Barcelona on the brink: Bartomeu's legacy laid bare by pay-cut chaos

Josep Maria Bartomeu Lionel Messi Antoine Griezmann Barcelona 2020-21 GFX
Without another salary reduction, the club won't be able to pay player wages from January on - a damning indictment of the former president's reign

Josep Maria Bartomeu claimed last week, "Barcelona is one of the most admired institutions around the world."

Admired? Barca are now a laughing stock, their 'mes que un club' motto nothing more than a perverse joke at this point. Their team specialises in humiliating defeats on the field; their board, in embarrassing scandals off it.

Last year, Bartomeu told BBC Radio 5 Live that he was determined to end his tenure on a high: “I want to leave the club in a great position and tell the new president, ‘That’s our legacy!’”

Instead, he has left the club in financial disarray. His legacy is chaos and controversy. Camp Nou is divided, in utter disarray. Bartomeu's resignation as president hasn't changed that; the damage has already been done, and it is devastating. The rebuilding project will take years.

The presidency of FC Barcelona is the second-most prestigious role in Catalunya, after the presidency of the autonomous community itself. It is not a paid position but a very advantageous one, viewed as something of a social elevator.

It is telling, then, that Jordi Roche, previously considered a potential Bartomeu successor, is now unwilling to even consider running for election because he feels the new president will be inheriting a poisoned chalice.

When interim president Carles Tusquets was asked earlier this week if the club was in danger of entering administration, he replied, "Right now, no." No guarantees were being made about the future.

This is key to fully understanding Bartomeu's six years in charge. He is not only responsible for the failure of his own tenure; he may also have fatally undermined the next administration's chances of success.

In his desperate, blinkered pursuit of another Champions League triumph before the previously scheduled end of his reign in 2021, Bartomeu spent freely and recklessly, seemingly with little or no regard for the consequences of his actions.

Somebody was always going to have to foot the bill for extravagant outlays on the likes of Antoine Griezmann, Philippe Coutinho and Ousmane Dembele; Bartomeu knew that it wouldn’t be him.

For example, the club will only next year begin paying the €120 million (£108m/€142m) transfer fee agreed with Atletico Madrid for Griezmann, who joined in 2019.

Bartomeu successfully and deliberately deferred the payments until after he was originally scheduled to step down in the summer of 2021. Consequently, the responsibility of paying the third-highest transfer fee in Barcelona's history will fall upon his successor, who will also have to deflate the most bloated wage bill in world football.

As it stands, if the squad doesn't accept another pay cut, the club will not be able to pay the players' salaries from January on.

The primary problem is that the Catalans have a plethora of thirty-something players on lucrative, long-term contracts but have next to no resale value. Tusquets has already admitted that Barca will only be able to pick up free agents in the January transfer window unless current squad members are sold, which won't be easy.

Ivan Rakitic, Arturo Vidal and Luis Suarez were offloaded during the summer for a combined total of only €1.5m (£1.3m/$1.8m) up front. There is no quick fix here. Just because Bartomeu has gone, it doesn't mean Barca's problems have gone with him. They’re not suddenly in a position to start filling the obvious holes in a horribly unbalanced squad with world-class players.

Remember, Bartomeu publicly stated that he saw no issue with approximately 70 per cent of Barca's budget going on wages. The coronavirus has exposed that belief as pure folly. With estimated losses of €200m (£181m/$237m) on the 2019-20 campaign, the club's debt now stands at close to €800m (£724m/$950m).

The new president, then, will be more focused on balancing the books, after years of wastage, than surrounding leading man Lionel Messi with the kind of stellar supporting cast that might convince him to stay at Camp Nou beyond the end of the season.

The Argentine stunned the world by telling Goal that he felt so betrayed by Bartomeu during the summer that he wanted to quit the only club he has ever represented at senior level, but his disillusionment was perfectly understandable.

Lionel Messi Barcelona GFX

As Messi pointed out, “The truth is that there has been no project or anything for a long time, they juggle and cover holes as time goes by.” Gerard Pique didn't disagree but during the most dramatic and biggest transfer saga in football history, the centre-half sent his skipper a text, pointing out that there would soon be new people in charge.  

Bartomeu has since been forced out far sooner than either player would have anticipated, meaning there is a temptation to view his resignation as a victory for his two most vocal critics in the dressing room. However, there are no real winners at Camp Nou right now, just as there is no guarantee that Messi will change his mind and sign a new contact.

His love of the club is obvious but so too is his ongoing dissatisfaction with the state of the squad. He made it clear that he is motivated primarily by success; he wants a "winning project". Barca don’t yet have one – and are unlikely to have one for some time.

That is a remarkable state of affairs for a club that recorded a treble just five years ago, but while Bartomeu played a pivotal role in assembling the MSN forward line (Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar) that fired Barca to Champions League glory in Berlin, he was even more integral to its dismantling.

Remember, Bartomeu tried to sign Marco Verratti from Paris Saint-Germain in 2017; instead he lost Neymar to the same club. The loss of Messi’s obvious heir was a hammer blow, but it need not have been a fatal one.

However, Bartomeu made matters worse by squandering the world-record fee accrued from the Brazilian’s exit on Dembele and Coutinho – Barca haven’t made one unequivocally successful signing since Bartomeu’s re-election in 2015 – and then botching his attempts to bring Neymar back to Camp Nou.

Messi even publicly wondered if everything had really been done to re-sign his good friend, underlining that the dressing room distrust of the boardroom pre-dates what has been a calamitous 2020.

Lionel Messi Luis Suarez Neymar Barcelona GFX

As Pique has pointed out, the decision to sack Ernesto Valverde midway through last season – with Barca top of the table – was “illogical". The influential defender was also upset by the fact that Jaume Masferrer, one of the club employees caught up in the ‘Barca-gate’ social media scandal, was allowed to continue in his role.

Messi, meanwhile, was outraged by former sporting director Eric Abidal's accusation that the players had been responsible for Valverde's dismissal, and also claimed during the negotiations over player pay cuts that certain people at Camp Nou were feeding the media with false information in an attempt to sully the reputation of the squad.

Throughout it all, Bartomeu maintained he never stopped acting in the best interests of the club, even insisting that he was right not to resign immediately after the humiliating 8-2 loss to Bayern Munich in last season’s Champions League quarter-finals.

It was only when he was facing an embarrassing loss of his own, in a vote of no-confidence in his presidency, that he eventually decided to step down, leaving the mother of all messes for the club to clean up.

It was an unsurprising act of self-preservation because, remember, it was Bartomeu and his predecessor, Sandro Rosell, who made Barcelona solely culpable for the illegalities of the transfer that brought Neymar to Camp Nou in 2013.

Just consider that for a second: it was not the men behind the deal who were found culpable but the club itself. As a result, Rosell and Bartomeu escaped without sanction, while Barcelona the institution was found guilty of fraud for the first time in its history.

Nothing that has happened since should, therefore, have come as a surprise. It has rightly come as a welcome relief to everyone connected with Barca that Bartomeu’s reign is finally over. Sadly, though, the effects of his presidency will likely be felt for years to come.

Bartomeu wanted to leave the club in a "great position"; he has instead left it on the brink of bankruptcy. That's his legacy.

And that's why he will be remembered as the worst president in Barcelona's history.