Just before beating real Madrid in the Spanish Super Cup final, Barcelona Boss Xavi was asked about Memphis Depay as speculation mounted over the Dutchman’s future.
“I told the club that if a player wants to leave, I would like a replacement,” replied the 43-year-old.
Just over two weeks later, Depay’s sale to Atletico Madrid for €3m (£2.6m; $3.2m) remains the only transfer activity the The league leaders, the deadline approaching. This January window has been quiet for Barca, but only in terms of arrivals and departures. Calm doesn’t paint the full picture.
Even when Xavi was talking about signing new players, the club’s top executives were discussing a different option. The club’s preference was to instead invest what the Depay sale made available on new contracts for key players Ronald Araujo and Gavi.
There was a simple explanation for their thinking – the operating restrictions imposed on them by La Liga rules on wage limits meant it would be difficult to sign new players and pay transfer fees.
But they did not expect the sequel. Applications for registration of new transactions for Araujo, Gavi and Marc Alonso were all rejected by La Liga.
And behind the scenes, a cold war is developing. The Catalan club feel they are being treated unfairly, while La Liga wonder if Barcelona understand their financial rules.
It is in this context that Xavi, club president Joan Laporta and sporting directors Mateu Alemany and Jordi Cruyff held internal meetings at the club’s headquarters on Monday, which lasted until late at night. On Tuesday news emerged that Barca had won a court ruling forcing La Liga to sign up Gavi’s new contract.
If the right opportunity arises, the club would still like to sign a wide striker, with Depay having left and Ousmane Dembele came out injured. Options for a backup full-back are also being explored. Club sources, who preferred to speak anonymously to protect their positions, agree a loan may be the best option.
But because of everything we are going to explain, Barca are going to have to work hard to get there.
Let’s go back to the start of the season.
Barca’s exit from Champions League the group stages left them with a negative balance on the salary cap that La Liga set for the club. The limit is set as a percentage of revenue.
Barcelona had budgeted based on the hope that they would at least reach the Champions League quarter-finals. Without the television money that would have accompanied such a race, the amount they are allowed to spend on salaries would therefore have to be reduced.
The only way for the club to make up for the money lost on European TV rights would be to reach the Europa League final — which is not going to be easy. They confront Manchester United in a knockout play-off, with the first leg in Spain on February 16. The winner advances to the round of 16.
In December, Barcelona were €26m (£22.8m) over the salary limit set at the start of the season, which was €656m (£576m).
This week, sources close to La Liga, who wished to remain anonymous in order to protect their jobs, said Athleticism they wonder if Barcelona fully understand the salary cap rules, given they have recently tried three times, and failed three times, to register new contracts; those of Alonso, Araujo and Gavi.
And speaking on Monday evening, La Liga president Javier Tebas said: “In terms of the signings the club can make now, it’s true that there is a margin after the savings of (Gerard) Pique (who retired in November) and Memphis (Depay), but Barcelona have to decide.
“I think it’s important to remember what Barcelona vice-president Eduard Romeu said in June; that what Barca need to do, in general, for their future is to reduce their wage bill. €600m to €400m I think he said, a little more Let’s see when we start.
There are two particular articles in La Liga’s financial rules which according to the competition body, Barcelona always break.
The first is Article 101, which states that a club cannot register a contract extension mid-season if La Liga expects them to still be above their salary cap for next season.
The second concerns a change to Article 93.5, introduced at the end of 2022. This has implications for Barcelona in the short and long term.
The change limits how much an asset sale strategy such as Barca’s ‘leverage’ last summer can affect a club’s salary cap. It also requires clubs with a negative salary cap to file a liquidity plan for the next two seasons, allowing for scrutiny of how they intend to balance their squads before registering new contracts.
Barcelona haven’t filed this liquidity plan yet.
Last summer, Barcelona managed to secure a salary cap high enough to register several new signings, mainly due to their famous series of asset sales, a process known as ‘pulling levers’. They thought they had been ‘smarter’ than La Liga and its president Tebas.
Now, La Liga have introduced new rule changes which tighten Barcelona’s room for manoeuvre. They may have reacted to the events of the summer, seeking more caution and control.
Anyway, Barcelona’s club sources estimate that their salary cap for the next season will be set at around €450-500m, which is a significant decrease from last year.
On Monday, La Liga president Tebas added: “The problem of not registering Gavi stems from the fact that it will come into effect next season.
“Barca have a deficit of more than 200 million euros for this next season. It doesn’t seem like the right time.
When Barca agreed to sell Depay, club officials were confident that it would mean they would soon be able to register at least some of those new contracts already mentioned above. But because their relationship with La Liga became strained, they proceeded with the sale before making sure that registrations would be allowed.
Despite the rejection of applications, Barcelona remain optimistic that they can proceed with registrations this summer.
“What La Liga asks of us are technical issues which in my opinion are not too relevant,” Alemany said, speaking to DAZN ahead of Saturday’s league game in Girona.
“The reality is that Gavi and Araujo are protected by their contracts with billion euro release clauses. We don’t know when they will be registered, but it’s just a bureaucratic issue that we will sort out as soon as possible.
On Tuesday, Xavi said: “Our priority was to secure Gavi’s future at the club. It looks like we’ve made it. I don’t see Gavi leaving for another club, I see him very happy here.
And the showcase also risks seeing one more departure: that of Hector Bellerin.
The 27 year old Arsenal the right-back has been identified by Sporting Lisbon as a potential replacement for Pedro Porro, who appears close to a move to Tottenham.
After joining Barca on a free transfer last summer, Bellerin was unable to make an impact in Xavi’s side.
He signed a one-year contract at Camp Nou but is not expected to be offered an extension.
Bellerin has only played seven times this season, during which he played 494 minutes. His last two appearances were Copa del Rey tied against third-tier teams Intercity and Ceuta. He hasn’t featured in a league game since October.
The player is open to a move – and his side are pushing him – but he prefers a loan rather than a permanent switch, so he can choose his new destination in the summer. Bellerin joined Barcelona accepting one of the lowest salaries in the team in order to meet the club’s limit.
He now looks set to leave, but it’s deadline day – and that’s Barcelona. Don’t exclude anything.
(Top photo: Josep Lago/AFP via Getty Images)
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