Looking to the future, we have to acknowledge that Barcelona may have managed to become Spanish champions too late (let’s wait and see what promises to be an incredibly exciting title fight), but they are certainly playing the best football in La Liga at the moment. I assure you that, despite Camp Nou’s total debt of more than 1.1 billion euros (let that figure float around in your head for a moment), president Joan Laporta is willing to do anything to contract this child phenomenon that few teams seem to know and whose goal-scoring record so far is historically good.
Laporta won the recent presidential election for Barcelona not only because of the excellent performance of his first term at the Camp Nou, but also because of the promise of great things in the near future. The first few times he performed this as the new president of the Catalan club, Ronaldinho and Samuel Eto’o were the victims. Two of the greatest footballers, the greatest heroes and the most important figures in the history of Laporta’s club.
One of the things that ties the current situation to 2004 and 2005, when the Brazilian world champions and the Cameroonian Olympic champions were contracted, is that they were each engaged to someone else.
Ronaldinho’s transfer from Paris Saint-Germain to Manchester United was a verbal agreement between the executives of the two clubs, but he won the Ballon d’Or, the Spanish league title and the Champions League at Barcelona – not Old Trafford.
Eto’o’s playing rights were split between Mallorca and Real Madrid. I interviewed him once and he considered himself a Champions League winner with the Whites, despite the fact that he didn’t play a single game and only played 53 minutes in the tournament he won in 1999/2000 – he even said it was one of the five proudest achievements of his career. In theory, this maverick, effervescent, born winner should have played the rest of his career for Florentino Perez’s club, and what an absolutely dynamic player he would have been for Madrid. But somehow Laporta (and his vice-president Sandro Rosell) managed to convince Perez that it would be wiser to take the small part of the club’s purchase price (€24 million) and move on. This is a mistake.
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Coincidentally, the third club president involved in these negotiations in 2005 was Mateu Alemany, who Laporta said wanted to become Barcelona’s new director of football affairs. So far, so good.
The reason Laporta is desperate to replicate these two amazing hares – out of a hat – is that Haland seems to be a unique force of nature right now. Brutally strong, incredibly quick, big, aggressive and with a seemingly flawless ability to create all kinds of chances (from the most possible to the most unlikely), this is the kind of striker you either try to contract or fear you’ll regret for the rest of your life.
Barcelona have regretted this before when they refused to sign Cristiano Ronaldo from Sporting Lisbon and opted for Ricardo Quaresma instead. Imagine if the entire history of Ronaldo and Lionel Messi was rewritten from the beginning, when they both grew up at the same club.
Let’s go back to today.
Stranger things have happened than Dortmund’s director of football affairs Michael Zorz telling the truth about Haland playing for the Yellow Blazers next season. Or when the 20-year-old Leeds player, who just became the fastest and youngest goal scorer in Champions League history, decided he owed Dortmund some youthful loyalty and decided to stay.
But when it comes to football, it’s money and ambition that speak loudest. Even if Laporta is furious to be able to utter that phrase: Leo Messi, meet Erling Haaland… Erling, meet the greatest footballer who ever lived. As the new teammates get to know each other, a ruthless process threatens if a deal is struck.
Gab Marcotti and Julien Laurens name the clubs that can afford to contract Erling Haaland if he leaves Dortmund.
Real Madrid, not to mention Liverpool, Manchester City and Chelsea, are at least determined to acquire a player who is so terribly difficult to play with that defenders have nightmares in the weeks leading up to actually having to play against him. Each of these clubs has significantly better finances than Barcelona, a less dramatic debt situation and can offer Haaland a lot of things on and off the pitch that make them contenders for his signature.
Not to mention that when Barcelona signed Westphalia for around €105 million in 2017, they were very unhappy with Zorka and their board apparently agreed to strike the player to make him eligible for a move to Catalonia. You don’t forget things like that.
But of course the fact that Madrid are keen to contract Haaland is a real joy for Laporta. Imagine his schadenfreude if he can capture a player who threatens to dominate the goalscoring circuit for the next ten years, convince Messi to stay at Camp Nou and stop Perez from doing a deal. It’s enough to make you abandon all financial prudence. You see his case, don’t you?
Although his immediate priorities are to pay his players’ overdue salaries (which are now close to 100 million euros), pay or convince creditors who still owe him a few hundred million to wait, and convince Messi to stay, Laporta has always been the type to want it all. Right away. No discussion here.
But is there an argument for Laporta to hold back, accept that time and tide are against him, and that he should grit his teeth and not put Barcelona in the running for Haaland. To get the money together to become competitive in this high-stakes game, Laporta would not only need another loan from a high-interest investment fund, but the huge debt he inherited would have forced him to transfer Philippe Coutinho (for a much lower price than the €160 million spent on him) as well as one of Dembele and Antoine Griezmann, the latter of whom wasn’t cheap either when he was signed for €120 million at Atletico Madrid.
Erling Haaland would certainly be a good acquisition for Barcelona, but can the club afford him? Getty
Given Barcelona and their current form, is this the right option? Both Frenchmen have shown character and maturity this season to become key players for the club and teammates who now understand and love Messi.
In the first 14 home games under Ronald Koeman, the Blaugrana scored just two goals a game. Since then, there have been results and no defeats in the next 14 La Liga games, showing that the average goals are three per game.
It’s not just that Messi, Griezmann, Dembele, Martin Braithwaite and co. are spearheading the effort, it’s also that the return of Asu Fati is hardly an option for the in-factor. We live in the butterfly era of world football, and some may have forgotten that Ansu is another exceptional and disruptive talent. He is already the youngest player at the club and in the country, and he is the youngest scorer in the Champions League. Ansu is so different to Haaland, but he joined forces with the Norwegian to have something truly exceptional that Barcelona didn’t have to pay 160 million euros for.
Barcelona are now playing with verve, able to hold onto the ball better, using Koeman’s version of 3-5-2 to stretch and push their opponents, and Paris got a glimpse a few days ago that the Champions League buffets they took from PSG, Juventus, Liverpool and Roma may well be a thing of the past.
As for the positions up front, there is no doubt that Barcelona need a top class centre-back, quality cover on the left wing, or that they should try to attract a strong, intelligent, athletic and mentally sharp central midfielder who could go on to emulate the best of Sergio Busquets. Given these challenges and the general need to pay off huge debts while generating new revenue to pull Barcelona out of the financial abyss, would you be willing to go after Dortmund, Haaland and his famous case manager Mino Raiola for €160 million? Or are you prepared to see a generational talent emerge at Real Madrid that will torment you from a footballing point of view for the next two seasons, because you have to deal with the more important household tasks at Camp Nou first?
Choose honestly, write your answer on a piece of paper, and check in five or six years to see if your solution stands the test of time. So admit it, whatever happens, Laporta will insist on contracting Haaland until he joins Messi at Barcelona or is introduced as a new player at Madrid, Bayern Munich, Manchester City, Chelsea, Liverpool or wherever.
Because that’s what Laporta and almost all big club presidents do. Let the battle begin.