According to the footballing cliché, the league table never lies. The Champions League tables show only one team has a 100% record in Europe’s premier club competition. The outstanding side on the continent, therefore, is Ronald Koeman’s Barcelona.
Memories of the 8-2 shellacking by Bayern Munich remain sufficiently fresh to suggest the notion is ridiculous. Indeed, it is a sign of Barcelona’s decline that they reached five Champions League wins while they only have four in La Liga; in 2010/11, Pep Guardiola’s all-conquering side brought up 24 victories in the Spanish top flight before their fifth in the Champions League.
A decade on, some of the personnel are the same but the context has changed. That was arguably the greatest club side ever; this one is four points behind Cadiz. The temptation is to have a vision of Barcelona that is frozen in the past. They may still have the allure they did to players, but the circumstances and the budget have changed.
Presidential contests are often exercises in selling a dream. Promises are made that, in some cases, will never be kept. Barcelona’s current one has had an unusual infusion of realism. Potential powerbrokers are competing to be the most downbeat. Interim president Carlos Tusquets voiced the heretical thought that he would have sold Lionel Messi last summer while last month, one candidate, Toni Freixa, warned that the Argentinian would have to take a pay cut to stay at the Nou Camp. A rival, Victor Font, took up the cause of austerity. “Whoever comes with super-signings like [Kylian] Mbappe and Neymar is not making a very credible proposal,” he warned. Not to be outdone, Freixa claimed he would not sign Neymar either.
His assessment that the Brazilian is not in the world’s top 30 players can be debated, but other elements are more facts than opinion. Barcelona have a cripplingly high wage bill, even if Messi’s potential departure next summer would reduce it considerably, and players have agreed to pay cuts worth £110 million, though some of that is only deferred.
Font referred to a “€400 million debt and no liquidity.” To put it bluntly, Barcelona are broke. Whoever wins the presidential vote in January, it will not be business as usual next summer: they cannot afford it. Barring significant sales – and no one has been rushing to allow Barcelona to recoup much of the sums they spent on Philippe Coutinho and Ousmane Dembele – there will not be £100 million signings. The annual habit of linking the world’s finest and most coveted with Barcelona feels irrelevant: they do not have the resources for Mbappe or Neymar, Jadon Sancho or Erling Braut Haaland.
Instead, Barcelona must adjust to a different world, of cheaper and compromise signings. Their shortlists will vary if Koeman stays and if Messi does, but two of the Dutchman’s 2020 targets suit Barcelona’s new normal: Gini Wijnaldum is available on a free transfer if he does not sign a new deal at Liverpool while Eric Garcia’s contract at Manchester City expires. A third player Koeman wanted, Memphis Depay, may suit them if the fee is appropriate.
But a club accustomed to cherry-picking the best may be looking for the cut-price. Barcelona could become more acquainted with the arena of the release clause. With a host of ageing players who required replacing in the next couple of years, they may have to make a relatively small budget stretch a long way. And part of the risk of compromise choices is that, before long, they require upgrading themselves. Another possibility is that, like Martin Braithwaite, they are not good enough to begin with.
None of which necessarily makes any arrivals the natural successors to Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez, or men who can fit in a distinguished tradition of Romario and Rivaldo, Ronaldo and Ronaldinho. Barcelona were a byword for style and stardust. But sometimes money just does not permit that. Whoever occupies the president’s seat or the managerial dugout, the budget Barcelona will be a more prosaic team for more straitened times.
While you’re here, subscribe to FourFourTwo and save 48% – available until Christmas. It’s the perfect gift idea for anybody who loves football (including yourself)!
Get the best features, fun and footballing frolics straight to your inbox every week.
Thank you for signing up to Four Four Two. You will receive a verification email shortly.
There was a problem. Please refresh the page and try again.