Explained: Can Barcelona actually afford to sign Lionel Messi this summer?

Lionel Messi Barcelona Eibar La Liga 18102014
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Despite the Blaugrana doing all they can to get the seven-time Ballon d'Or winner back to Camp Nou, they still have financial obstacles to overcome

For months, Barcelona have been drawing up a viable financial plan to sign Lionel Messi. The club, which reportedly has to shed nearly €200 million (£176m/$220m) before they can make any financial moves this summer, has supposedly plugged away on a miracle solution to circumvent La Liga's strict financial rules, and bring their club legend back home.

The finest financial minds the club could assemble got together and decided, rather shrewdly, that they would simply agree to cut costs over a three-year period — gradually reducing salaries or engaging in other moves to raise the funds they need immediately. In return, the club told La Liga, they wanted to be able to sign Messi immediately.

The league, after a few weeks of negotiations, have adamantly rejected Barcelona's master plan.

So, the Blaugrana are stuck once more. Last summer, club president Joan Laporta famously activated a series of economic levers to cut costs and free up financial flexibility. He auctioned off one set of TV rights, flogged another, sold nearly 50 percent of the club's merchandising rights and encouraged a number of senior players to either defer or forgo large chunks of their salary.

It just about worked — at least, enough for the club to first stay afloat and then bring in a host of summer signings.

But now, they have their eyes on another one, a potential arrival that will require far more effort than the flimsy plan formed by Barcelona's brain trust.

And the conditions, pieced together, make a Messi return to his boyhood club seem incredibly unlikely, with financial barriers once again blocking the Argentine from a Catalan swansong.

  1. The strict regulations
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    The strict regulations

    Right now, it's not looking good for Barcelona.

    The Blaugrana did enough last summer to afford a number of big names, a host of newcomers that have helped Barca likely wrap up their first La Liga title in three years.

    But Laporta's famous levers were short-term solutions. Although Barca aren't in any imminent danger as a club, their financial flexibility is more limited than ever, and league president Javier Tebas will not budge on his €200m demand.

    The reason for the lofty figure is the Blaugrana's bloated salary and transfer expenditures this year. La Liga outlines how much a club can spend each year, a de-facto salary cap that runs in relation to how much the club itself makes.

    In other words, if Barcelona make more cash through sporting success, matchday revenue, or player sales, they can spend more money. But if the two numbers are too far apart — if the club are vastly outspending what they raise — then the league can cap their financial activity.

    Right now, under those regulations, there isn't any immediate room for movement. Meanwhile, the league have repeatedly insisted that they will not make any exceptions for Messi.

    Barcelona, then, will have to play by the rules.

  2. The current state of the club
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    The current state of the club

    This year, Barcelona are spending around €650m (£532m/$713m) on transfers and wages. La Liga rules stipulate the Blaugrana will need to trim that number down to roughly €450m (£399m/$493m) in order to spend this summer, according to The Athletic.

    That, in footballing terms, doesn't have to be immensely difficult. Indeed, Barcelona could perhaps generate the cash from player sales, and if they clear some big salaries off the books, it's not an impossible number to reach.

    However, before they can get into saving, there's more spending to be done. The Blaugrana are yet to register the new contracts they have agreed with Gavi, Ronald Araujo and Sergi Roberto. They have already agreed a deal to sign Athletic Club centre-back Inigo Martinez, who will also need registering. How much those moves would cost isn't exactly clear yet, either.

    There are further complicating factors, with expected losses in the club's future. Camp Nou is undergoing a massive renovation next season, and the club will have to play at the nearby Olympic Stadium.

    That ground is far smaller than Barcelona's usual home, and could impact the club's matchday revenues by up to a massive €90m (£79m/$99m), according to The Athletic. Although the stadium still holds a respectable 55,000 spectators, recapturing all of that cash simply won't be as easy in a smaller, less attractive venue.

    Messi, and the immense financial benefits that will come from his potential arrival, is surely something of a solution to expected woes. But Barcelona will have other issues to fix before they can turn to the Argentine.

  3. The moves already made
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    The moves already made

    Laporta's levers last summer were immensely successful, allowing the club to raise a whopping €738m (£648m/$810m) in a few short weeks.

    A return, a sequel, Levers 2.0, isn't possible. That's due to a La Liga rule change from December 2022, which outlined that only 5% of asset sales can count towards salary limits. Simply put, raising money by those levers from last summer — TV rights, sponsorships, merchandising — can no longer seriously impact how much money a club can spend on player funds. Barcelona would have to raise billions in order to manage one big name in today's market.

    Still, they have found some ways to cut costs. For one, they benefited from the sudden retirement of Gerard Pique, a few months after Xavi told the Barcelona legend that he would no longer be a first-team regular.

    The centre-back had already deferred a handsome chunk of his salary, but by retiring 18 months before his contract ended, gave up even more. The permanent sale of Antoine Griezmann to Atletico Madrid also helped balance the books.

    Director of football, Mateu Alemany, insisted in February that those two moves, as well as the sale of dead-weight striker Memphis Depay, saved the Blaugrana around €90m (£79m/$99m).

    The club has also cut costs elsewhere. Last week, it announced the surprising move to slash its in-house media outlet, Barca TV. Getting rid of the channel, which provided regular matchday content and exclusive programming, slashed €8m (£7.0m/$8.8m) from the budget. But it also saw Blaugrana make 150 employees redundant and removed a platform that is immensely popular among some of Barca's most devoted fans.

  4. The moves they could make

    The moves they could make

    Without the famous levers available, Barcelona's options are limited.

    In all likelihood, then, it will come down to player salary reductions and sales. And the Blaugrana do indeed have some potential candidates in that sense. Clement Lenglet, Sergino Dest and Samuel Umtiti have all spent the season out on loan, and are all up for sale this summer.

    There are also some options when it comes to contract renewals. Sergio Busquets' deal expires this summer, and he has previously admitted that he would be open to accepting more favourable terms than his rumoured €37m (£33m/$41m) yearly salary. Veteran left-back Jordi Alba has also expressed his willingness to adjust his pay in order to facilitate the club's financial well-being.

    The club have also reportedly discussed salary deductions with Marc-Andre ter Stegen and Frenkie de Jong, according to Mundo Deportivo — but neither player has publicly expressed their desire to forgo any of their expected earnings as of yet.

  5. The players they could sell

    The players they could sell

    Player sales, at this point, are tricky. Barcelona don't really have any dead weight on their squad; or, at least, no players of immense value that are immediately expendable.

    Raphinha has repeatedly cropped up in various transfer reports. Though the winger has enjoyed a reasonably successful first season at Camp Nou, with 13 goal contributions in La Liga to his name, it's not clear how much the Blaugrana could get for a player they paid €59m (£50m/$65m) for last summer. It's felt, though, that they will struggle to make a profit. The club owe Leeds United up to 80% of the fee they paid for the winger, according to AS. Only a massive offer would make his sale worthwhile.

    Ansu Fati, then, is perhaps the most likely player to move. Once one of the world's most promising wingers, the Spain international has seen his career stunted by a series of knee injuries. And although there have been flashes of the teenager that was once compared to Messi, Fati simply needs regular minutes to recapture his electric best — something Barca cannot offer him.

    Barcelona could perhaps ask for a handsome return for the 20-year-old, but potential buyers could be wary of an injury-prone player.

    The Blaugrana have been here before, too. They tried to offload De Jong last summer, all-but forcing him out of the door to Manchester United, before insisting that they were never planning on selling him after a deal failed to materialise.

    Add to this the fact that suitors for any of Barca's squad know that the Blaugrana would be near-desperate to sell, and Laporta has a poor negotiating position. Bridging the financial gap with outgoing transfers, without decimating the team, doesn't seem particularly likely.

  6. The deal they can offer Messi
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    The deal they can offer Messi

    This is a fascinating question, and it's a difficult one to answer.

    There was a misconception two years ago, when Messi left Barcelona, that the player could simply stay at Camp Nou and play for free — a campaign then pushed by Laporta. Such an assertion was inaccurate, as La Liga rules only allow salaries to be slashed by up to 50% from their previous value.

    And Laporta complied with those rules down to the last cent. The deal that Messi reportedly agreed on before departing for PSG in 2021 saw him earn a net wage of €10m (£8.8m/$11m) — the cheapest contract Messi could accept at the time.

    But it wasn't enough for La Liga, which refused to break its own rules, and famously prevented Barca from penning the Argentine to a new deal.

    Two years later, Messi is under no obligation to be flexible. It is no guarantee the player would be willing to simply accept a massive deduction from his current net salary of €35m(£31m/$38m). Even if he wants to move back to his former club, the Argentine will still expect a handsome wage.

    And Barcelona don't plan on asking him to play for nothing. Sport reported that the Blaugrana are hoping to offer Messi €13m(£11m/$14m), a wage similar to that of Robert Lewandowski.

    They have reportedly promised to reinvest money from new sponsorships to supplement that comparatively low salary. Although La Liga's new rules heavily limit how much money from commercial deals can go towards player transactions, the club are hoping that immense interest from third parties will generate enough revenue for the Blaugrana to top off a relatively low base wage for the Argentine.

    Other cash needs to be considered too, such as signing-on fees and perhaps additional commissions for his agent. One thing is certain, though: Despite the good will between the parties, Messi will not come cheap.

  7. The next few months

    The next few months

    The hope in all of this is that a Messi arrival would be a massive financial benefit to the La Liga leaders — not too dissimilar to the arrival of Cristiano Ronaldo in Manchester nearly two years ago.

    And any transfer will certainly lead to a spike in shirt sales, a hike in season ticket interest, and enumerate other money-making opportunities. In short, it is not impossible that his return to Barcelona would be instrumental in a much-needed financial recovery. But right now, the Blaugrana cannot afford him — they can't even afford to pay the players they already own.

    And the big plan they presented to fix everything has been swiftly rejected, the one shot at financial clarity blurred.

    This doesn't get any easier from here. €200m, as it turns out, cannot simply be found underneath a living room rug, or behind the back of the sofa.

    La Liga has not revealed why, exactly, they rejected Barcelona's plan. But the Blaugrana will have to come up with a better one, or see their dream reunion ended before it even began.