BARCELONA: Hobbled by crises on the field and among its fed-up club members, Barcelona never waivered in its commitment to Lionel Messi despite mounting financial struggles brought on by the pandemic-induced global economic slowdown.
A drop in revenues has forced Barcelona to jettison players for very little in return to lighten a salary burden that had become unsustainable during a recession and amid increasing uncertainty.
But Barcelona’s vice president of economic affairs says that the club never considered selling Messi when he demanded to leave regardless of the acute financial difficulties the Spanish club is facing.
Messi meant far too much for both fans and the club’s long-term future to contemplate selling him for some quick cash and savings, said Jordi Moix, Barcelona's board member charged with handling its finances.
“We never considered what the impact on the economy of the club would be if he left,” Moix told The Associated Press in a recent interview. “(Messi) is a player who has been with the club for 20 years and is a central driver of the club, and we have to consider that with our sponsors.”
Barcelona suffered a €97 million loss (US$115 million) last season, adding an economic crunch to the sporting calamity that the club endured when it finished the season without a title and a historic 8-2 loss to Bayern Munich in the Champions League quarterfinals.
Messi, now 33, costs Barcelona €100 million in wages and salary tax according to media reports that the club will neither confirm nor deny because of confidentiality agreements. His buyout clause stands at an untouchable €700 million, but he could have likely fetched a hefty price if Barcelona had been willing to listen to offers.
In August, Messi tried to leave the club, demoralised by the defeat to Bayern and convinced that his chances of winning were higher elsewhere. Barcelona refused to let him go, and Messi relented after ruling out taking Barcelona to court. He publicly committed to finishing his contract that expires next summer and has been his competitive self in the first three games of the season, earning praise from new coach Ronald Koeman.
The club, also, holds out hope that Messi will end up staying.
“We think it would be good for him to finish his career with the club,” Moix said.
Barcelona had projected record revenues of more than €1 billion for last season. It fell €203 million short, according to the club’s annual financial report presented by Moix last week, due to the coronavirus. Zero ticket sales with its Camp Nou stadium closed since March, lower revenues from TV and merchandising and the closure of its popular museum have forced the club to take drastic measures.
Luis Suárez, Arturo Vidal, Ivan Rakitic, and Rafinha, four veteran but still valuable players, were transferred for almost no guaranteed cash in return. The club got €1.5 million from Sevilla for Rakitic; €1 million from Inter Milan for Vidal; Suárez went to Atlético Madrid for no initial fee and €6 million in variables; and Rafinha to Paris Saint-Germain for no initial fee and €3 million in variables. Young defender Jean-Claire Todibo was loaned to Benfica for €2 million.
Barcelona has been criticised in some sectors of its fan base for not getting more back for its players, especially Suárez, who though 33 years old scored 21 goals last season.
The clear-out, however, had another financial benefit in addition to forming a re-set led by Koeman. According to Moix, it also saved €30 million in salaries Barcelona would not have to pay this campaign.
Moix defended the club for having built up the highest salary burden in world football with €529 million dedicated to salaries for its first-team players last season.
“That is the difficult part of managing a winning team,” he said. “You have these players that have been competitive over the years ... You have to evaluate if you let them go, then you must hire top talent to replace them, and there are emotional ties to your town, so we made some extensions to retain them.”
Moix forecasts this season to be even more difficult for Barcelona. So the club is seeking a further reduction in player salaries on top of the cut taken by the squad last season.
The most pressing issue for Moix and the rest of the board presided by Josep Bartomeu is a pending no-confidence vote by club members that, if they lose, will remove them from office. Moix said he respects the motion backed by thousands of fed-up club members, but he considered it unnecessary because Bartomeu had already called elections for March with the board's mandate ending this season.
“With COVID and elections already called, it is a little bit awkward and unusual,” Moix said. “We understand them, but we have managed the club well. I rebel against the statement that we have managed it poorly.”
He added that they had built up 200 million of net worth over 10 years before the pandemic erased half of it. Moix has led the board's ambitious project to remodel Camp Nou that he hopes the next board, whenever it comes into power, will carry forward.