The smoke signals have been fired. Barcelona lead the La Liga table by thirteen points. With just five games left, they are overwhelming favourites to win their first league title in four years. They haven’t had to wait this long in nearly twenty years.
Yet, the mood around Camp Nou is far from jubilant. There are dark clouds in every direction, a sense of chaos, a fragility to the air that should’ve been dense with joy.
This March, reports about a $7.2 million payment from Barcelona to a company called Dasnil95 were made public. Dasnil95 was headed by José María Enríquez Negreira, the long-serving vice president of the Spanish Referee’s Committee.
According to the official records, Barcelona availed the services of Dasnil95 for technical reports on referees and youth players—a standard practice, according to many—but in amounts well above market fare. Even if paid over seventeen years, a figure that significant warrants a microscope.
It is now a case handled by the Barcelona public prosecution office. One statement from the prosecutors read: “Through presidents Rosell and Bartomeu, Barcelona reached and maintained a strictly confidential verbal agreement with the defendant Negreira, so that, in his capacity as vice president of the refereeing committee and in exchange for money, he would carry out actions aimed at favouring Barcelona in the decision making of the referees in the matches played by the club, and thus in the results of the competitions.”
These reports came to light during a regular tax inspection and caught on like wildfire. A headline like “Barcelona found to have paid a company owned by the Vice President of the referee’s committee” cannot pass by in silence. Everyone had an opinion. The strongest of which came from the La Liga president, Javier Tebas.
“This is the worst moment in Spanish soccer.”
The counter-attack from Barcelona was equally thunderous. Club president Joan Laporta started with a couple of jabs, denying all wrongdoing, before declaring that he would take legal action against major publications who have targeted and defamed Barcelona’s public image. Most recently, at a press conference, he was adamant that the reports from Dasnil95 were only technical and entirely within legal boundaries. He also took a carefully curated shot at La Liga and UEFA.
“Nothing is a coincidence. This campaign comes just as we are starting to do better financially, we’re top of La Liga and we need to stand by the team more than ever. It also comes when we are involved in looking at a new way of improving football (Super League)…. the head of La Liga has looked to UEFA to add their weight to this campaign against us.”
This case stretches far beyond a simple accused-defendant plane. Sanctioning Barcelona will only be possible with concrete evidence that is presentable in court. Inability to do that will prevent RFEF (Spanish football federation) and La Liga from taking any action.
For Barcelona and Laporta, however, there is more at stake.
The Virtuous Circle
Barca aren’t just a football club—and this isn’t a nod to their pet slogan—they are a superclub. The brand is as important as the team. A case like this has clouded over the entire entity.
There is a term that is often used within meeting rooms at influential organisations: The Virtuous Circle. The theory states that investing in elite talent and creating a brand will eventually keep everything ticking. It was followed in the summer of 2003, when current Manchester City CEO Ferran Soriano was on the Barcelona board. Having lost the chase for David Beckham to Real Madrid, Barcelona didn’t think of going for the next best right-winger or finding one from La Masia. Instead, they went for their next best option in the recognisable-achievable matrix. A few calls later, Ronaldinho was a Barcelona player.
It was a phase as lean in Barcelona’s recent history as any. Imagine going six years without a single trophy while your arch-rivals double up in the league and Europe. Ronaldinho was not brought to Barcelona because he adhered to the Barca philosophy; he was brought because in the summer of 2003, a full year after setting the World Cup alight, he was on the verge of exploding as a global superstar. Barcelona wanted to piggyback on 21st century’s first footballer-brand. In two years, Ronaldinho landed them the league; in three, the Champions League. The Virtuous Circle paid dividends.
Or so it seemed. Barcelona’s greatest strength has long been a steady stream of young players, graduates from their academy, adding to the heft of the first team. In the first decade of this century, they landed on a golden generation. Carles Puyol, Xavi, and Andres Iniesta went straight from La Masia into the first team. Lionel Messi was bubbling underneath the surface, and Gerard Pique would return from England soon. As tempting as it is to pin all their success on a talismanic player, there was more to them.
By the summer of 2008, Ronaldinho had left, but the golden generation made up most of their regular first team. In no time, FC Barcelona became the most perfect image of a team you could print—the world’s most promising young talent, a group of elite home-grown players, an era-defining coach, a technically brilliant style of play, the jersey carrying the logo of Unicef as they went about scything through opponents with surgical precision.
The success was heady. Seven league titles and four Champions League titles, including a treble, between 2005 and 2015. Barcelona catapulted themselves into the stratosphere.
You can’t quite see the ground from that high up.
The Very Deep Did Rot
Their first alarm should have rung in 2014, when the deal to bring Neymar from Santos left a lot of questions, some of which are still unanswered. Messi, Suarez, and Neymar – cleverly called MSN – landed them the treble in 2015, which made them feel vindicated in their approach. But many from that team were ageing, and instead of structurally improving their squad, Barcelona sacked their Director of Football. Andoni Zubizarreta was a critical cog in the Barcelona wheel between 2010 and 2015. During this time, he ensured that the team kept a good balance of elite talents from around the world and La Masia graduates. Every season, there would be new players in the first-team squad from the academy. But it wasn’t enough anymore. The success of MSN hoodwinked Barcelona into doubling down on the Virtuous Circle.
Between the summer of 2016 and 2020, Barcelona spent nearly 800 million dollars on new players. None of them did well enough to be considered a good investment. A lot of these players are still at the club, jogging on without ever stamping the kind of authority you’d expect from marquee signings. During this time, the club kept toying with the wage structure to keep the most influential players happy. One of these players was Lionel Messi.
It is considered sacrilege to suggest that Lionel Messi could’ve been responsible for anything negative at Barcelona, but he had more than a hand in destabilising the club. In that gold-laden decade between 2005 and 2015, Messi signed seven new contracts, each bumping his wages and other payments to astronomical heights. By 2021, Messi was drawing 138 million euros per year in salaries alone, a portion of the half a billion bucks Barcelona were paying him over four years. In addition, contract tussles with the Messi family was an annual summer movie at Camp Nou. One could suggest that someone of his ability warranted the pampering, but as Barcelona would find out, group dynamics don’t quite adhere to that theory.
Having already assembled an expensive squad of marquee players, Barcelona struggled to keep their largesse exclusive to their biggest jewel. Everyone wanted new contracts all the time. As a result, the dressing room turned volatile and the club had to bend backwards to accommodate their players. Phillipe Coutinho, Antoine Griezmann, and many others were on contracts which went way beyond their potential or output.
If Barcelona knew how to compartmentalise the brand and the team, they could have prevented a situation where Samuel Umtiti was on higher wages than Kevin de Bruyne. One could call this a false equivalence because of different teams and leagues, but it helps get perspective on just how out of place the wage structure at Barcelona was. There was no horizon in sight where the outlay could meet the output.
This summer, they are likely to go down that road again. Lionel Messi’s contract at Paris Saint Germain expires in June. Like in the summer of ‘21, only a handful of clubs can possibly contest for getting him—and Pep Guardiola’s system-heavy Manchester City are unlikely to even enter the race. On the road out of PSG, that leaves one club as clear favourites.
Lionel Messi is unlike most athletes, no doubt. Even at 36, he is good enough to provide the edge to a World Cup-winning team. However, that Argentine team was moulded carefully by Lionel Scaloni to allow Messi complete creative freedom. For an international team, getting ten other excellent players to provide solidity for a spearhead makes sense. It is a far more complicated endeavour for a club team, especially one filled with superstars. Can you really ask Raphinha and Ousmane Dembele to curb their instincts, week in week out, just so that Lionel Messi can do his thing? Barcelona should know the perils of this way only too well. After all, they have suffered, and suffered dearly, because of it.
Upon the Sea of Green
There is a cachet to that name. If you utter it loudly in a public place, most people in earshot will probably associate it with the football team rather than the city. While a lot of clubs have been named after their native cities, this connection is unique. Paris or Madrid or Milan don’t have the same association.
That cachet comes because of tradition. It is synonymous with success and greatness. There are about a dozen elite clubs in European club football, when measured by prestige, success, and aura, and Barcelona are somewhere near the top of that list. They enter most games as favourites, sometimes overwhelming.
It must’ve taken serious work to evoke a laugh at the utterance of such a significant name. In most other circumstances, news of getting Lionel Messi in a transfer window would get a lot of serious attention towards a team. In 2023, with everything we know about Barcelona, it might evoke a few more giggles.
Because of the complexity of the evidence needed, the referee scandal might not end up in any significant sanction. Barcelona will probably brush this off as a smear campaign on their image. Laporta will come out with another bold declaration of triumph. And they will be on the road towards the next financial puddle. About 2000 kilometres to the north, Manchester City face an investigation for 115 counts of financial breaches.
I write this on the morning after Napoli won their first Serie A title in 33 years. Naples is lit up, and the party will go on for a while. Maybe even through the summer, after which it would be time for football’s reality to come knocking on the door. It would take a near miracle for them to retain most of the squad next season. Remember the incredible Ajax team from 2018-19? Like vultures, all the big, rich clubs would be eyeing up Kvaratskhelia, Osimhen, and Kim Min-jae.
In the middle of everything that is happening, how surprised will you really be if Barcelona dish out $100 million for Victor Osimhen this summer? Your answer should tell you where the root of football’s financial problem lies. The breadth of that root will also tell you that it isn’t in the interest of FIFA or UEFA to do much about it. Barcelona are currently a comic symbol, but they are also the result of a nuclear reactor that doesn’t have ventilation capsules.
Sometimes, a renovation isn’t enough. You need the entire edifice to crumble. Macabre, yes. But too much to ask for?