The sight of Lionel Messi in tears one year ago – as he explained in a press conference why he had been forced out of Barcelona – served as the perfect illustration of the Catalan club’s problems. As the Argentine detailed, Barca simply had no way to keep him after digging themselves into a financial hole with no way out.
This summer, another player is being pushed out the exit door at the Camp Nou, with Barcelona reportedly having sold Frenkie de Jong to Manchester United to ease the financial pressure that continues to push down on the club. But the saga surrounding the Dutch midfielder encapsulates how Barca might be making matters worse.
United were reportedly close to agreeing a package worth €85m to sign de Jong from Barcelona before it emerged the 25-year-old is still owed an estimated €17m in deferred wages. De Jong agreed to delay payments owed to him in order to ease Barca’s immediate financial situation and so this amount will have to be paid before the Dutchman can be moved on.
Manchester United chiefs Richard Arnold and John Murtough were pictured in Barcelona as they visited the city to push along negotiations for the transfer of their top summer target, but there isn’t much the Old Trafford club can do until de Jong and his current employers untangle the tether that has the midfielder tied to the Camp Nou.
It was only 12 months ago that Barcelona president Joan Laporta revealed the club was laden with over €1 billion of debt. This threatened the solvency, and existence, of the Camp Nou outfit, but a €900m loan from Goldman Sachs made up for the shortfall before further commercial deals were made to scramble some additional capital.
All this kept Barcelona afloat, but they have mortgaged their future in the belief that better times are coming. While youngsters like Pedri, Gavi and Nico Gonzalez have been brought through by Xavi Hernandez, Laporta has expressed a desire to keep the team competitive on the pitch and a number of big-money transfers have been made despite Barca’s financial state.
Over €50m was spent on signing Ferran Torres from Manchester City in January while a €60m deal for Leeds United winger Raphinha was completed mere days ago. This is happening while Barcelona make the argument to de Jong that he isn’t owned the deferred wages he believes he is owed.
“Now it is time for the office work, which could be more important than what happens on the pitch,” Xavi explained at the end of a trophyless 2021/22 season. “We have to strengthen to compete for all the trophies. Many things must be changed. The president, Mateu, Jordi… they tell me these changes are possible and we can strengthen well. At a club as big as Barca, you have to change a lot of things when you do not win trophies.”
On the pitch, Barcelona are certainly in better shape now than they were last summer. Xavi has imposed a clear style of play on the squad he inherited and has added quality by signing the likes of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Torres, both of whom hit the ground running for their new team in the second half of last season.
Xavi wants Barca to challenge again for the La Liga title and there’s a good chance they will be competitive at the top end of the table alongside the likes of Atletico Madrid and Real Madrid. The Catalans might even make a run in the Champions League, such is the quality they now have within their squad.
But it’s possible Barcelona are building on sand, a sinkhole that de Jong’s situation illustrates, given the Dutch midfielder’s wage is set to double to around €500,000-a-week next season. Barca simply kicked the can down the road when assessing de Jong’s salary last year and have now backed themselves into a corner.
To make matters worse, de Jong doesn’t want to go; at least, the midfielder does not want to go to Manchester. With rumours swirling that de Jong is refusing to accept the transfer, Barcelona executives are evidently desperate to coax him out the door. Until he does, the club won’t have enough wage space to officially register their summer signings.
A compromise may well be reached, with Manchester United desperate to sign de Jong to accelerate their reconstruction under Erik ten Hag, who worked with the midfielder at Ajax. Nevertheless, Barcelona must start considering how their actions now could make life more difficult in the years to come. The saga around de Jong should serve as a warning.