Barcelona in crisis: club's VP talks coronavirus, wage cuts, infighting and when Messi & Co. might return

Marcotti positive about European football's return (1:42)

Gab Marcotti explains why he's excited about the return of the Bundesliga, Serie A and La Liga. (1:42)

A pandemic changes everything. FC Barcelona is now willing to attach a sponsor's name to the Camp Nou for the coming decades. Last month, Barca said that it aimed to sell the title rights to Europe's biggest stadium for next season, to raise money for the global fight against the coronavirus. But Jordi Cardoner i Casaus, the club's first vice president, told ESPN that Barca is open to a much longer naming arrangement with a sponsor.

"This is something you could add to this year's agreement: 25 years more," says Cardoner. "The first year for the coronavirus and the next 25 for commercial reasons, having the title rights to the Camp Nou. Why not?"

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In a wide-ranging conversation, Cardoner provided a rare glimpse into a giant club's struggles during football's lockdown. He discussed issues including the players' pay cut -- smaller than many people realise -- this summer's transfer market, the date when football might resume, and the size of Barca's debt (about €460 million). The virus seems to have worsened the club's internal turmoil, with Lionel Messi speaking out against the board and six more directors resigning in April amid allegations that the club hired the I3 Ventures firm to campaign on social media against Barça's own players. (The club says I3 was just monitoring social media.)

Barcelona president Josep Maria Bartomeu -- Cardoner's schoolmate from age 6 onward -- is under pressure, but the coronavirus now overshadows everything at the club. Speaking from home via Whatsapp, Cardoner has just recovered from the virus himself. It has killed over 10,000 people in the club's home region of Catalonia so far, according to data from funeral homes. Barca has called the pandemic the "biggest health, economic and social crisis in modern history," and declared its duty to help fight it.

Cardoner has been a Barca man since his grandfather, Nicolas Casaus (himself a first vice president of the club), enrolled him as a socio (member) straight after birth. Talking of the response to the coronavirus, Cardoner cites Barca's slogan, "Més que un club." ("More than a club.") No doubt he means it, too. Barca has donated masks and protective clothing to health services, while socios around Catalonia have been involved in running foodbanks. However, fighting the virus will also help Barça repair an image tattered by internal ructions as well as give it cover to rename the Camp Nou.

A slide in Barça's income

The virus has devastated the club's finances. In the 2017-18 season, Barca became the first club in any sport to hit $1 billion in annual revenues. As late as this February, says Cardoner, "we were over budget, it was a very successful position, awaiting a beautiful end of the year." Then football closed down. "We reduced our incomes extremely far," he admits.

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Barca have lost about €50 million in ticket sales and its museum, €39 million in TV income, and between €20 million and €25 million in commercial income from its shops, football schools, "legends' activities" and so on. The total hit to revenues is already between €120 and €140 million, he says.

"This is for sure, what we know today. These millions will be in our losses at the end of the year." It's certain the club will make a loss this year, he adds. Spending will have to fall.

Pay cut for the players

Barca's players have agreed to a 72% pay cut, following teleconferences between Bartomeu and team captains Messi, Sergio Busquets, Gerard Pique and Sergi Roberto. Cardoner notes that the pay cut only applies from the start of the lockdown in March until the season's end, and so, viewed over the whole year, players will only be losing 8-11% of their salaries. Still, this will be enough to allow all Barca's roughly 500 non-playing employees to keep their full pay.

After the deal was agreed, Messi took a shot at club officials from his Instagram account: "We want to clarify that our desire has always been for a reduction to be applied to our salaries because we understand that this is an exceptional situation and we are the first that have ALWAYS helped the club with what they have asked of us... it surprises us that from inside the club there would be people that want to put us under a magnifying glass or try to pressure us into something that we were always clear we wanted to do."

Cardoner's response is diplomatic. "The players have been very positive. They understood the situation from the beginning. They are ready to make this effort because they know that this situation is not a joke."

Football might not restart anytime soon

Speaking days before the announcement that La Liga was hoping to restart in June, Cardoner is cautious about the chances of completing this season. "Every day we have new input. We want to be safe, to take care of our players and their health. This is priority number one, but also number two and three. We will not take risks. We want that if competition comes back it's in the highest-safety way. If not, we are not ready to continue. We are talking about people, their lives, their families."

Would the Spanish league be ready to restart in September?

"This is my point of view: this will be very difficult," he replies. One possible scenario is that after a period of closed-door football, "La Liga can start with public not before February 2021." Once some spectators can be admitted, Barca's 85,000 season-ticket holders will "have higher rights than people coming from outside," he says.

Player swaps instead of transfer fees

He predicts that with clubs now struggling for cash, swapping players without money changing hands will be common practice in this summer's transfer market. "This is the way things will happen for next season in European clubs," he says.

He suggested that in some cases, three clubs might agree to a single interlinked deal, with one player going from Club A to Club B, another from Club B to Club C, and a third from Club C to Club A.

Debt of €460-470 million

Barca expect lower revenues next season, with fewer ticket sales and museum visitors. Cardoner says, "We are preparing the budget of next season and we will adapt our incomes to our spending."

He also says that the club's debt is about €460-470 million. Clubs report their debts using different criteria, but UEFA's benchmarking report published in January named only two clubs (Manchester United and Spurs) with higher net debts. (For some reason, UEFA's list of Europe's 20 most indebted clubs does not include Barca.)

That said, Cardoner insists the club's debt is manageable. He notes that it amounts to only about half of annual revenues, whereas a decade ago debt was about equal to revenues, at about €400 million.

"A lot of people are wondering if our club will suffer in order to reduce the excellence of our game. This is not true," he notes. The club's total profits of €190 million between 2011 and 2019 make this year's loss easier to bear, he argues. "Because our base economic situation is solid, this will not affect us the same way as probably other clubs."

Possible delays to the Espai Barça

The club is busy scouring its budget for costs to cut, from scrapping the welcome pack for new socios to economising on the planned Espai Barça.

The "Barça Space" is meant to be a huge piazza featuring a renovated Camp Nou along with a new indoor arena, club offices, restaurants, and a modernised club megastore and museum. The club has called it "the best sporting complex in the world in the centre of a great city." The site's completion date was delayed last year from 2022 to 2024, but the projected budget of €630 million now looks a stretch.

Cardoner says Barça will prioritise renovating the stadium itself and may finish the other facilities later.

Infighting on the board

Cardoner is one of the last senior directors to remain loyal to Bartomeu. Why did six directors resign last month, taking total resignations from the board to 11 under Bartomeu's reign? Cardoner replies: "This is part of human relationships. These colleagues did not agree with several things we decided. They took this decision. We accept it absolutely. Then we have to continue. This is not a dictatorship."

But this is a club plunged, like almost all its rivals, into an unimaginable crisis.