Visionary who aims to boot football into the real world

The man in charge of Barcelona's finances is leading a slow revolution that could change the face of the world's favourite sport and end the profligacy of the top clubs. Alasdair Fotheringham reports

Alasdair Fotheringham
Thursday 27 October 2011 15:48
If the club's vice-president of finance's plans are carried through, then first up against the wall at Barça's Nou Camp will be the football aristocracy's long-standing addiction to living way beyond their means.
If the club's vice-president of finance's plans are carried through, then first up against the wall at Barça's Nou Camp will be the football aristocracy's long-standing addiction to living way beyond their means.

With his sensible spectacles and haircut, not to mention a thoroughly respectable background as a lifelong card-carrying Barcelona fan and father of two, Javier Faus doesn't look like a financial revolutionary.

But if the club's vice-president of finance's plans are carried through, then first up against the wall at Barça's Nou Camp will be the football aristocracy's long-standing addiction to living way beyond their means.

For Faus believes it is time for the "anything goes" attitude of the world's biggest clubs to end – permanently. "As a general rule, people in this sport don't believe that you can't get money to buy players or pay them. You can tell them there's no money because the bank won't provide any more, but it's very difficult to get that idea across.

"At the very top, football continues to live outside reality, although that's really the fault of three or four clubs in Europe. They over-inflate the market. We'd like Uefa to lay down some really strict rules about finance that all of us – and I include Barcelona in that – absolutely have to follow. If that doesn't happen, things will continue to be distorted."

Faus won't say which four clubs are bending football's economy out of shape, but does define the worst type of transgressor. "[It's] a club that belongs to one single individual with unlimited resources and who is totally independent of the club being profitable or not.

"Rather, his only objective is to spend ¤1,000m (£880m) if necessary to get the club at the top of the league come what may. That goes against Financial Fair Play."

This is Uefa's new drive for a more coherent market in football, which Faus believes is good, but that it needs to be strengthened.

Closer to home, Faus says that although he believes in applying strict business principles to Barcelona, there is one difference to any company, in any other sector, because "profitability isn't an issue".

"In business terms we're a very strange beast. We're like a foundation that belongs to its 180,000 members who want titles, social prestige and prestige – not profit."

When Faus starting running Barcelona's finances, he knew he had to cut the whopping gross debt of ¤532m. After a year, he's got it down to ¤483m.

"Once the situation is more stable, whatever money we have won't be in the bank, it'll be in the stadium. But we have to apply the same degree of economic efficiency as if it were a company – although we're very pleased that it isn't. The bottom line is we can't afford to go on losing money," he says.

Faus wants to lead by example in the battle for new austerity in football, and was helped by the election last summer of Sandro Rosell as president. Since then, the boot has been on the other foot: sorting out the finances for once and for all was Faus's unspoken justification for a controversial ¤170m deal with the not-for- profit Qatar Foundation, giving the Gulf state the right to the first commercial logo ever to appear on the club strip.

He is also in favour of pulling football matches forward to 3pm – dangerously close to Spanish siesta time – thus opening up Barcelona to the Asian market.

Meanwhile, the Nou Camp's fans have had to accept that Barcelona will have only ¤45m to spend on new signings this summer, and if the rampant speculation is to be believed ¤32m is earmarked to go to Arsenal for Spain's Cesc Fabregas.

Meanwhile, the club's star players are on huge salaries, with the Argentinian Lionel Messi believed to be on more than ¤30m a year. But they shouldn't think that the executive end of the hierarchy is exempt from cutbacks either.

As a Spanish newspaper reported in shocked tones the other week, one Barcelona director recently travelled to a match using Ryanair.

In fact, Faus has cherrypicked practices from other financially responsible sports clubs around the world that are private companies; the German football clubs are particularly rational when it comes to expenditure. "But when it comes to marketing we look at the English league, because they're better at branding and exposure."

His policies are working so well that Faus says he is outstripping his original role models. "This season, in terms of revenue, Barcelona will possibly be the best off in the world, higher than any English club, even a traditional market leader like Manchester United."

Faus's ability to bring in innovative techniques is partly due to broadness of his perspective. After taking a master's degree in financial law at Georgetown University in Washington, he worked for the law firms J&A Garrigues in New York and Cuatrecasas in Barcelona, as well as founding Meridia Capital, a private equity firm focusing on hotel real estate.

"There is no typical day for me even when I'm here in Barcelona," he comments. "Today, for example, I've got a board meeting with Colonial, Spain's top real estate company – with a portfolio valued at more than $10bn – for whom I'm an adviser, then another board meeting with the club, and tonight I'm heading for Mexico. It's not exactly nine to five work.

"Barça's new board of directors has much more of a business spirit than previous ones," says Pablo Cardona, professor of the IESE Business School in Barcelona. "Although importantly it hasn't changed its physiognomy as a sporting entity.

"Like any company, it needs to work in a really sustainable way, because football's not a predictable business. It's all about striking a balance."

Barcelona certainly has one area where business and sports sense combine perfectly: La Masia, its academy for young players. Eight of the players that took part in the recent Champions League victory were formed there, meaning zero transfer fees for an international star like Andres Iniesta.

"You cannot understand Barcelona's success without La Masia; it's the blood which runs through the whole body of the club," Faus agrees. "Even if, as a financial concept, La Masia only works if you don't mess up signings from outside Barcelona as well.

"Some people believe if it takes a five-year period to produce a top player from La Masia, then spending three million on 30 new potential stars could be equally effective. However, emotionally speaking, both for players and fans, La Masia produces a level of identification with the club which far outweighs that."

In business terms, you'd call it ensuring customer and worker loyalty in a notoriously fickle field.

But Faus believes he holds the key to success in other areas, too. "Very good work which was done previously in terms of revenue – through the media, marketing and the stadium – was lost because of a lack of discipline and rigour in expenditure.

"So we have to try to maintain the Barcelona brand and simultaneously control expenditure. If that happens in three years' time, we'll be the most solvent club in the world.

"And if everything we do here also helps to make football clubs realise they have to act like a company" – even if profits are measured in goals and titles, as well as healthy finances – "then we'll be very happy indeed."

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