Yesterday, Barcelona announced that they had sold goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen to Valencia, for a fee of €35 million. Today, Valencia announced that they had sold goalkeeper Neto to Barcelona, for a fee of €26 million with €9 million in add-ons. In doing so, Barcelona and Valencia traded goalkeepers, €35 million, and, most importantly, a pair of favors that should help both clubs sneak past UEFA’s financial regulations.
For the players, the justification behind the swap is clear. Cillessen had been angling for a move out of Catalonia after spending three seasons as the overqualified backup to Marc-André ter Stegen. Going to Valencia ensures that the 30-year-old Dutchman will be the number one keeper for a Champions League club.
Going the other way, Neto gets a bigger contract and the opportunity to play at one of the biggest clubs in the world, with the reported assurance that Barcelona will flip the 29-year-old next summer if he doesn’t take to life as a backup. Having Neto fulfills Barcelona’s preference for having two starting-caliber goalies on hand all times—an understandable approach for a team that regularly competes deep in three different competitions every year.
On the surface, then, this might not look that strange. It’s only when you look deeper into how all of this came about that you begin to smell something fishy. When you do that, you’ll see that the most likely motivation for doing this kind of swap as a time-staggered transfer rather than as a straight player trade was for the clubs to scratch each other’s backs with a bit of accounting trickery to make the deal beneficial to both teams when it comes to Financial Fair Play, UEFA’s attempt to make sure clubs don’t spend more than they bring in.
To comply with FFP this year, Valencia needed to make a sale of about €25 million before July 1, when the new financial season begins. Rather than lose a player they’d actually want to keep, or find themselves forced to accept a lowball offer on another player out of desperation, Valencia got Barcelona to solve their problem by buying Neto. That sale squares Valencia’s books for the 2018-19 season, and allows them to enter the soon-to-open transfer market without fear of a looming FFP penalty. And not only do Valencia not really lose out on anything, since they’ll just swap in Cillessen once they can put it on next season’s books, they will arguably have even improved the team a little to boot.
For Barcelona’s part, since their financials were fine last season, they could afford to take the purchasing hit on the 2018-19 books without running afoul of FFP. And considering that they are rumored to buy both Antoine Griezmann and Neymar this summer, that extra €35 million profit they will get for Cillessen could help keep the books balanced for the impending transfer outlay for the 2019-20 season. Plus, who’s to say that, after doing Valencia this favor now, Barça won’t benefit from a higher transfer fee for one or both of Denis Suárez and Rafinha, two Barcelona players Valencia are reportedly very interested in, or a lower fee should they decide to move for Valencia’s Rodrigo, as has been rumored? After all, what’s 15 or 20 million Euros between friends?
This scheme brings to mind the most high-profile act of circumventing FFP in recent years: the time Paris Saint-Germain bought Kylian Mbappé from Monaco. The technical terms of that deal had it so that PSG would loan Mbappé from Monaco for a year, at the end of which they’d have an “option” to buy him for €180 million. We covered the details of why that was so shady, but to summarize, the post-loan purchase “option” was in effect mandatory, but because the parties were able to pretend like it was optional, it allowed PSG to kick the FFP can a bit down the road in order to afford both Mbappé and Neymar that summer. UEFA basically shrugged their shoulders at the move, and carried on.
Barcelona and Valencia’s gambit isn’t quite as egregious as PSG’s, though the transfer fees are questionable. Paying €35 million for a good, maybe very good, but by no means outstanding goalkeeper is odd, even in 2019's super-charged transfer market. To have two goalies—one who was a backup and the other will be one at his new team, neither of whom are all that young—go for more or less that same amount in the same move is flat-out sketchy. Both Cillessen and Neto are fine enough keepers. (The former is probably a little better and is better suited to the modern game, as he’s fantastic with the ball at his feet.) However, something closer to the €15-20 million that Barcelona reportedly fielded from Benfica for Cillessen would appear a more realistic fee range for both of them.
Since the deal is a straight swap in all but procedure, there was no reason for either club to sell for that low of an amount. And a fee of €35 million probably isn’t so high as to raise enough suspicion to warrant an investigation. With the long-standing friendly transfer relationship these two clubs have (Barcelona have bought several players from Valencia over the years—Jordi Alba, André Gomes, Paco Alcácer, etc.—with the process going famously smoothly), it made all the sense in the world for the pair to cooperate on this.
In the end, Valencia get a slight upgrade at keeper and a financial life preserver, and Barcelona get to cycle one good backup goalie for another while also picking up some goodwill with Valencia, a club that is a league rival but not really a dangerous one. (It’s doubtful Barcelona would ever help Real Madrid like this, for example.) It’s not exactly money laundering, but everyone’s money winds up clean all the same.