Lionel Messi, who has spent the last two weeks in the rare position of having no club contract, will renew his career-long bond with Barcelona by the end of July.
He will take a substantial salary cut, around 50 per cent, from his previous €120m-per-year deal, signed in 2017. But he cannot imagine he is now only half as important as he used to be. The conditions under which Messi, 34, will commit to Barca for the next two years, at least, means he carries even more responsibility for the club’s fortunes.
His agreement to remain ends an 11-month saga, which began with Messi demanding to leave Barca. Since March, however, the club had become convinced Messi recognised he would be happiest pledging the remaining years of his peak as a footballer to the place he knows best, and to where he is most cherished.
The challenge now for Barcelona is to balance their accounts so they can accommodate the costs of Messi and build around him a competitive team. If there is relief at Camp Nou that Messi was not tempted by moving elsewhere, there is hard work ahead in paring down an unbalanced squad to meet the Financial Fair Play guidelines on overall spending that are imposed by La Liga, the governors of the Spanish league.
La Liga clubs have to operate within a proscribed budget, based on the ratio of expenditure on salaries and transfer fees to income. Even before the global pandemic reduced some of Barcelona’s major revenue streams — the 98,000 Camp Nou stadium has not had paying spectators for 15 months — Barca were pushing against those limits.
“There was no cushion,” says a senior source at La Liga, “and then something like the pandemic comes along, unforeseen, and that’s when you need a cushion.”
Executives from La Liga have held talks with Barcelona about the cuts they must make and the informed estimate is that savings of around €200 million ($236m) are needed so that Messi, on his new deal, and the summer signings like Sergio Aguero, Memphis Depay and Eric Garcia can be registered for the new season.
Barcelona are optimistic income will quickly climb up again. Before the Covid-19 emergency, their global marketability made them the top revenue-earning club in the world and they know that Messi’s presence is an essential driver of their popularity. But they acknowledge they must ease the wage bill and probably sell valuable assets.
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Poor investments from the past continue to drain the Barcelona treasury. Philippe Countinho’s €140-plus transfer fee, from his 2018 move from Liverpool, is still being paid off and the Brazilian, currently recuperating from injury, is a major earner with two years left on his contract. So is Ousmane Dembele, who has spent more time out of action, with injuries, than he has played since his 2017 €100m-plus move, on a four-year deal, from Borussia Dortmund.
The club have no chance of recuperating the fees they paid in any sale of those players. They hope Coutinho and perhaps Dembele might be taken on loan elsewhere, with the borrowing club absorbing a portion of their salaries.
Antoine Griezmann, who was signed from Atletico Madrid, for €120m in 2019, would fetch a handsome transfer fee and is one of the highest earners at Barcelona.
The club see the departure of Griezmann as a way of rebalancing their accounts, and talks are under way about his returning to Atletico, with the player understood to be willing to rejoin the Spanish champions. Saul Niguez, the midfielder, could move the other way as a makeweight in the deal.
Griezmann spent five productive seasons at Atletico — he scored 133 goals in 257 matches with them, a better return than from his two seasons at Barcelona — and although he was criticised by supporters for the manner of his leaving for Barca, he has the trust of Atletico manager, Diego Simeone.
But letting a star join a direct rival is a risk, as Barcelona learnt last season, after they allowed Luis Suarez to join Atletico, even subsidising part of his salary at his new club. Suarez had been told to leave to ease the Barcelona wage bill. He ended up scoring the goals that delivered Atletico’s first league title for seven years.
The departure of Suarez, Messi’s closest ally in football, also angered Messi, who last August asked to leave Camp Nou immediately. He was prevented from doing so by his then €700m buyout clause.
Since then, a new president, Joan Laporta, has been elected. Laporta will regard persuading Messi to renew as the major triumph so far of his mandate. Balancing the budget so Messi leads a team capable of winning trophies is Laporta’s next big challenge.