Barcelona just keep winning in La Liga, but their issues in registering Gavi are symbolic of systemic problems which only seem to be getting worse and worse.
The most superficial view of Barcelona, a passing glance at a league table, would suggest that normal service has been resumed at one of European football’s giants following last summer’s drama.
On Sunday evening they reopened a nine-point lead over Real Madrid at the top of La Liga with a 1-0 win at Athletic Bilbao, thanks to a goal in first-half stoppage-time from Raphinha. They’ve won 21 of their 25 league games this season, and the Spanish league title seems destined to head back to Camp Nou for the first time in four years.
But it doesn’t take a much deeper dive to see that problems have continued to mount, and the latest to land on their doorstep is a potential issue with registering their 18-year-old wunderkind Gavi. The issue is relating to an ongoing legal wrangle between the club and La Liga which goes back to January, when La Liga blocked the registration of the midfielder as a first-team squad member over the club’s financial position.
Gavi had signed a new contract with Barcelona in September. It has been reported that the club had been under the impression that they had managed to balance their books through the departures of Memphis Depay and Gerard Pique in order to enable his full registration but La Liga disagreed and as part of their sanctions over salary caps, on January 24 they confirmed that under their rules he could not be fully registered for the remainder of this season.
Barcelona headed straight to court and on January 31, the closure date for the January transfer window, it was confirmed that a judge had overruled the league, stating that, “The decision recognises…there is a principle of legitimacy in FC Barcelona’s claim and that the failure to register the player before the end of the transfer window would imply the players free agency and therefore cause serious, irreparable damage to FC Barcelona.”
But it took just two weeks for this judgement to be overturned, although the reasons are banal rather than a savage indictment of anybody or anything. It turns out that Barcelona filed their paperwork for the claim a day late – including a day’s grace period allowed by the court system – and that this was sufficient to invalidate the claim. The club has already responded that it did file this paperwork on time, so where this all ends up is anybody’s guess.
It should be added that none of this registration business affects Gavi’s ability to play for Barcelona this season. No-one’s going to be deducting all of their points from matches he has played. Despite the new contract, he has been listed as a reserve player and has worn the number 30 shirt, and a great play was made of the currently blocked re-registration because he was to wear the number 6 shirt, which had been previously worn by his current manager Xavi.
But while the issue of the shirt number carries a symbolic importance to Barcelona, it is the longer-term ramifications of this judgement which will concern them considerably more. With the British press being the British press, this story has largely been framed through the lens of the potential for this registration not being allowed, rendering Gavi a free agent in the summer and therefore ‘alerting’ Premier League megaclubs to the possibility of picking up one of the most promising midfielders on the planet for next to nothing.
But such speculation doesn’t take into account that Gavi has already been with Barcelona since he was 11 years old, and that at 18 and with incredible prospects ahead of him, fighting tooth and nail to stay with this club might serve his best interests.
There are doubtless many twists and turns in the ongoing Barcelona soap opera, but it’s fair to say that last week was a difficult week for the club. It was confirmed that they had been charged with corruption by the Spanish public prosecutor’s office in relation to payments made to Jose Maria Negreira, the vice-president of Spanish football’s refereeing committee.
Negreira has also been charged, along with Josep Maria Bartomeu and Sandro Rosell, who held the position of Barcelona president between 2010 and 2020. Real Madrid, who until recently had remained tight-lipped on the subject, have also been quick to join the claim.
Current Barcelona president Joan Laporta has hinted at those that “seek to hurt us”, describing them as “scoundrels that are tarnishing our badge and our club”. When considered in the longer-term context of the relationship between the cities of Barcelona and Madrid in both a sporting and non-sporting context, the possibility of a conspiracy against Barcelona doesn’t sound completely implausible, but we live in a society of laws so it will now be up to a court to decide.
And it should be added that there doesn’t really seem to have been a convincing explanation for how that money came to be ‘resting in his account’ just yet.
The risks to Barcelona are obvious. Should they lose this case, the gloves will surely be off in terms of punishment, and something serious happening might test the patience of any players currently with the club. But should they successfully defend themselves, what would that say about La Liga and Barcelona’s implied claims of a form of vendetta against the club?
But it should be added that many of the club’s current issues are plainly self-inflicted. The vast overspending on players which landed them in more than a billion euros’ worth of debt certainly isn’t anybody’s fault but the club’s, even if the lion’s share did come under previous presidents. The club’s current woes – albeit not the corruption case, that seems to be unrelated – can be traced back to that.
Elimination from the group stages of the Champions League hit the club’s finances hard, and defeat to Manchester United in their subsequent Europa League knockout match meant that even this season’s European consolation prize – both in terms of the actual piece of silverware itself and the money – was now beyond their grasp.
This was not in the script, and it all points to the club being in a position in which they need to significantly reduce their wage bill and/or increase the value of their sponsorship deals this summer. More ‘levers’ may well have to be pulled. How many of them there may be before they’ve been exhausted remains unclear, but what we know for certain is that rules have already been tightened to reduce their immediate potential benefit.
And at the centre of all this tumult is Gavi, 18 years old and playing exceptional football, just getting on with his job. It’s remarkable that he already has the maturity to just be able to shut out the background noise. It’s the sort of mental fortitude that offers a hint as to why he’s so prized by so many of the continent’s richest club.
The smart money would be on the corruption ructions being dragged through the courts for a long time, months and possibly years, but coming as they do on top of other ongoing financial issues and the hole blown in this year’s plans by that early European elimination, this brilliant young player isn’t going to find any peace from that background noise.
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