New deal, old issues

Rory Smith, New York Times News Service Jan 7 2018, 17:37 IST
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Philippe Coutinho (left)

Josep Maria Bartomeu, the president of Barcelona, preferred to focus on what he had gained, rather than what he had lost.

A month or so after Paris St-Germain paid Barcelona $267 million to make Neymar the most expensive soccer player in history, Bartomeu set aside all the bitterness, anger and regret that had swirled around the deal to talk about the "opportunity" before him and his club.

"We have earned 105 million euros," or about $127 million, he said, "and there is more to invest in football, in assets. Let's see what we do."

Almost exactly five months later, the watching world now has an answer. What Barcelona have done with all of that money, all of that opportunity, is sign Ousmane Dembélé, a 20-year-old French winger of bright promise, for an initial $126 million, and allocate even more - upward of $175 million, the second-highest fee in history - to the transfer of Philippe Coutinho, Liverpool's Brazilian playmaker.

That deal is not yet complete, of course. It seems inevitable now, though. Coutinho firmly believes he has played his last game for his club, that a move is now a matter of when rather than if.

Jamie Carragher, the former Liverpool defender, might be expected to feel his former club should keep hold of one of its crown jewels until the end of the season. That plenty of others, far less partial, share Carragher's conviction is significant. From Barcelona's point of view, they are 9 points clear at the top of the La Liga standings, with their rival Real Madrid a distant 14 points back. Barcelona does not seem to need Coutinho to claim the championship. And Coutinho would not be able to represent the team in the Champions League anyway, having already played in that competition this season for Liverpool.

From the player's perspective, while it is a move he has long craved, the timing is less than ideal: Such a drastic change of scenery in a season that leads into a World Cup carries a little more risk than a key figure in Brazil's plans might like (even if escaping the brute physicality of the Premier League might be an attraction).

That is not to say there is no logic to it. Allowing Coutinho - earmarked as a long-term replacement for Andrés Iniesta - a six-month period to settle in would allow Barcelona to see him flourish more fully next season. More immediately, a move now also might ease the domestic workload on the 33-year-old Iniesta, meaning the team's coach, Ernesto Valverde, could reserve him for Champions League adventures.

Far more important than when, however, is why. As recently as September, Barcelona's director of professional sports, Albert Soler, claimed the Neymar-inspired hyperinflation of Europe's already superheated transfer market was "a model of football we are not used to" and insisted that Barcelona "won't get involved in that."

Yet whenever Coutinho joins, Barcelona will possess two of the most expensive players of all time. Paris St-Germain and Manchester City might have started the fire, but Barcelona is happily fanning the flames, and it is doing so at a time when the club most at risk of being burned is Barcelona itself.

It is now almost a decade since Pep Guardiola took charge of the team that would change soccer. In the summer of 2008, Guardiola was promoted from manager of Barcelona's B team after only one season and handed the reins of a senior side that included Lionel Messi, Gerard Piqué, Iniesta, Xavi Hernández and, soon, Sergio Busquets.

Xavi - now in lucrative semiretirement in Qatar - apart, the spine of that team remains in place. It has been graceful to watch - Barcelona always are - but it is an aging team, its beauty slowly dimming, its glory gradually fading. Busquets is a comparative spring chicken, as is Ivan Rakitic, both 29. Messi, Piquè, Iniesta and Javier Mascherano are all the wrong side of 30.

They are still expensive, though. Last year, Barcelona announced record revenues of $854 million, when its chief executive, Oscar Grau, boasted that "even teams in the NFL and NBA" did not make that much money.

The club's salary bill accounted for an eye-watering 63 percent of that (clubs are recommended to spend no more than 70 percent of turnover on salaries), even before a spate of renewals - including that of Messi - are taken into account. Barcelona's squad is the highest-paid in all of soccer: more than Real Madrid, more than Manchester City, more than PSG.

Barcelona are adamant they can afford it, though their existence is perhaps a little more hand-to-mouth than the scale of their wealth might suggest. Barcelona projects their revenues will increase again this year, breaking the $900 million mark, but then they will have to if the club is to keep pace with its rapidly inflating salaries.

When PSG deposited the $267 million cheque to cover Neymar's buyout clause, Barcelona had a chance to break that cycle. As Bartomeu said, it was an "opportunity," and a golden one.

For years, Barcelona have recruited poorly. They are a club that the world's finest players would do almost anything to join - as Coutinho, and Luis Suárez before him, prove - and yet their approach to acquisitions is haphazard and chaotic.

Last summer, what was supposed to be a move for PSG's Marco Verratti somehow became the sale of Neymar. A deal for Nice's Ivorian midfielder Jean Michael Seri collapsed amid rumours that talks had only begun because Barcelona fans kept mentioning his name. Liverpool held firm on Coutinho.

Last month, Atlético Madrid threatened to complain to FIFA about Barcelona's pursuit of Antoine Griezmann. The club might have added Dembélé and Nélson Semedo last summer, two bright young things, but a midfield in desperate need of rejuvenation was bolstered only by Paulinho, 29, signed from China's Guangzhou Evergrande.

The contrast with Real Madrid is stark. Florentino Pérez, Real's president, has moved away from his Galactico model of signing household names in favour of sweeping up the best young talent in the world, including Marcos Asensio - also a Barcelona target - and Vinícius Júnior, an all-but-untested Brazilian teenager.

The current league standings might not suggest it, but Real Madrid have their future in hand.

Barcelona remains locked to their past, seemingly unable to think about replacing the players that have brought so much success. Bartomeu has talked about re-energising the production line of young talent from La Masia, their famed academy, but that seems more a pipe dream than a plan.

Five months ago, Barcelona had a fortune with which to rebuild itself. Whenever Coutinho arrives, most of that money will be gone. And yet the problems, the issues they have refused to confront for so long, will remain.

 

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