Despite last season's humiliating exit to Liverpool in the UEFA Champions League semi-final at Anfield, Barcelona President Josep Maria Bartomeu and his board could look back with a sense of satisfaction at the club's financial performance.
On paper, things looked rosy. Barca leapfrogged eternal rivals Real Madrid to become football's biggest earner at the top of the annual Deloitte Money League for 2018-2019, registering a 22 per cent increase in revenue from the previous year. Their income of €840.8 million was a chunky €83.5 million more than Real Madrid's.
The COVID-19 crisis has changed everything, however. It brings into stark relief several questionable aspects about Barca's finances, their future earning potential and their ability to remain a force on the pitch in elite football.
Football is a volatile business. Leeds United—who once beat Barca in a European Cup semi-final—have been out of the top tier of English football since 2004. It looks as if at least a decade will pass before Manchester United regain the English Premier League crown they last won in 2013.
The fall of the mighty AC Milan—who have won more European Cups than any other club except Real Madrid—is another cautionary tale. They were consistently the third-wealthiest club in football in the middle of the 2000s, but now they're outside football's top 20 earners.
Barcelona—along with their great rivals in European club football—are under threat. The football industry, which remained immune to the 2008 global financial crash, is on the front line this time of a potentially deep global recession. It's being hit by a far-from-perfect storm.
Barcelona have already lost €154 million as a result of the coronavirus crisis, according to a report in La Vanguardia. This is irrespective of whether there is a conclusion to the 2019-2020 La Liga season, which is set to restart in mid-June (according to La Liga President Javier Tebas, the league will lose €1 billion if it fails to finish its remaining games).
Since the Spanish government brought in a lockdown on March 14, Barca's museum, which earned the club €58 million last year, has been shut. The club's superstores in the city—including one they opened last year along La Rambla, the city's famous boulevard—have also been shut. With the prospect of little international tourism for the rest of the year in Spain, their footfall will remain low when they reopen as part of Spain's phased de-escalation.
All over Barca's business, several income streams have either slowed to a trickle or dried up for the rest of the year. There will be no lucrative summer tour in 2020. Their football schools still have a €15 million payment pending for the final third of their season. That income looks lost. The transfer values of their players have likely plummeted.
Worst of all, it's unlikely the 99,000-seater Camp Nou stadium will open its doors again to the public this year, according to several sources, including Tebas. And this is the optimistic scenario.
Who knows how the coronavirus will develop, whether a second wave will hit Europe or if football fans will be able to stomach watching football in empty stadiums on TV. It could demand some experimental thinking, says Simon Kuper, co-author of Soccernomics and an upcoming book on Barcelona.
"The risk with this pandemic is that football has never paused for this long before [even during World Wars]," says Kuper. "Maybe La Liga will start playing again, but if not, you could have people getting used to a life without watching football on TV. Without fans, it's never been tested. We do know that Serie A games [in the 1990s] famously looked terrible on TV because they were played in front of half-empty stadiums.
"One option that might become a reality—crazy as it sounds—is that football decamps to Australia and New Zealand if they can become COVID-free zones. You'd have, say, the Spanish league (and the Bundesliga, the English Premier League, cricket leagues) and its players moving there for six months with a two-week quarantine.
"Their matches could be played in front of full stadiums in Sydney and Melbourne, games which would be seen on TV stations all over the world—rather than having to watch Real Madrid playing at an empty Alfredo di Stefano training ground [as is planned for La Liga's restart to enable the club to accelerate remodelling of its Santiago Bernabeu Stadium]."
Barcelona's problems are compounded by reckless spending. They recently splurged several-hundred million euros on misfiring stars, including Ousmane Dembele and Philippe Coutinho, while the jury is still out on Antoine Griezmann, who has yet to jell with Lionel Messi in the team's attack.
Barca also incur the highest wage bill of any football club in the world. The squad earns a yearly average of €11 million per player. The percentage of the club's salary relative to their revenue is 69 per cent, which is dangerously high. Real Madrid's, for example, is 52 per cent.
"If you calculate this figure by taking into account player transfers, that percentage increases and goes above 80 per cent," says Victor Font, who has declared he will run for president of Barcelona at the next election. "Barca have the most expensive team on earth. Obviously the fact that you have Messi—who is the best in the world—is [a factor]. The problem is that the club is paying out too much on other players.
"Barcelona haven't managed their finances properly over the last few years since the last election [in 2015]. We've seen that trend deteriorate since the debacle of Neymar's transfer in 2017 with a couple of very expensive, unsuccessful signings. The club has spent €1 billion on transfers that have not returned the types of results the club's fans were expecting. Combine this with poor management of the core structure of the club, and it has put Barca in a difficult position.
"If you add in the pandemic, it has made the situation worse. It's likely the club will try to explain the difficulty in their finances through the COVID-19 pandemic, but the underlying problems were there already. What we need now is a proper plan to better manage the cost structure and create new revenue streams."
One way to help with a creaking cost structure is to cut the club's wage bill, but it's notoriously difficult to offload aging, out-of-favour footballers from top clubs who still have time to run on their sweetheart contracts. Look at the Gareth Bale saga at Real Madrid.
Or 32-year-old Ivan Rakitic's case at Barcelona. The Croat said in an interview with Mundo Deportivo in April that he felt like "a sack of potatoes" after Barcelona tried to sell him last summer against his wishes. He wants to see out his contract, which runs until 2021.
"Over time, we're going to see a shrinking of middle-tier high-earners," says Ben Lyttleton, author of Edge: What Business Can Learn From Football. "The really high-earners will retain their value, but the middle high-earners will have to take lower contracts at some point. There will be more opportunities for clubs to give younger players a chance to keep the wage bills down.
"We'll see clubs trying to move on players with good deals. We'll see more swap deals, more loans. There will be a change in how the market will operate. There will be opportunities for smart clubs to find value.
"With a player like Rakitic, there are only a certain number of clubs he would go to. Maybe Barca take the hit and say, 'Go to Napoli, and we'll pay half your wages,' going one level below where he is now. That might have to be the solution that works for everyone. It's a complicated situation."
Barcelona's debt is also troubling, especially given the club's ambitious plans for revamping the Camp Nou in what's called the Espai Barca project. There are conflicting reports about the actual debt figure. The club maintains it is €460 million, although elsewhere it has been reported as being as high as €888 million.
"The club's debt is very high," says Font. "It's much higher than what the club explains. It's something we don't understand: why the club is not being fully transparent, especially given the ownership structure of the club. It's not a publicly listed company, but at the same time, it's not owned by the board. There's no single owner. There should be more transparency.
"It's really hard to distil the actual debt [from the annual accounts]. It's also not taking into account any debt or investment that is being made for the Espai Barca project. What also increases the real debt amount are cash advances that some entities have made, for example, if a sponsor signs a sponsorship deal for, say, €10 million a year, and Barca has asked them to advance the cash.
"When you add everything up, our estimate is that the debt is probably around €700 million, which puts the finances of the club in a perilous position, especially because of its limited profitability. The club generates a lot of revenue, but it spends a lot of money, so it does not generate enough cash to pay the debt back. Obviously when you have this type of financial situation at the time you need to build a new team and pay for the Espai Barca project, that's a concern."
Font adds that Real Madrid have been a lot more "prudent" in managing their finances over the last few years, which puts them in a stronger position facing into a downturn: "They've built a war chest."
The footballer who has most regularly featured on the front cover of Catalonia's sports newspapers over the last few months has been Lautaro Martinez, the Inter Milan and Argentina striker. He's seen as a successor to Luis Suarez at the club, and he enjoys the blessing of Messi, his compatriot. Can Barcelona afford to buy him this summer, though, given the state of its finances?
"Barca can buy Lautaro," says Joan Josep Pallas, sports editor of La Vanguardia. "This player in particular is possible because the club could, for example, include a player in exchange to reduce the cost of the transfer.
"If Barca could get Arturo Vidal and Rakitic—two players who are in their 30s and on expensive salaries—to switch for Lautaro, who is 22 years old and has a lot of years to justify his transfer fee, it could work. The problem always for the club is to convince players that they have to leave. Of the 19 players in Barca's squad at the moment, none of them finish their contracts this summer.
"Besides, Lautaro's not a player who commands a very high salary, and the impact of his transfer fee—if it's, say, €70 million—will be spread over five years so you're not paying the full amount up front. What worries Barca most at the moment is not the price of footballers, but the salaries of footballers."
Messi's salary dwarfs those of his teammates. According to an investigation by Der Spiegel based on Football Leaks documents, Messi was guaranteed a yearly salary of €106 million over four years—which accounts for 40 per cent of the club's salary base—when he renegotiated his contract in 2017.
At the time, the scale of his salary prompted one club executive to remark, according to Football Leaks: "The player needs to be aware of how disproportionately high his salary is relative to the rest of the team," which now reads like a chilling note given the financial crisis the club is facing. If they end up in dire financial straits, could the club be forced into a nuclear option? Would they sell Messi?
"If the club let Messi go, he would always be welcome back to Barca, but the directors who let him go would not only have to leave the city of Barcelona, they'd have to leave Europe," says Santi Gimenez, a journalist with Diario AS.
Maybe the club would never sell Messi, but they might be forced to drastically cut the salaries of him and his teammates (the players are already on a temporary 72 per cent pay cut while the season is suspended).
"If Barcelona's revenue decreases by, say, 30 per cent, the club will have to renegotiate players' salaries," says Pallas. "La Liga President Javier Tebas will propose that the clubs reduce their salaries too. It's the only way football can be sustainable for the coming season, because if you lose 30 per cent of your income, you have to trim expenses, especially when Barca's salaries are their biggest expense.
"The players know as well it would be important for their public image. If one player refused to reduce his salary, it wouldn't go down well with fans. It will be the same for all of Spain's premier division clubs—not just Barca."
If Spanish football—which accounts for 184,000 jobs in the Spanish economy—ends up in a deep recession, it will be the country's smaller clubs that hit the rocks. Many will face bankruptcy. But a club like Barca, which is run by its members and is one of the pillars of Catalan society, will endure. Pallas reckons there would be a "revolution" if it disappeared.
"All these football clubs will survive," says Kuper. "After the last global financial crisis, UD Salamanca went bust [in 2013] and then they were quickly refounded. You can find in all of western Europe about eight or 10 very small clubs that went bust. Big football clubs like Barca don't go bust. Or correction—they do sometimes go bankrupt, but then they just create a new company and put the football club in that [entity] and continue as if nothing happened. That's what happened with Fiorentina in 2002.
"Remember, Barca's revenues have risen six-fold since about 2003. So even if they lost 80 per cent of their revenue, which I don't think anyone expects, that just takes you back to 2003 when players were pretty well paid. It's not like a restaurant where, if you're making losses, the owner closes down the joint.
"In five years' time, Barca will still be one of football's big clubs. Even if it's been a disaster during that period—say football has had a very long pandemic, three years without crowds, revenues have dropped by 70 per cent—Barca would be back to its revenues of 2007 or 2008. So no big deal. They'll still be a big club, paying footballers multimillion salaries.
"But the club will have the obvious on-field problem of the Messi succession. They've built the club around him. It's hard to see—if he's still playing—that he will be as dominant. You also have this whole generation of Busquets, Pique, Messi to replace. Even when you spend €100 million on people like Coutinho, Griezmann and Dembele, it doesn't seem to work out very well. So you could imagine the club is worried about a Manchester United-type decline."
Follow Richard on Twitter: @Richard_Fitz