Barcelona's Transfer Troubles

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JOSEP LAGO / AFP / Getty Images

Fifty-million-dollar man Villa at Barça's Camp Nou in May

It's been a summer of triumph and travail for FC Barcelona. In May, the blue-and-maroon team, known to fans worldwide simply as Barça, retained the 2009-10 Spanish league championship — and promptly began the quest for a three-peat by securing the services of the country's top goal scorer, David Villa. In July, the club basked in the reflected glory of the Spanish national team's World Cup success, built on a core of Barça stars.

But barely had the confetti and champagne corks been swept from the sidewalks of Las Ramblas when Sandro Rosell, Barça's new president and de facto CEO, announced alarming news. An independent audit had revealed that Barça was not top of the table in finances: in 2009-10 it had a loss of $95 million and not, as provisional estimates had suggested earlier, a profit of $13.5 million. Debt had soared to $544 million, from $405 million the previous year. Although the club had revenues of $513 million last year, it was so strapped for cash that it needed an emergency loan of $189 million this summer to pay the salaries of its stars; a couple of players had to be sold in a hurry.

Barça was widely regarded as a paragon of financial prudence in a sport in which profligacy is more common than profit. But the mess should not have come entirely as a surprise. In May, while campaigning for the club's presidency (Barça is owned by its 176,000 members, who pay about $100 each in annual membership fees), Rosell, a former Nike executive, told TIME he suspected "we're going to find that debt is a big problem, and there may not be money to buy big-name players."

To Barça's fans, it's probably no consolation that their club is not alone in its penury. There have been no megadeals for star players in Europe this summer, a sure sign that soccer's top clubs are, for the moment, watching their pennies. The biggest fees have been in the $40 million range, compared with the $94 million Barça splashed out for striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic last year or the $117 million that hated rival Real Madrid plumped for Cristiano Ronaldo and the $92 million it spent for Kaká.

There's always some mad money in soccer to distort the game's economics. This year it's the billionaire backers of England's Manchester City, owned by the Abu Dhabi United Group, which includes members of the emirate's royal family. The sky blue team has spent more than $195 million this summer, including $37 million for Barça's midfielder Yaya Touré.

But soccer's traditional big spenders have suddenly turned frugal: Manchester United, majority-owned by Malcolm Glazer of the NFL's Tampa Bay Buccaneers and laboring under a debt burden even bigger than Barça's, has made no significant purchases. Some of its supporters, furious about the balance sheet, have tried, unsuccessfully, to buy the club. Chelsea, owned by Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich, has off-loaded several big-name players. Aston Villa manager Martin O'Neill stormed out after owner Randy Lerner refused to provide funds to buy players. Instead, Villa sold midfielder James Milner to Manchester City for $41 million. And team rosters in the Premiership are being trimmed to 25 to lower costs and prevent the larger teams from stockpiling players. Real Madrid, historically the biggest spender of them all, has been modest in its acquisitions.

Have overspending and global economic woes finally forced soccer's bosses to behave rationally? Don't bet on it, says Alan Switzer, director of the sports business group of the consulting firm Deloitte. "Fans have remained loyal, ticket sales and sponsorships have been strong, so revenues have been fantastically resilient," he says. He points to Liverpool, owned by Americans George Gillett and Tom Hicks, which signed a four-year, $103 million shirt-sponsorship deal with Standard Chartered Bank during a disastrous 2009-10 season. "The top clubs are some of the world's biggest brands," Switzer says, and sponsors are willing to pay top dollar to be associated with them. That also explains why soccer clubs remain an attractive acquisition: although Liverpool's losses and debts are comparable to Barça's, it has recently been the object of interest from investors in Canada, Kuwait and New York.

One reason for the decline in big-money transfers this year is that the market is simply correcting itself after the excesses of summer 2009. "It was a freak year in some ways," former Barça president Joan Laporta told TIME in May. "It just happened that some of the world's biggest players were all on the market at the same time."

And the world's best players get the world's biggest wages, which has put a crimp on spending elsewhere. Premier League clubs collectively had a wages-to-revenue ratio of 67% in 2008-09; at Manchester City, it was a whopping 95%. The numbers likely grew last year. Barça's wage bill doubled in three years, to $375 million last season. In soccer, unlike most other industries, cutting the wage bill isn't the path to success. As Simon Kuper, a co-author of Soccernomics, points out, teams with the highest-paid players win more often. "So, if a club's looking to spend less money, rather than cut the wage bill, it will cut the transfer budget," he tells TIME.

To keep team owners from returning to overspending ways, the Union of European Football Associations, administrators of European soccer, is in the process of introducing "financial fair play" guidelines to prevent the largest clubs from monopolizing the sport even more than they do now. Although the rules are still being crafted, some clubs are beginning to pay closer attention to their balance sheets.

Barça is one of them. It's clear the finger of blame is being pointed at Rosell's predecessor, Laporta. Ironically, he is credited with rescuing Barça from financial and sporting doldrums after he became president in 2003. The secret of Laporta's success: instead of splashing out massive sums on stars from other clubs, he promoted players from the club's youth academy, including a waiflike Argentine named Lionel Messi. The strategy culminated in a sensational 2008-09 season, when the Barça team, with a large contingent of homegrown — read: cheap — players, won six national, European and international competitions, an unprecedented haul. Laporta won plaudits for showing big-spending clubs like Chelsea of England and AC Milan of Italy that soccer success could be built as well as bought.

But in his final year, Laporta abandoned his own game plan. He bought Ibrahimovic from Internazionale of Milan for $66 million in cash, plus the trade of Cameroonian striker Samuel Eto'o, rated at $29 million. He also bought little-known Dmytro Chygrynskiy from the Ukrainian club Shakhtar Donetsk for $36 million, a huge sum for a defender.

As he predicted, Rosell found himself without the funds to buy new stars. Indeed, Barça has been a net seller, off-loading French superstar Thierry Henry and Mexican Rafael Márquez, both to the New York Red Bulls, and Chygrynskiy. (As this magazine went to press, there were reports Ibrahimovic would be sent to AC Milan, on loan, possibly to make room in the salary budget for Liverpool's Javier Mascherano.) Rosell's challenge now is to trim Barça's debt by cutting costs and finding new sources of income. One obvious source remains out of bounds: uniquely among major clubs, Barça has no sponsorship of its shirt and instead carries the UNICEF logo, forgoing upwards of $30 million a year for that prime advertising space. Club officials have proposed moneymaking ideas ranging from Barça academies in soccer-mad Asian countries to multiple Barça franchises in leagues around the world.

Another option would be to stop worrying and learn to love the debt. Bank loans to clubs like Barça tend to be on very generous terms and much more flexible than lending to ordinary corporations. It would be a public relations folly for any of its lenders to try to get tough. "No bank is going to risk saying, 'We're going to close Barça down,'" says Kuper. That being the case, he adds, big clubs shouldn't regard debt as a burden. "If you've got low debt, you're not maximizing your opportunities."

While Barça's bankers will likely give him the benefit of the doubt, Rosell will find Barça's fans less charitable if he doesn't keep the team's winning streak going. "The fans are used to success," he tells TIME. "They won't accept anything less." Whatever the cost.