Now players have all the power to make or break the future of the clubs that asked for their money back
You do wonder, when Gerard Pique metaphorically entered Barcelona’s boardroom and offered to halve his salary to play for the club this season, whether there was any embarrassment from those wearing suits. A communal, humiliatory red face that this grand club, this financial behemoth, had been forced to go cap in hand to one of its own employees would be appropriate.
It appears unlikely, given the evidence. Taking a club of this magnitude so close towards a financial abyss cannot happen overnight. It requires a series of wretched calls made one after other, spending foolish money to chase foolish decisions. None of those can involve much self-reflection or the preposterous pattern would simply not be repeated.
Pique was seemingly happy to play his part. He might reason that he has done alright by Barcelona who first developed him and then chose to buy him back from Manchester United.
But he should not have to, particularly given that it merely allowed them to register new signings who themselves had been signed onto expensive contracts that the club had little hope of honouring without the charity of the existing Blaugrana.
Pique’s view was not widely shared. When the call-to-arms from Joan Laporta was delivered to Barcelona’s players, many rejected the chance to be paid less for the same job under more difficult circumstances.
It’s a difficult sell: you decided I was worth a certain amount each week and I signed the contract accordingly. Now, because of your miserable mismanagement you need me to be worth less.
To double down on their arrogance/inanity (delete as appropriate), Barcelona reportedly considered taking those who desired to stick to their legally binding contracts to court.
Unless employment law has shifted, no judge in the land would rule in the favour of a club that had simply grown tired of paying what contracts stipulated because they fancied seeing Memphis Depay and Sergio Aguero in blue and red. There is another, admittedly niche, solution: don’t keep buying new players when you can’t pay the wages of the ones you have. It’s all a bit robbing Pedri to pay Paul.
This is not exclusive to Barcelona. According to La Repubblica, Inter’s players and staff listened to the public appeal from club chairman Steven Zhang in May for them to take a two-month salary holiday to ease the board’s concerns about their immediate financial emergency and then rejected it. Inter’s situation was less self-inflicted – Covid-19 had decimated the share price of Inter’s owners Suning – but there were other obvious ways of raising funds. Inter subsequently sold Achraf Hakimi and Romelu Lukaku for £155m.
There is a PR war at play here. Clubs leak the need to cut expenditure, pleading poverty. They hope to create a surge of emotional blackmail from their supporters that will provoke one high-profile, senior player into acquiescence.
That example then provokes a raft of other players to do the same, as has happened at Barcelona.
But why should any player feel obliged to help out? They were handed contracts by their clubs and loyalty is a two-way street. Those players were feted by their clubs as vital components in title challenges and agreed to terms that were agreed upon by both parties. If they were not part of the appalling decision-making, why should they pay the price for its disastrous results?
Lionel Messi’s departure from Barcelona was viewed in some quarters as a line in the sand for the concept of player power: he wanted to stay but the club’s mismanagement ultimately made that an impossible scenario.
But Messi’s influence over his own situation was falsely eroded by the expiration of his contract.
Instead, a difficult balance is emerging as we wait to see which other superclubs are teetering on the edge of financial implosion.
At Barcelona and Inter and perhaps elsewhere too, players are not just capable of winning trophies, of disappointing supporters and making them jump with joy; they hold the short-term future of their clubs in their hands after periods of spineless, shapeless or thoughtless mismanagement.
Their predisposition towards charity or self-protection may well determine the fate of their employers. Now that’s real power