Welcome to the new world, Barça, aka “Farewell, Frenkie”

Almost two months ago came a report from a good source that Frenkie de Jong, the Ajax midfielder and “generational talent,” was going to move to Paris St.-Germain.

That didn’t stop the hysteria and hyperbole from building. There were even “reports” that the club had agreed to De Jong’s wage demands, rumored to be a cool 12m per.

In the wake of the news that confirmed that initial scoop, there is, of course, outrage.

“How could he?”
“Stupid board screwed up!”
“Those idiots want Rabiot instead of Frenkie!”
“PSG take our gem and leave us their scraps.”

It’s as funny as it is predictable, as predictable as it lacks cognizance of the new transfer market reality, in which Barça is another club looking up at the fiscal might of the petroclubs, and PSG is the king.

As a wholly funded subsidiary of Qatar — yes, they are, don’t even try it — PSG is flush with a bottomless supply of cash, and immune from the cotton-candy restraints of FFP. This means that in this transfer market, when it comes to players who want a lot, they are kings, and will continue to be for some time because football isn’t really interested in reining any of that in.

The thing to note is that nobody “screwed up” in the transfer effort. PSG came in (reportedly) with more money than Barça for Ajax, the player and his agent. Who could say no to that? Now come the recriminations, but it’s worth taking a step back to look at a few things, in no particular order:

Money

Barcelona reportedly has a 500m wage bill. Hope you were sitting down when you read that. It’s the biggest wage bill in football, and will almost certainly stay that way next season. Money has changed the transfer game in a number of ways, from inflating prices to changing what young players ask for. People are snarling about the Rabiot salary, but he reportedly wants 10m per annum. De Jong wants 12, and will get it. Do you want your club to make a 21-year-old who is still untested at the highest level among the top-five highest paid players on the squad? Maybe you do, and maybe you think the club should have paid anything asked to get De Jong. But that’s impossible.

That wage bill isn’t going anywhere significant anytime soon. And don’t forget about the stadium project, percolating in the background at a still-unknown cost. The board, back in the day when it was unveiled, promised that it wouldn’t affect the sporting project. But that was in those innocent days before the market went crazy. Coutinho for 160, Dembele for 140. What would Luis Suarez cost now? The mind strains to consider it.

And no matter what Barça bid, PSG would have topped it, because they can. 75? 80? 100 million? Okay. Where do we send the check. That the former big clubs would become second-tier clubs fiscally has been foreseen by many, and it should surprise no one. If PSG wants a player and what that player wants is money, they will get that player. It is that simple.

This means that Barça will have to compete in other aspects now, having become one of the clubs it used to bully. Five years ago there wouldn’t have been a question of De Jong not moving to Barça, and the fee would have been in keeping with a 21-year-old. No more. Now Barça is bargain hunting like everyone else in football. from its perch at the top of the “other clubs.” In that world, if a player wants to come, he will. If he wants the best deal, it will always be at one of the petroclubs.

About those Rabiot rumors

Adrien Rabiot is a lot of things, including a dead ringer for a vexed labradoodle. But reports of his suckitude are greatly exaggerated, usually for effect. Rabiot is only two years older than De Jong, which is a bit weird to consider when you really think about it. In a graphic that looked at midfielders who advanced attack the most, Rabiot was off by himself, wayyy at the top of that chart. PSG isn’t jettisoning Rabiot because he is a bad player. They are jettisoning him because of a contract impasse, the same thing that got Sevilla a Munir bargain, got Barça one of the hottest young CB talents on a free, and Arturo Vidal for 18m, far below his market value. He has an eye for the forward pass and the through ball as well.

Some have talked about his less-than-diligent defending, often the same people who don’t rate Semedo because he doesm’t bomb forward enough. So there you go. Rabiot is … erm … mercurial. He put on a clinic against Barcelona in the first leg of the fateful Champions League tie, then was mortal in the away leg. Happens a lot, to a lot of players. Downrate Rabiot at your own peril. And given the mess that is the PSG midfield right now, if he wanted to stay at PSG, he would be playing. A lot. Tuchel said as much.

Rabiot is still a rumor. But if he comes, he will be the “player who cost Barça De Jong,” and that will be deeply unfair. A lot of factors made De Jong decide on PSG, but the biggest one was the one Barça couldn’t compete with: money.

PSG has a project

People like to scoff at Ligue 1, calling it a “farmer’s league.” PSG is top of the table and will stay there for as long as Qatar keeps pumping money in. Does the party continue past 2022 and the Qatar-hosted World Cup. No idea. But PSG have some of the most exciting players in the game on the roster. And they have a midfield that De Jong will start in right away, which wasn’t likely to happen at Barcelona. The idea of playing with Neymar and Mbappe must be appealing for a young player, who has a different set of references than older players.

Barça is the tenured veteran, PSG the brash rookie. It has to give better and bigger contracts to hook players who might otherwise be tempted by the traditional big club

Does winning the league matter? Even so many culers say that they would rather win Champions League. PSG sure as hell would, and Tuchel is helping that club build a team that will be able to compete for that biggest of the big trophies. De Jong would go a long way toward helping shore up that midfield and he would start immediately. At Barça De Jong would be watching Busquets play for much of his first season. That kind of stuff matter.

Agnostics

Barça isn’t what Barça used to be. Sorry. The perception of the team, rooted in a magnificent period, is changing. Some of that is the way the club has been managed, by marketers and money managers, but some of it is just the passage of time and the erosion of an image. Three years ago, there wouldn’t have been a question that De Jong would come to Barça. Now, the game is different. It isn’t as much a comment on any notions of “mes que” ness as it is just a sport, a game just doing what it does. Many people don’t think of PSG and City as big clubs, but they are. Status can be bought, despite the snooty assertions of supporters of a venerated entity.

PSG will have to pay a premium for De Jong, but they can. De Ligt might even end up there as well. They have the funds. But aside from PSG, the perception of Barça has changed. It still has the best player in the game, but it isn’t a force any longer, a thing to be feared. That is neither here nor there, but it does affect the kinds of transfers the club can do. There will still be the “dream” players such as Jean-Clair Todibo, who didn’t hesitate when Barça called. But increasingly, PSG will enter the frame, because they have a strong team, and gobs and gobs of money.

De Jong not coming to Barça is ultimately not a failure of anything as much as it is the unique set of circumstances attendant to a big transfer.

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In my fantasy life, I’m a Barca-crazed contributor over at Barcelona Football Blog. In my real life, I’m a full-time journalist at the Chicago Tribune, based in Chicago, Illinois.