At midday in Spain on Saturday, we will see a genuine battle to avoid relegation from La Liga’s top division. Leganes, 19th in the table, go to Celta Vigo. If they can somehow eke out a fourth victory from what has been a barren season, they could breathe easier for a few hours, and leapfrog 17th-placed Celta.
Unfortunately, Leganes will go to Vigo without their leading goalscorer, Martin Braithwaite, not because of injury but because a club at the other end of the table are so hampered by injuries and poor planning that they made an application for emergency assistance to the Spanish Federation and were permitted to snatch Braithwaite as their plaster, their splint and their crutch to aid their crippled circumstances.
Rule number 124 in the federation’s policy on transfers allows a club to make a signing outside the normal window – the winter one closed three weeks ago – provided the player moves between clubs in the same country.
The unfortunates, applying for charity, are Barcelona. The same Barcelona who were Spanish champions the last two seasons. They want Braithwaite as their emergency cover, and, committed to paying Braithwaite’s buyout clause at Leganes of around €18million (Dh71m), were hoping to have the Denmark international registered for Saturday's meeting with 16th-placed Eibar. A Barcelona victory would take them, at least until the late evening, to the top of La Liga.
Leganes are right to feel miffed, even ambushed. They became helpless in this raid of heavyweight on the sparse resources of a hard-up club as soon as Barcelona indicated they would pay the €18m. Buyout clauses empower players and, in exchange, compensate their employers financially. Transfer windows are supposed to act as a valve on the arbitrary power of rich clubs or restless footballers over poorer ones. They were introduced into the sport in order to prevent splashing out on new signings as a temporary, knee-jerk response to crisis or the scent of a title.
Right now, Barcelona do not look much like a heavyweight club, scrambling around to obtain medical certificates that show – truthfully enough – that Ousmane Dembele, their €100m-plus French striker is likely to be out with a torn thigh tendon for at least the five months stipulated in rule 124 of the Spanish federation's emergency-signing rule. Alas, that rule does not contain any clause asking: “Well, yes, but shouldn’t you have anticipated this possibility?”
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Dembele, a superbly gifted footballer, has been a ghost for most of his two-and-a-half years at Barcelona, absent with muscular injuries of various sorts. Besides Dembele being out of action – yet again – Luis Suarez, the most reliable striking ally for Lionel Messi at the club, is ruled out, possibly until the end of the season, with a knee injury.
But Barcelona’s forward planning has been a haphazard mess. The club knew about Suarez’s problem in early January. So they counted through their roster of forwards with the winter transfer window ahead of them, and put ticks next to: Messi, the finest footballer on the planet; Antoine Griezmann, the €120m World Cup-winner; Ansu Fati, the 17-year-old wonderkid; the injury-prone Dembele, who was in recovery at that stage from a hamstring issue. They also had Carles Perez, an academy graduate who scored his first Barca goal on his Champions League debut this season, and Abel Ruiz, another striker promoted from the youth ranks.
Come January, Barcelona promptly loaned out Perez, to Roma, and Ruiz, to Braga, both of them on deals that included future purchase guarantees. That enabled Barcelona, so the thinking went, to fund the purchase of an experienced forward. Some dazzling names were raised: Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Timo Werner. A more realistic bid was made to Valencia for the Spain centre-forward Rodrigo. And then that deal collapsed because Barcelona would not meet the required fee.
So the saga ends with what Sport, a Catalonia-based newspaper, calls this "surreal" situation, where "Barcelona, with one of the biggest budgets in the world, run off to buy a striker from Leganes, a club with few resources, who find themselves forced into the role of Barca's emergency plumber."
For Braithwaite, 28, it is a career-shaping opportunity. An admired, hardworking international, he has never been a prolific scorer, not at Esbjerg, Toulouse, Middlesbrough, Bordeaux, or Leganes. He will give Barcelona tireless running, some savvy and – eligible only in La Liga for this season – he might next weekend find himself playing the most celebrated club fixture there is, when Real Madrid host Barcelona.
He wisely asked for a four-and-a-half year contract, knowing Barcelona at this stage are only looking for contributions until June, and liable to discard him after that. By then, Leganes may well be in the second division, asset-stripped and with no way of spending their €18m windfall before the summer. They had thought big-beast market predators were only let loose in January. They were misled.