In This Episode
On this bonus episode of Takeline, Jason talks with sports journalist and author Simon Kuper about FC Barcelona losing legendary player Lionel Messi due to financial mismanagement. His new book The Barcelona Complex details the inner workings of Barca and how they’ve gone from the most successful soccer club in history to an organization struggling to find its competitive edge.
Jason Concepcion: Welcome to another bonus episode of Takeline. Leo Messi has left Barcelona, ha has signed with Paris Saint-Germain. The European football star is, his leaving Barcelona is an earthquake, one of the top three most iconic stars in sports. It is the end of an era. To dig into this, I spoke with Simon Kuper, his new book, “The Barcelona Complex: Lionel Messi and the Making and Unmaking of the World’s Greatest Soccer Club” comes out August 17th. We talk about the entire Messi saga, as well as how Barcelona got to this point.
Jason Concepcion: So, Simon, PSG has recently announced the signing of Leo Messi. There was much fanfare, some wonderful video of him and his family on the field—on the pitch, excuse me. But I wonder if you could set up for, you know, for our audience some of the context and what it means for Barça to lose this player. And then I guess more broadly, what Barcelona Football Club means to the region, what it means to Catalonia, what it means to Barcelona.
Simon Kuper: Well, this was sort of the happiest relationship between a player and a club, I would say, in soccer history. Leo Messi comes to Barcelona age 13, from Argentina. He has a growth disturbance, so he’s at 13 the height of a 9-year old and is looking like he’s going to be about 5 foot 2, 3 inches tall. So Barcelona agrees to pay for his course of growth hormone because he’s a brilliant player. In five minutes in a trial training session, he convinces them, and they pay some the salary, the family a salary. Something like a $150,000. The whole family comes over from Argentina. They cry in the taxi on the way to the airport. They arrive in Barcelona. They don’t even know it’s by the sea, they’re surprised to discover that. And then in the next 20 years, this tiny kid grows into—there have been great players in every generation, but the thing about Messi is that he’s great every time, every three days he’s great. He’s just like a machine of greatness. And he, you know, he gets a wife, three sons, and they live in a small town near the beach, not even on the beach, in this mansion that in California, you know, a kind of regular millionaire might have, not a billionaire. And every three days he commutes to Barcelona. He plays the best football any of us have seen, and then he commutes back home on an empty highway. So they win everything. This second city of this mid-size, not very wealthy European country, becomes the biggest sports club in the world, higher revenues than any US sports club at that peak in 2018 and you know—
Jason Concepcion: First team, over a billion euro mark in terms of —
Simon Kuper: A billion dollar mark in terms of revenue, which no sports club in any sport had achieved before. So, you know, this is sort of the most beautiful story in soccer. And for about five years, let’s say, they have this perfect team, Messi and the Spanish generation that wins the World Cup in 2010. A lot of those guys are playing for Barcelona. And better yet, they’ve come up through the academy. And what is it? So all these guys, you know, Messi and Gerard Pique, who’s still on the Barcelona team, who’s won everything with Barcelona, they were playing together in the Barcelona youth teams, aged 13 with this other kid, Cesc Fabregas, other 13-year old who also won the World Cup with Spain. So it just couldn’t be a better story.
Jason Concepcion: As an Arsenal supporter, there’s a bit of bittersweet.
Simon Kuper: I’m sorry
Jason Concepcion: It’s a little bittersweet. It’s OK.
Simon Kuper: And then very briefly, you ask, what does it mean for Barcelona, for the region? Well, Catalonia is a region in Spain. You know, for many Catalans, it should have its own state. It should be a separate country. And it hasn’t had that possibly ever, depending on how you count it. And so what they have instead of a state, they have FC Barcelona. So they pour their passion and their nationalism, which other nations pour into a nation state, here they put it into a sports club. Not just a soccer club, because that’s a very serious basketball wing, handball wing and so on.
Jason Concepcion: Yeah. And and I guess more specifically as well, there was during the Franco years, there was a there was a concerted effort, is that right? To kind of repress both strongholds of Republicanism that that emerged during the Spanish Civil War and ancillary to that, to the Catalonian identity, which was seen as kind of part and parcel with that, right? And then and then FC Barcelona became this kind of embodiment, a place where people felt they could express their desire to be their own people, to, you know, this lost hope of a republican Spain, etc., etc. Would you say that that that is correct?
Simon Kuper: I think it’s both true and there’s a lot of myth as well. So in the book, I try to disentangle this. And yes, Franco, you know, as you say, was this brutal dictator. Spain was going to be the state where it was only Spanish, only Spanish was spoken, you weren’t allowed to speak Catalan on the street. There were signs up saying speak Christian, not Catalan. And the, in the last of Franco years, it starts to disintegrate the late ’60s, early ’70s. And in the [unclear], in the stadiums, the first big public place where they have announcements over the speaker in Catalan, where people wave Catalan flags, whether the captain in the early ‘70s is wearing a Catalan flag as his arm band. And so, yeah, I mean, the FC Barcelona Club becomes this kind of anti-Franco resistance place. But, you know, the Catalans like to present themselves as the anti-Franco resistance and Madrid, the city of Franco and Real Madrid, the club of Franco. It’s totally unfair. I mean, Madrid was also a Republican city in the civil war. Real Madrid was run by a kind of anarchist collective during the civil war. Madrid and Barcelona both fought against Franco. So it’s unfair in this kind of Catalan fairytale to present them as the only good guys and Real Madrid as the bad guys.
Jason Concepcion: OK, so that is the kind of cultural context. What about the economic context? Because I think fans of American sports would be quite surprised at the way that many English, many excuse me, many international soccer clubs are run and specifically the way the kind of ownership structure that is present at Barcelona.
Simon Kuper: Yeah, I had this weird experience once. I was at Barcelona years ago with Seymour Hersh, Sy Hersh, the legendary investigative reporter, and we were talking to the then president who’s now again, president, Joan Laporta, and Sy Hersh says Le Porta. So you’re the owner then? And Laporta is very taken aback. And of course, Sy was thinking in American terms, the president is the owner usually.
Jason Concepcion: Yeah. Yeah.
Simon Kuper: And Laporta said, no, I’m not the owner, the fans, the Soci’s. The 150,000 members, we are all the owners. The, this is not a club that you can buy and sell. This is not just not like the Americans. It’s not like Chelsea’s not like Manchester United or Liverpool. This is a really just the kind of local club, if you become a member, you are one of the people who own it, but you can never sell it. So it’s not really a property.
Jason Concepcion: So how then have we come to this? A billion dollars in revenues, richest club in the world, richest sports team in the world, a decade plus of of shattering victories, the greatest run I think we can say that we’ve ever seen in sports, period, not just the winning, but the kind of style and panache with which they won. It was a real philosophy that felt organic, that had been in place and had grown over the decades and now it’s seeming to flower into this magnificent thing. How have we come to this now where they’ve had to sell their talisman?
Simon Kuper: Well, first of all, yeah. I mean, somebody asked me yesterday, what’s your book really about? And I said, really, it’s about the beauty of the best that humans can create. It’s about genius and just humanity at its best, is that F.C. Barcelona team and I know this sounds overly poetic, but after all the rubbish we’ve been through in recent years with Trump and COVID and climate change and Brexit, it’s such a joy for me to plunge into all that. How did they get to this? When you’re number one, you stop thinking. You know, the famous Avis commercial, when we’re number two, we try harder. That’s exactly right. So Barcelona, were number one, they’re playing this beautiful football, they had this perfect youth academy. So what does everyone in sports do? Everyone in sports copies the winner. Everyone copies the number one. So all these clubs like Liverpool and Bayern Munich, they were visiting the Youth Academy, they were hiring their coaches. They were trying to play the Barcelona way on the field and everybody overtook them. The other big clubs overtook them. And Barcelona became lazy and backward and then they blew all this money, because when money comes in, you know, when it’s flowing in every day, you spend it much more freely. So Messi’s dad is asking for a pay raise for his son almost every you know, every few months. Sure, why not? We got all this money, let’s give it to him. You know, the club you try to buy [unclear]. Actually we want double from what you want to pay. You say sure, why not? We’ve got this money, we’ll pay you double, no problem. And at the end, you find you have a debt of $1.4 billion, and Messi alone was adding like $150 million a year, which is more than double. I think, the next paid player in soccer.
Jason Concepcion: That’s more than most teams make in revenue!
Simon Kuper: Yeah, he was earning what a team earns. Yeah. What a top team ears.
Jason Concepcion: Yes, a top team. Again, as an Arsenal supporter, I look at a 150 in revenues and I think, wow, that’ll be great. It seems to me that this is kind of, if not the end point, but an inflection point and a movement in football that has been underway for a while, which is the kind of the unforeseen effects of massive amounts of money pouring into the sport from different areas. Messi has now left, Barcelona was unable to sign him and he goes to the only club that is really capable of signing, which is the Qatari-owned Paris Saint-Germain. Is there a way back from for Barcelona from this? Is there, obviously with Laporta coming back into the presidency, it would seem that there is a kind of attempt to reengage with their core philosophy. Can it happen?
Simon Kuper: I think it’s going to be really hard. I mean, a couple of years ago, when I began doing the book before the pandemic, when they still looked like the best team in the world, early 2019, there were executives at the club who said to me, you know, we might become like Manchester United after Alex Ferguson. So we don’t really win prizes anymore when Messi goes, but we’ll still be a big club, global, huge revenues and we can live with that. That’s the benign scenario. They knew, you know, one guy said to me after Messi, you see the desert, you see darkness. He said this two years ago. Now, that might happen, but more dangerous is the Leeds United scenario of 20 years ago where you bought all these players for too much money, you have to sell all your good players, you have enormous debts, and Leeds ended up getting relegated. I don’t think it’s going to get that bad for Barcelona, but it could get pretty bleak and dark. I mean, the other big clubs are circling around the few Barcelona players that people actually want to buy, people like Pedri and Frenkie de Jong . And I can imagine Bayern Munich coming in in a few months saying, you know, that kid Pedri, he’s is a good player, right, I think we can help you out of your financial problems.
Jason Concepcion: And I, you know, there’ll be no shortage of clubs that’ll take some measure of delight in doing that. I think that there is something darkly ironic, right, about Messi, who played for a club that famously had no sponsor, that had, that wore UNICEF across its chest as a kind of display of the humanitarian, cultural values that the club embodied, and now going to PSG again, owned by the nation of Qatar.
Simon Kuper: The ruling family of Qatar.
Jason Concepcion: The ruling family of Qatar, all the human rights abuses that come that come to mind when we mention that. There is something kind of like darkly ironic in that, right?
Simon Kuper: Yeah. I mean, look, I’ve lived in Paris 20 years, we’re now going to spend a year in Spain, but I’m a Parisian. I’m not a Paris fan, but my kids are. And I sometimes feel that Paris Saint-Germain’s unjustly maligned. It’s a real club, is 50 years old. I know that’s not old by football standards, but there are millions of people in the Paris region, twelve and a half million people live there, who love Paris Saint-Germain. Who are as mad about Paris Saint-Germain as anyone in London or in Los Angeles is about Arsenal. It’s a real club with a history and it represents not really the city so much, but the suburbs, the region, the poorer parts. And yes, I mean, the Qatari’s run it and they’re using it to sports-wash their reputation, so we don’t think of all those construction workers, for example, who died building World Cups, or those people who are kept in barracks and have their passports taken away while they’re working in Qatar. But, you know, Barcelona was also sponsored by Qatar. Barcelona, I think, ten years ago I’d have said to you, yeah, you know, Barcelona is more than a club, it does represent these values of playing with UNICEF on the chest. Now, I think Barcelona is just another club.
Jason Concepcion: It’s true. Again, which leads me back to that conversation about the money. You know, this arms race seems to have no end. We’ve reached the point now again, where the ruling family owns a team. If, could, how will this, what is the point in this? At what point, financial fair play is an attempt to kind of rein in the amount of money and the excesses that have been heaped upon the sport, but it feels as if this fusion of, you know, of mass capitalism and sport, there’s something untoward about it, isn’t there?
Simon Kuper: I mean, you say mass capitalism. I would disagree. I would say, look, Barcelona is not a business. They don’t care about making a profit. Nobody does. And Paris is not a business. They don’t care about making a profit. The owners would love to lose a billion a year on Paris if it meant that they could buy, you know, the world’s best team. That pretty, the budget is something like 300 million euros this year, which they’re allowed to do because of the pandemic, UEFA, relaxed its financial fair play rules, so the Qatar’s don’t care. I mean, look, if you own 10% of the world’s oil and gas reserves, you’re very happy to blow a few hundred million, you know, which is nothing, which is peanuts to you. It’s like buying a cup of coffee, on having Messi, Neymar, and Mbappe in the same attack. So, you know, clubs like Liverpool, Manchester United are trying to make a profit. They’re run by Americans who come out of American sport. American sport is aimed to be profit-making. Sometimes is. And that’s what those American owners are about, Arsenal as well. And they make profits, just not huge, it’s not a huge business, but, you know, it’s profit making. But most of soccer isn’t like that. You know, very, very few soccer clubs even want to make a profit.
Jason Concepcion: So you mentioned that PSG losing, you know, boatloads of money on this team. How are they getting around their own FFP rules? The FFP’s is the reason why Barcelona and Leo Messi could not come to an agreement. They were not allowed to come to an agreement. Why is, is PSG getting around this?
Simon Kuper: Well, Barcelona couldn’t come to an agreement with Messi because of the Spanish League’s rules. And the Spanish League said, look, this is just insane. You’re spending more than your entire revenues on salaries and even without Messi, their spending something like 95% of their revenues in salaries. So the Spanish League said, look, we’re projecting forward, you can’t do this. And the other thing is that Barcelona, the rules of Spanish football is that if you are the director, and the directors and the president, and you lose, let’s say, $100 million, you have to pay that $100 million out of your own pocket.
Jason Concepcion: That’s, that’s an amazing, that is an amazing detail, that I think would, again, would shock American fans.
Simon Kuper: Yeah, and it shocks the directors. I mean, one guy when I was covering the presidential elections this spring, I interviewed a guy working for the campaigns and he said, you know, I’m not really sure we want to win, because you’re going to take over a club that’s going to make losses. And he said, look, I don’t want to lose my house. You could literally lose your house because, you know, these are not billionaires we’re talking about. So, you know, financial fair play, that was the question. So UEFA, every every club lost money during the pandemic. Not their fault. You know, soccer is in parts it’s an events business, you couldn’t have events. So they all lost money. So UEFA said, you know, we’re going to relax the rules for a year or two. You just have to not make a big loss over four years. And so Paris Saint-Germain said, yeah, yeah, you know, we’ll take that on, we’ll worry about that when the time comes. And of course, they have about eight squad players they’d be happy to sell. And to be fair to them, a lot of the squad players have very high value. Someone like Julian Draxler, the German, you know, he’s not going to be a first-team player for PSG, but there are a lot of clubs in Europe who would happily play pay, you know $30 million for Draxler.
Jason Concepcion: Something as earthshaking as losing Leo Messi creates a lot of blame and in your book, you, I think you do a very good job of picking out the many different reasons that Barcelona finds itself in this place. There is, you know, much like the club is shared among its shareholders, I think the blame for this is shared in many different ways. But former President Josep Maria Bartomeu, I think comes in at least, or is viewed as by many, the kind of central figure whose presidency ushered in this kind of dissipation of Barcelona’s shine, its power, and he resigned in 2020. How much blame would you lay it at Bartomeu?
Simon Kuper: I feel really conflicted here because Bartomeu was the guy who said, OK, we’re going to open our doors to Simon, he can hang around here and interview people. He was always very nice to me. He’s a very kind, friendly guy. He should never have been president of a big soccer club. I mean, he, very typical of the kind of Barcelona elite, he has a family company. I think his dad started it. They make the jet bridges that you walk from the plane to the terminal. You’d never think about the jet bridge, but Bartomeu’s company makes them and there’s a lot of money in that, so he’s a rich guy. And the previous president Rosell had to resign in a scandal and Bartomeu sort of become the accidental president. Then they win The Champions League, he’s reelected, of course. And so he’s six years in the job. And the thing is, he had no idea either about soccer or about the soccer business. And when, I mean, this keeps happening at Barcelona, these guys come in from ordinary business, and then you meet the agents and the agents tear these guys to shreds. The agent says, yeah, you’re going to give my guy a 50% pay raise or the other club says you’re going to pay double what you wanted for our player. And Bartomeu thinks, yeah, OK. And then you end up with this. And he sacked five Sport’s Team Directors so he didn’t have a kind of regular right hand man or woman.
Jason Concepcion: One way that, you know, you would imagine that Barça would try to rebuild is, to recapture something of the way that it got to the top of the mountain, which is [unclear]. Another golden generation. Is one out there? Can they do the do thing that they did previously, which is find a handful of the most iconic and creative players ever burst into old athletics?
Simon Kuper: The youth coaches I spoke to at the Masia and there’s a lot in the book about what went wrong with the Masia, they said, look, that will never be a generation like that. In the whole of soccer history, no club is ever going to get a generation of, say, seven or eight players who are the core of the world champions of 2010 plus Lionel Messi. It’s just not going to happen. Nobody will do that. And the problem for Barcelona is because everybody copied them. Everyone became the Masia. So I was interested watching England this summer at the Euro. You see these England players, the type that England have never produced before. Little guys, how can pass and play football: Sako, Jadon Sancho, Jack Grealish, Phil Foden—didn’t have a great Euro, but these guys are Barcelona players. Little guys who pass. And the reason English academies began to produce them in the last 15 years, they went to Barcelona broadly—Spain became the model, Barcelona became the model—and they said, OK, we’re not going to pick the biggest kids who can kick the ball furthest and tackle harder age ten, we’re going to pick the people who can actually play soccer. And so when everyone becomes the Masia, the Masia loses its lead. And Barcelona was being copied, Barcelona wasn’t keeping up. It was not sort of watching other clubs academies. So the Masia is never going to be that. I mean, the best player they have now coming up, Pedri, he’s not from the Masia. He grew up on the Canary Islands.
Jason Concepcion: In America here, particularly in the, in basketball, there is a lot of anxiety about the way players are taking control of their careers and moving to teams that are in cities that are glamorous, that have nice weather, that have big fan bases, and kind of eschewing these smaller markets. When I look at football and I think, man, what would it be like to be a supporter of Nice or Montpellier and just know for a fact that we’re not even going to get in sniffing distance of anything, of a cup, of the title, of—is there a way to kind of to even out the playing field in a way that creates more drama, that allows the supporters of these smaller clubs to feel like this is all worth something, isn’t it?
Simon Kuper: I mean, firstly, weaponizing your weather—Barcelona have done that.
Jason Concepcion: Yes!
Simon Kuper: I mean, it’s just, I think it’s my favorite city in Europe. I loved it to bits. So that helps. I mean, nobody wants to leave Barcelona. If you’re in there—the rule of thumb has been for 20 years, maybe 30—If you’re in the Barcelona first team, you don’t want to leave. Other clubs came to accept that and partly because it’s a great place. But can can we get small towns winning championships? I don’t think we need to. I think football has an ecosystem where every club has its function. So the function of Manchester United or Real Madrid is to play for the big prizes, to win titles. And the function of Hartlepool is maybe got promotion a division and their fans are happy. Functional of Newcastle is maybe you win, you know, you win a cup or you beat Manchester United at home. And, you know, Newcastle, they typically have 50,000 people in the stadium. They haven’t won the league, I think, for 75 years. So those fans are not stupid, they know—longer than 75 years. Those fans know we’re never going to win the league, in my lifetime we’re never going to win the league. But I’m not coming for that reason. So every club at every level of football has its function. They don’t actually have to win stuff.
Jason Concepcion: Simon, the book is called The Barcelona Complex. It is out August 17th anywhere that you get your books. It is a fascinating read about a fascinating club and a fascinating time. Thank you so much for joining Takeline.
Simon Kuper: Thank you enormously.