If only simple salaries were the problem. Barca still owe $238 million in transfer fees to various clubs, some involving players who aren’t even at the club anymore, like Malcom or Arthur. They are also owed some cash in transfer fees as well, but not enough to cancel out the $238 million hole.
Barca took the hit more than most clubs from having no fans, as Camp Nou holds up to 99,000. But it’s not just tickets, as the Barca museum and stores have been on pause during Spain’s coronavirus shutdown, so they’re not getting any income from those sources, ordinarily worth nearly $100M a year combined.
The biggest debt load sitting on the club like a cantankerous and vengeful toad is the “Espai Barca” project, which will be a remodeling of Camp Nou and its surrounding area. That’s been pushed back three or four years from its original completion date and is now slated for the 2024-2025 season, to an estimated tune of $1.5 billion.
It is under this gaseous cloud that Barcelona is attempting to have elections for its president, as it got into this mess under the maniacal scientist Josep Bartomeu, who handed out those transfer fees and wages. What plan any candidate for the post could have to get out from under this mountain of debt will be a truly interesting watch. It might just involve a lot of crying in the boardroom and plenty of bourbon.
You may ask how Barcelona is able to actually compete in the Champions League being run like this. Wasn’t Manchester City banned, before it was overturned, for such lunacy? Ah, this is where new money and old money differ in the European game. UEFA suspended their “break even” rules for this season thanks to COVID-19. Still, 2020 finances will be rolled into 2021, and Barca will have some work to do to comply. One such person who might know where the bodies are buried will be a very interested observer. Not that UEFA would ever consider punishing a traditional power like them.
Which makes the drama over the summer with Messi even more curious. Even though Messi claimed his contract-out allowed him to leave for free, Barca could have negotiated with the player to allow him to leave with a transfer fee. Considering what he might have brought in and simply getting his wages off the books, how much did they consider it? Granted, a $100+ million fee and Messi’s $85 million salary would only be a fraction of what the club’s short-term debts are. But you have to start somewhere when you’re this buried, don’t you?
It is unlikely that Barcelona, or any club in Spain, will be allowed fans in attendance this season, as everyone had hoped before it started. They’ll hope that the gates reopening next season will start to alleviate this, along with the opening of the club’s museum and shops. But it’s going to take a lot more than that.
What the club will have to do with the playing staff is the real story. Any new president will have to convince Messi to U-turn on his desire to try something else somewhere else, and with this kind of report it’s going to be hard to do. Can Barca afford any significant transfers for a roster that still has major holes? Do they have enough kids ready to step in if they can’t? Does Messi think so? Would a Messi departure and inability to spend to replace him rob them of Champions League money down the line?
“Més que un club” es mas que un lio.
(More than a club — Barca’s motto — is more than a mess.)