When Ronald Koeman was informed Neymar would miss this grand reunion with Barcelona, it didn’t actually change his planning for a game he sees as a Champions League lifeline. It doesn’t really change the scale of the challenge, either, as Paris Saint-Germain lead 4-1.
That isn’t because of any perceived failure on the Brazilian’s part, or the argument that the transfer hasn’t been worth it. It actually proves it has been entirely worth it. Barcelona are just one club feeling far greater consequences from that signing than the embarrassing loss of a single megastar.
Much has been made in these pages of how one of the greater motivations of the Neymar deal was “shorting the market” because PSG’s owners knew, in the long run, only a handful of clubs would be able to compete if fees and wages were forced up. One connected source has told The Independent there was another element to this. It was the calculation that a lot of other clubs “would try and keep up but bankrupt themselves in the process”.
This is almost exactly what has happened to Barcelona and Real Madrid.
You only had to look at their benches for the first legs, particularly compared to PSG or Manchester City. Madrid’s was, well, like a Spanish youth team: Mariano Diaz; Sergio Arribas; Antonio Blanco; Miguel Gutierrez.
The Spanish champions had a lot of injuries, sure, but it reflects something deeper. So does the situation. The effects of the Covid-19 crisis have only hastened a shift that had already been well under way, since July 2017. It is a huge reason why we are currently seeing such ructions regarding the future of the Champions League. And it is ultimately why, even beyond the shockwave of a world star forcing a move from one historic giant to a new giant, the Neymar transfer will come to be seen as one of the most significant moments in football history.
This in itself shouldn’t be seen as any kind of lament for the Spanish giants’ waning power. As the great white sharks of the football food chain, they had their own way for far too long. Many in the game – particularly in Manchester – would point to last week’s European Court of Justice decision, that ruled the duo’s unique “socio” structure has seen them benefit from illegal state aid in Spain for the last 30 years. Part of the current crisis is a also consequence of the transfer arms race Barcelona and Madrid started, and took to the new levels. It is now just going a level beyond them. As member-owned clubs, they just don’t have the financial potential to compete at the top level right now.
The solution to inequality, however, is not more inequality. This is really what is happening with all this, and that the Neymar deal represented – football’s top end is getting narrower. It is a key next stage in a long-term process, which is the takeover of that top end by the gulf states, and other oil interests.
It can be seen in City’s supremacy, in PSG’s surge, and in Gazprom and Emirates branding being brandished everywhere. Many clubs – such as Arsenal – should really be asking themselves moral questions over their commercial relationship with the Dubai airline in the wake of the Princess Latifa controversy. They won’t. The depressing reality is that such deals are needed to keep up in this new Covid-constrained, state-stretched football world. It is why Madrid are now courting Saudi Arabian sponsorship.
That is where the money is. An increasing percentage of football’s revenue comes from the Gulf blockade, or other oil interests. The current reality is that few other interests are in it for the same amount. The situation is summed up by the circumstances of so many star players. One figure who has worked with Leo Messi says he basically only has four options – “stay at Barca, go to City or PSG, or accept a significant wage reduction”.
It is the same for many, including the two great successors. The next step for Barca and Madrid would usually be obvious, after all. Kylian Mbappe and Erling Braut Haaland would go to one of each, creating a new star rivalry for football’s greatest club rivalry.
Madrid are hopeful they can eventually figure out a financial plan to sign one of them, but others are highly doubtful. Ramon Calderon was the president who brought a series of stars to the Bernabeu, from Arjen Robben to Cristiano Ronaldo, and is doubtful. He points to the effects of the tax situation – where footballers pay 52 per cent, the highest among the major leagues.
“We are talking about Mbappe and Haaland, and I wish they would come, but I find it really difficult,” Calderon tells The Independent. “As you know, we [Madrid] are not corporate, and not a company. We are a non-profit association. That means we can’t increase capital, we don’t have capital, we have to self-finance.
“On top of that, there are now the tax laws. When I signed Robben from Chelsea, we were up against Bayern Munich. But at that time, the tax in Spain was 24 per cent and in Germany I think was 48 per cent. Player salaries are usually negotiated by what they will receive net, so the salary the player was going to receive was quite a bit higher than the one Bayern Munich could pay. That’s not the case any more. For example, Italy has been tremendously profitable for Ronaldo compared to the money he was getting in Spain.
“Now, with the tax situation, Real Madrid or Barcelona would have to spend much more than any other club in Europe. Big clubs like PSG or City or United have much more possibilities.”
One of the big questions regarding Mbappe is whether he needs to leave France so we see the true worth of his talent. The truth might actually be that no one outside City or United can match PSG to pay the true value of his talent.
Could Madrid or Barca really pay what it takes? The Spanish giants are being stretched at both ends. They no longer have the income to fully compete for the top stars. They also have to pay much more on that income.
Adding another world of complication to this is the competitiveness between the clubs, that has led to so questionable decisions from presidential hierarchies – and an awful lot of dysfunction. Barca have been a basketcase.
The argument has already been raised in an excellent column by Sam Wallace how that could leave these two member clubs being run by banks. And even if the banks saw the undoubted logic in Barca and Madrid being able to buy one big star a year in order to increase commercial income, it still doesn’t necessarily leave them with competitive squads.
A point that should again be stressed, however, is that there would be a sense of poetic justice about this if it was merely bringing football’s two great powers down to size. But it is not. It is just making the field smaller, and further distorting the competitive balance of the game.
You only have to look at the ongoing negotiations about the future of the Champions League, and yet another eye-rolling suggestion by Andrea Agnelli. If Sepp Blatter was criticised for having “50 bad ideas a day”, the Juventus owner must be 200. Except, suggestions like Champions League clubs not buying off each other aren’t really something to be laughed at. Such outlandish demands are really more subtle attempts to shift the parameters of discussion, closer to the negotiation position of the legacy clubs.
“I think this is the reason big clubs are trying to set up a super league,” Calderon says. “They need more money.” Some maintain that there had initially been thoughts about excluding City from those super clubs, as a response to the CAS ruling.
All of this of course is just a response to inequality in the game, which the legacy clubs fostered, but is now running away from them.
Many are irritated by the unnecessary tedium of the Champions League groups, for example, which is why they want to do away with the stage in favour of a Swiss system. The issue is that there is no actual problem with the structure, which would work fine if there was more competitive balance in continental football. The problem, again, is the distribution of resources. Now, a narrowing band of super-clubs now have access to the kind of resources that keep you competitive.
This is the greatest disruptor at present, that was initially detonated by the Neymar transfer. The shockwaves have been slower to show, but have been quickened by Covid. The latter is going to cause other complications for a lot of clubs, that can already be seen in lower TV deals, and a stalling transfer market. They are going to be left with a lot of big contracts, that are based on pre-Covid financial models, and now need to be drastically renegotiated.
It is why, as is the case with Messi, many players are going to be left with a stark choice: either accept lesser salaries, or go to the few clubs that can afford what you want. That is going to cause a significant stretch.
It isn’t difficult to see where this is going if the current situation remains. PSG, City and maybe United and Chelsea will be the clubs paying the top contracts, with everyone else striving to keep pace – or forced to accept new realities.
That reality was one set in motion by the Neymar transfer. His absence means it is of course possible Barca pull off another miracle for this game. That’s football. Anything can happen in any one game, as Koeman stressed on the eve of this second leg at Parc des Princes.
For the future, though, only one reality currently looks likely. That is PSG and City running the game, and everyone else striving to keep up, or requiring similar takeovers. It’s going to be a lot more difficult to overcome than a 4-1 deficit.
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