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Barcelona Q&A: Xavi loosening financial straitjacket in summer of transfer poker

  /  autty

At the heart of the Eixample district of Barcelona, a brisk 40-minute walk from La Rambla down Carrer de Mallorca, the towers of Gaudi's most famous work pierce the clear blue skyline gradually rising into the heavens.

This giant, unfinished minor basilica has been under construction since 1882. After 144 years, Spain's Sagrada Familia was finally slated for completion in 2026, the 100th anniversary of the original architect's death.

Gaudi said of his masterpiece, "my client is not in a hurry", with the project less than 25 per cent complete by the time of his passing. In the years since, nine architects have taken on the project only to eventually walk away due to its myriad obstacles.

The trials and tribulations of Gaudi's focal point mean Catalans are used to being patient. They have known for some time how the devil is in the detail.

Some six kilometres south-west down Avinguda Diagonal at the Nou Camp, Barcelona manager Xavi Hernandez's own reconstruction has hit a roadblock. Sky Sports takes a look at the key questions facing the club this summer...

Do Barcelona still hold pulling power?

A trophy-less 2021/22 campaign ended with a fifth home defeat against Villarreal, meaning Barca finished 13 points behind champions Real Madrid.

The general consensus after the chaos of 12 months ago is that matters might have been far more perilous.

Xavi said prior to the final game of the season: "I feel we've saved a situation that could've been a lot worse. We've improved and competed because we've had complete faith.

"But by our standards, we've not done enough and it's not been a good season. I wouldn't want to give it a grade. Now, we have to focus on rebuilding the team and making ourselves better."

Restricted by La Liga's Financial Fair Play (FFP) rules, Barca are still struggling with recruitment. This is 'more than a club', but it is one that is currently unable to project its renowned pulling power onto European football's most coveted stars.

Barcelona were never in the running for Erling Haaland before he joined Manchester City and nor are they able to compete for the signature of Kylian Mbappe. His intention to remain a Paris Saint-Germain player for now is a blessing. Mohamed Salah? Liverpool were played, said Gary Neville, and money talked.

The club cannot pay the wages the likes of Haaland, Salah and Mbappe are asking for. It is a continuation on the consequences of mismanagement from the old regime which led to Barcelona being unable to re-sign Lionel Messi as he left as a free agent for Paris Saint-Germain.

President Joan Laporta said last August the club's debts totalled €1.35 billion - €673 million of which was owed to banks. Xavi is under no illusions and is moving forward. The economy of the club is what it is and Barcelona cannot look back.

"There have been clear signs of improvement since Ronald Koeman left," Spanish football expert Alvaro Montero told Sky Sports. "Thinking of that 4-0 win over Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabeu in March - Xavi is the perfect coach right now.

"He knows the club and the players respect him as a former player. He is someone who can certainly attract new signings. He and Robert Lewandowski supposedly met by chance at Lio restaurant in Ibiza. Whether it was or not, Lewandowski knows that Xavi is a legend who from a sporting side is ideal for extinguishing the fires.

"There's very little he can do in the economical field as that boils down to the board members."

Why the clerical work is so crucial

Xavi sounded a note of caution when he forecast in May that what he described as "office work" this summer would be "more important than what happens on the pitch".

Barcelona are having to bide their time in returning to compete with Europe's elite again.

Laporta inherited the deep financial crisis exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic after he was elected last year for a second stint but, alongside sporting director Mateu Alemany and technical secretary Jordi Cruyff, he is lining his ducks in a row with an efficient strategy to strengthen the financial footing.

An agreement has been struck to sell a 10 per cent stake in their La Liga TV rights for the next 25 years to US private equity group Sixth Street for €207.5 million - the first of two "economic levers" that were activated at a special assembly of club members on June 30.

The US investment firm already has ties to Barcelona's rivals Real Madrid, after reaching a €360 million deal in May to develop and operate new businesses at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium for 20 years.

The date was also the deadline for providing any final amendments to the accounts at the end of the financial year. It's just what Barcelona supporters have become accustomed to.

Last month, Barcelona also approved the sale of a minority share of their licensing and merchandising division and the cession of up to 25 per cent of their income from their La Liga TV rights.

It has given the club's annual financial outlook a different complexion and the hope now is that they can act more freely when it comes to a salary cap in the current transfer window.

So there is light at the end of the tunnel?

Gradual progress has certainly been made on easing the financial burden since Laporta's return. Last December, plans were approved to renovate the Camp Nou and its surroundings, including raising an additional €1.5 billion in debt.

Goldman Sachs, which had agreed to lend €595 million to help restructure the club's debt last August, will finance the stadium revamp under a 35-year plan, including an initial five-year grace period.

A shirt and stadium sponsorship deal worth another €280 million is now officially active with audio streaming platform Spotify.

The priority is renovations aimed at having the stadium ready by the end of 2025 with work starting next year to expand capacity to 105,000, making it Europe's largest football venues.

Laporta said the club expects to generate €200 million of additional revenue annually with the new stadium thanks to sponsorship and naming rights, ticketing, catering, VIP boxes, hospitality, meetings and events.

The project will also involve updating the club's infrastructure such as offices and the Palau Blaugrana, a multi-sports venue that has faced multiple fines for not meeting European competition requirements for basketball games. The new Palau Blaugrana should be completed in 2026 and the 'Campus Barca' offices and hotel by 2027.

Is Lewandowski to Barcelona going to happen?

European football expert Kevin Hatchard told Sky Sports News:

"You've got a situation where Lewandowski wants to go to Barcelona and he's made that clear in public.

"Bayern would rather keep him for the final year of his contract but if they are to let him go, it's going to be on their terms. German media are talking about €50m as a starting point.

"Barcelona haven't got near that yet and what they need to do is generate more funds by mortgaging off more TV rights - maybe another 15 per cent as they've already mortgaged off 10 per cent to an American company so until that's done, Barcelona can't do any deals really."

Are Barcelona still focusing on free transfers?

Laporta has said the team are looking for players who "really want to play for Barcelona" but those unable to graduate from La Masia with the required quality will be offloaded.

"I can't say how many more signings we'll be able to make," Laporta said this week, explaining that they need to activate measures approved last month to improve the club's financial situation.

"It will not be easy but we need to reinforce the first team to be more competitive. We are in a situation of uncertainty. We are working to be able to sign. At this time we still can't. We are talking to players we are interested in and ask them to wait for us."

Finding creative ways of being more competitive this coming season is how Barcelona have acted in the market so far in this poker period of the summer window.

Franck Kessie said the opportunity of playing under the guidance of Xavi was crucial in his decision to join Barcelona on a free transfer after leaving AC Milan.

"When a great coach like him calls you, you see that all your efforts are worth it," Kessie told a news conference on Wednesday after signing a contract until June 2026.

The manager's legacy still holds plenty of sway. Barca have also announced the signing of Denmark defender and free agent Andreas Christensen, who joins the club on a free transfer from Chelsea. But more quality is still needed.

Will Kessie arrival hasten De Jong departure?

Frenkie de Jong would ideally like to remain at Barcelona but his future may be taken out of his control with Manchester United his likely destination.

Sky Sports News has been told the clubs have a "broad agreement" on the fee - believed to be €65m (£56m) plus performance-related add-ons.

The move would reunite the Netherlands international with Erik ten Hag, the coach who turned him into a vital cog during Ajax's run to the Champions League semi-finals in 2019.

"De Jong is a Barcelona player and we, unless we need to, don't want to sell him," Laporta said at the presentation of Kessie on Wednesday. "We know he has offers. If at anytime one of them interested us, we would sell him. But right now we're not going to."

De Jong has not reached the same heights of his Ajax playing days during three seasons of sustained upheaval at Barcelona, with the 25-year-old unable to oust the veteran Sergio Busquets in his preferred position at the base of the midfield.

Montero added: "I do think he will eventually join United, but the main problem is the player. De Jong wants to stay at Barcelona but the club sees with fresh eyes the possibility of selling him.

"They acknowledge that doing so will bring in a lot of money, and looking at the squad he is someone who can perhaps attract one of the biggest fees in the current market.

"De Jong is an amazing player but if Barcelona sell him, it would be a good operation. His value means they are taking the positives from a bad situation. If they were to have sold Ansu Fati, nobody in the club nor the fans would understand it.

"Ansu Fati is the future and they don't have a replacement. But the fans are understanding of selling De Jong as they've got Gavi, Pedri and Busquets. Were Marc-Andre ter Stegen in goal or either Gerard Pique or Ronald Araujo to be sold, it would be very different as they don't have the same depth in those areas."

Raphinha chooses Barca over Chelsea

Leeds have agreed a deal "in principle" with Barcelona for the sale of Raphinha. The Premier League club's announcement would appear to have ended Chelsea's hopes of signing the Brazil winger.

Leeds said: "We can confirm that an agreement in principle has been reached with FC Barcelona for the transfer of Raphinha. The player will now undergo a medical in Spain."

Chelsea had a reported bid of £60m accepted by Leeds at the end of last month, but Raphinha looks set to switch to La Liga after holding out for his dream move to Barca.

His mesmeric wing play earned him his first call-up for Brazil in October last year and he made his debut off the bench, providing two assists in a 3-1 World Cup qualifying win in Venezuela.

Raphinha earned more rave reviews after his second start for Brazil a week later as he scored twice and made another assist as they beat Uruguay 4-1.

He scored 17 goals in 60 Premier League games for Leeds and will be hoping to add to his three goals in nine appearances for Brazil at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.

Who else could be coming in?

The club remain interested in signing Manchester City playmaker Bernardo Silva along with Sevilla defender and Chelsea target Jules Kounde, but there is a domino effect that has yet to be set in motion.

Diario AS have made the sensational claim that Cristiano Ronaldo's agent Jorge Mendes has offered his client to the club following reports the Portuguese is seeking an exit from Manchester United.

Ronaldo is refusing to countenance the prospect of Europa League football next season, and Barcelona could be using his unsettled situation at Old Trafford in order to hasten negotiations with Bayern Munich for their wantaway striker Lewandowski.

Bayern are so far refusing to sell the Poland international while Xavi is also reportedly keen on Ruben Neves and Rafael Leao.

"It's vital Barcelona solve their economic problems and the levers that Laporta has attained could help them sign Lewandowski," Montero continued. "He is the club's primary transfer target. Selling De Jong could create this domino effect. Bernardo Silva and Kounde are still on their wishlist.

"You sense we are reaching a crucial point as Bayern return to training next week. Lewandowski wants to play for Barcelona but Bayern are wanting €50m up front - not in instalments."

The Athletic's Raphael Honigstein joked this was because the Bavarians fear Barcelona would cease to exist in a few years were they to pay the cost over a period of time, but it is the uncertainty which is dictating their stance.

"It's more attractive to sign for Barcelona now than it was a year ago," Montero countered. "We've seen during the last few months of the season an improvement in their football under Xavi. He has started to impose his ideas on his side."

Which other players are heading for the exit?

Regarding the ongoing economic situation, Xavi said: "I've spoken to the president and he is confident that we will be able to strengthen the team.

"It depends on the club and the situation but we have plans in place in terms of signings. Let's see what we can reach. I'm responsible for giving a football diagnosis, I'm not the one to talk about money."

Xavi has already made it clear to his squad those he wishes to retain and those whose futures lie elsewhere. A ruthlessness is needed if Barcelona are return to the very standards they have set.

Players involved on international duty last month have been granted an extra week off, but Riqui Puig, Neto, Oscar Mingueza, Samuel Umtiti, Moussa Wague and Clement Lenglet are negotiating possible exits.

French international Lenglet is set to join Tottenham on loan in the coming days, with Mingueza and Umtiti attracting interest from Italy and France, but the rest are yet to receive an offer.

Dembele set to sign new deal while Gavi offers bright future

Then there is Ousmane Dembele, whose contract has expired but is expected to sign a new two-year deal.

The French winger was a Chelsea and Liverpool target and officially a free agent but Laporta has confirmed that Barcelona are still in contact with the player about a potential extension.

Addressing Dembele's situation, Laporta said before the latest developments: "We are in a situation of uncertainty. Right now, we still can't sign [him].

"We are talking to players we are interested in so they can wait for us. Ousmane is not a Barca player, but we have made him an offer.

"He has not accepted our proposal, but he wants to continue talking. We will continue talking, at least for now.

"Salary balance is necessary for the team to be competitive. All discussions are framed in this context. We're not in a hurry, although we're aware that we can't delay. Let no one expect us not to act with the utmost prudence."

In addition to the arrivals of Christensen and Kessie, there is more good news this week with Gavi set to pen a new deal.

"There is an outline of an agreement. We are highly committed to sorting out this situation," Laporta said.

"He is 17 years of age and we are waiting until he turns 18 on August 5 so he can sign a contract longer than three years. We have small details to close out but we will get it resolved. 100 per cent Gavi will continue at Barca."

Pedri and Ansu Fati will continue to grow and help absorb the deficit of losing De Jong. While Dembele embodies how Barcelona lost their identity, the precocious talent of Gavi emits the class schooled in the club's famed La Masia academy.

As ever in this proudly autonomous community, patience is required.

"There is no reason to regret that I cannot finish the church," Gaudi said of the Sagrada Familia. "I will grow old but others will come after me.

"What must always be conserved is the spirit of the work, but its life has to depend on the generations it is handed down to and with whom it lives and is incarnated."

Xavi remains, for now, in his financial straitjacket - but in channelling the Catalan spirit, this famed architect of Spanish football's Golden Generation sets the example of how patience can pay off.

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Who will be on the move this summer before the transfer window closes at 11pm on September 1?

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