FC Barcelona is one of the most famous and successful clubs in world football, but by its own high standards, the past five years have not been so.
At the start of the 2018/19 season, the club’s greatest player ever and newly appointed club captain, Lionel Messi, made a promise to more than 90,000 Barcelona fans at the Camp Nou ahead of the pre-season friendly game.
He was talking about Barcelona leaving the Champions League under difficult circumstances in April 2018. Surrendered to Roma in a 4-1 win and eliminated in the quarterfinals, much sooner than expected. Just like fierce Spanish rivals Real Madrid, winning La Liga is seen as a bare minimum. The Champions League campaign is really how success is measured.
Fast forward to May 2019 and Barcelona looked poised to make it to the Champions League final after beating Liverpool 3-0 in the first leg of the semi-finals. Messi scored 600 goals for Barça with a nice free kick and they seemed good to deliver on their promise since the start of the season. They won back-to-back La Liga titles a few days later, and the club looked on course for a historic double win.
But the second leg of the semi-final in England was a very different story. Liverpool pulled the overall score back to 3-3 after 55 minutes, before scoring a late winning goal and snatching their place in the away final against Barcelona. When it mattered, Messi’s men were on the ground.
Champions League debuts in consecutive seasons are important because it was the beginning of the end for a roster of players who had accomplished so much and had so few rejected. They had to try again and pull themselves together, but more turmoil arose a year later. When the world went into a state of emergency due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Barça was one of the clubs most affected by the removal of football from the program for the fans. Poor management of payroll bills and paid transfer fees was already causing problems, but suddenly not allowing fans to enter the Camp Nou to watch the games was another financial constraint they could not foresee. The ticket revenues of the 90,000 weekly fans dispersed almost overnight.
When football resumed, Barça had come to the end of another Champions League disaster. Besides being denied three La Liga titles in a row by Real Madrid, they were defeated in the quarter-finals, this time by Bayern Munich, this time 8-2; A record defeat in Europe for the club.
It sparked big conversations about the direction the club was going, and in October 2020, club president Josep Maria Bartomeu resigned after a board vote of no confidence in its leadership. The move comes after months of criticism over the club’s financial mismanagement, including the decision to allow €120m for Antoine Griezmann in 2019, a transfer that was not considered successful.
As of March 2021, FC Barcelona’s total debt was reported to be approximately €1.2 billion, of which approximately €730 million was short-term debt. The club are trying to lower their wage bill by renegotiating contracts and laying off their players, and in the summer of 2021 they had to make what they thought was the biggest sacrifice: letting Lionel Messi, the club’s greatest player ever, leave Barcelona. Probably the only club in world football that could afford to pay, the French champions were snatched by PSG.
To further address the financial crisis, new president Joan Laporta sought ways to increase the club’s revenue, including renegotiating the TV rights deal and finding new sponsors. The club sold the naming rights to the Camp Nou stadium and explored the possibility of creating a digital membership platform to increase revenue.
But the main idea was to play an important role in the birth of the concept of the Superior League, a new elite European competition that would be self-regulated by clubs without the intervention of UEFA and allow them to take a larger share of the revenues generated. The idea has been met with disdain in the UK and other parts of Europe, but Barcelona and Real Madrid have so far had the ambition to keep the project alive.
All this behind-the-scenes drama has led to more failures on the field. Barcelona were eliminated from the Champions League group stage in the 2021/22 season and the 2022/23 season for the first time in over 25 years. This is again a disaster for the club, which is desperate for the extra income that comes with reaching the next stage of the Champions League.
But 2023 seems to be the year Barça turned the corner. With music giants Spotify now holding the naming rights to Camp Nou and making lots of big revenues on the payroll, it looks like the dark clouds are breaking up. A new generation of young talent is emerging, notably the young midfield duo Pedri and Gavi, 20 and 18 years old respectively, who have made nearly 250 appearances for the club between them.
What will really take the pressure off him is the return of the La Liga title. It looks like it will be won again by Barcelona, for the first time in four years. Not only does this give fans something to cheer up after a very difficult few years, it also symbolizes that the club is finally putting their homes in order. Winning a league title is no easy feat, and running the club smoothly off the pitch is a huge contributing factor. With financial issues appearing to be under control for now, the club will keep its eyes on more victories, including Champions League success and possibly even the return of Lionel Messi, whose contract at PSG expired this summer.
Their heroes’ return home will be a real ‘booty’ that every Barça fan would love to see.