A piece of essential reading by Graham Hunter sparked a number of thoughts about price vs cost, and how for so many culers, the success celebrations come with qualms, quibbles washed away in champagne and Camp Nou speeches. Hunter writes:
Members may not be comfortable with who is footing the bill, but they are enjoying the meal.
Hunter makes the case that Messi, Neymar and Suarez, the vaunted MSN, have a price that makes some piece of massive revenue enhancement essential. If the club isn’t going to sell anyone and supporters want to see the silver parade keep flowing, the most expensive thing that the club has right now is its home, kinda like a jobless geriatric living in a paid-for mansion.
“Well, you could take a second mortgage … ”
Selling the stadium naming rights. The fee for this will certainly be massive, and just what the doctor ordered when it comes to sticking the needle in the vein that sucks down cash. Player-related expenses are just north of 70% of revenue, an astonishing figure for a club looking to pull down north of 600m this fiscal year. And what’s the alternative, really? Arsenal? Lovely balance books and a paid-for, fancy new home that sold its naming rights. But no victory parades.
Meanwhile at Barça, EBITDA danger looms if the club can’t get its books right, resulting in an automatic election, per club bylaw. And make no mistake about it, the only way for the board to continue generating smiles is for the football team to keep winning, and winning requires money, at the front end or back end. Vermaelen instead of Aymeric Laporte? The club saved almost 40m in that transaction, and bought some time. The price is also in what you don’t pay.
Back in the crazy, hazy, glowing days of a Masia-festooned XI, something is omitted: them dudes were still expensive. Valdes, Alves, Pique, Puyol, Abidal, Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta, Messi, Pedro, Villa. The only thing missing were the mammoth transfer fees attendant to the acquisition of talent of that quality. Now that players have retired or moved on, if the quality is to continue and the boughs of the academy are mostly barren, what’s the solution? That’s the price, and the cost.
The price is the number, as culers snark about RM and their massive transfer expenditures, but whether you price the Neymar deal at 92 or 57m, that’s still a lotta Euros. Suarez doesn’t need any such parsing, as his price was in the low 80s. With mega-watt talent such as that comes big salaries, atop the even bigger salaries of tenured, trophy-festooned incumbents.
The cost is the comfort, or lack thereof, with the things that the club has to do. Suarez has been found guilty of racist abuse, has kicked and bitten opponents. Toss about Stoichkov all anyone likes, but there was and is a lingering discomfort with that transfer, and always will be for many culers. UNICEF moving to the rear of the shirt, sleeve sponsors that shove aside local broadcaster TV3, the sold shirt, the hunt for revenue. This much success is fiscally expensive, but it also has a high cost in idealism.
Culers scream about this board, say that it is betraying club values, etc. Is it? Or is it just doing why any organism needs to do to survive? And how quickly Laporta went from demon to role model. He liked a party, but more importantly, liked to solve problems with big checks. Guardiola wanted Ibrahimovic, and Laporta sent over a big check along with a mercurial Cameroonian. Wage bills were massive, as were the bonuses paid for the unending successes.
Rosell was elected, and said Laporta almost killed the club with debt, that his small surplus was in fact a mammoth hole that he and his board would be able to dig out of. Was this the real motivation behind the Neymar transfer shell game, that even if official sanction almost certainly won’t happen, has dragged the club’s name through the courts, and raised eyebrows. What if Rosell had just paid up, even as he couldn’t, because that would make him Laporta.
As Hunter points out, renewals for Suarez, Messi and Neymar look to cost significantly north of 200m. There is also the stadium project, and the necessary transfers as names like Pogba fly hither and yon. Maybe once you’ve spent 80m that first time, the next time is easy. But where will that money come from? Arda Turan and Aleix Vidal cost money, and they aren’t playing for food coupons. And when those bills are paid, what about the next ones? The success junkies need their next fix, a harder hit. Trebles, sextuples, septuples …
All of this success has a price, and a cost. There are those who set themselves up as some sort of keepers of the flame. They are much more easily dismissed than the calm, rational ones who say, “I don’t like this. The success is lovely, but the cost is too high. What is the club becoming?”
Some folks, supporters of other club and writers, will misuse mes que un club, because that’s the trend. And we would be kidding ourselves if we didn’t admit that Barça has always needed money like a pothead needs snacks. But the modern game and modern times means that the price for those snacks is immense and escalating, which necessitates doing and accepting certain things to successfully manage the cost.
An astute Twitter follower of Hunter pointed out that his piece makes it clear that the actions of the board in seeking out revenue are necessary evils. If you can’t raise success, you have to buy it, even if paying for the talent, whether bought or raised, costs the same mammoth amount of Euros. As people carp about La Masia and this or that talent, different questions are raised for different reasons. Do board members rue the failure of Deulofeu, resulting in the sunk cost of Aleix Vidal? The mishandling of the Thiago situation, whoever’s fault it was, almost directly led to the price of Arda Turan. And as we like it or not, Barça has bought success just like Chelsea or Manchester City. At least it isn’t all oil money? Okay, if that helps manage the cost. But the price is what it is. Ferraris ain’t cheap.
Culers come to Barça for many things, and many reasons. Some just want Messi to do well. Others just want the team to win. Still others drill deeper into tactics, and don’t like the new way of playing. Others go even deeper into the history of the club, its causes and values, and find the way that things are lacking for very different reasons. Success at any cost? Not for these culers, like-minded souls who have legitimate qualms about the club and where it’s going.
As one of those foolish romantics who would rather have sold players than sold the shirt, I also recognize that so many romantics are foolish. We lay in our feather beds, covers pulled up and pillows blocking our ears as we hold on to the way that things were, even if that way was really something of an illusion. The Masia XI still had superstars that made mega millions, whose cost in part forced Laporta into the decision to sell the shirt, make deals and take on debt. History lets us easily forget that Rosell made it happen, but he built the house on a foundation laid by Laporta.
If things are now as they have always been, what’s anyone’s problem with the cost? Just win, baby. The academic exercises that the tactical purists reduce a 4-0 victory to are precisely that. They’re a luxury that is afforded the victor. “Oh, ick. None of the seven goals were Barça goals. If you all want to win like that, okay.” But we romantics are living in ivory towers that are even higher, glistening in the sunlight of harsh reality.
Teams make decisions. Bartomeu and his board members lay out what they would like the club to do, fiscally, and the ways that they hope to accomplish that. And some of us stomp around and say “Fie on thee, churl!” But then as now, money usually buys success. The only reason it hasn’t more effectively for Real Madrid is that they have had the great misfortune to run across their eternal rival at a time when the greatest player in the game is at his peak. And that player is surrounded by world-class talent that even though it wasn’t all bought, still has to be paid for. Iniesta can’t pay his vineyard bills with hugs and standing ovations.
Is Barça like RM? No. Is mes que un club just a slogan, a philosophical boondoggle? No way. But Barça is a big club. No, Barça is a huge club, and a club with a fan base that is besotted on the elixir of success. Is there anyone who would give back last season’s treble for a set of balanced books, a blank shirt front and a clear conscience? No. Not all three. And even if there are some of us who wouldn’t mind less success for a bit more of those good ol’ “Barça values,” that notion is, like right or wrong ways of winning, mostly an academic exercise.