Saturday 24 March 2018

Comment: It’s rich for Barcelona to claim moral high ground

Lionel Messi, center, celebrates with his teammates Luis Suarez, right, and Neymar during the rout of Celtic
Lionel Messi, center, celebrates with his teammates Luis Suarez, right, and Neymar during the rout of Celtic
Barcelona’s attacking trio of Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez has been broken up. Photo: Getty Images

Oliver Brown

So, Neymar is moving to Paris, financial integrity checks permitting, for roughly the same price paid for Cezanne's The Card Players, that enigmatic study of two Provencal peasants immersed in their own private game.

The buyer in this case, too, was the Qatari royal family, who craved a Post-Impressionist masterpiece to buttress their success in using culture as soft power. It is hard not to imagine that they covet the velvet touches of an outstanding young Brazilian footballer for much the same reasons.

Barcelona are livid about having a cherished asset snatched away by the long arm of Doha. They have expressed their displeasure by insisting that the buy-out clause of €222m be paid in full.

Now that a lawyer has pitched up in Spain bearing the requisite cheque, it appears that Qatar's wealth is a sticking point. "Financial doping," Javier Tebas, president of La Liga, called it, as if the Catalans' acceptance of such a vast Middle Eastern bounty would be somehow beneath them.

Alas, that ship has long since sailed. In December 2010, two months after the House of Thani acquired a 30pc stake in Paris Saint-Germain, Barcelona gave in to similar blandishments by agreeing a five-year, €140m shirt sponsorship deal with the Qatar Foundation. So much for the club who liked to stand aloof from the competition by bearing only the name of UNICEF.

It was a grim moment in the corporate hijacking of once-sacred sporting space, much like the All Blacks' decision to surrender part of their jersey for the logo of insurance giant AIG.

It turned out to be the thin end of the wedge. By 2013, any pretence of swapping one altruistic organisation for another was ditched as Barcelona agreed an even more profitable deal with Qatar Airways. This was always an uncomfortable piece of brand association.

As increasing horror stories emerged about the deaths of migrant labourers building the Gulf state's World Cup venues, and as Saudi Arabia cut diplomatic ties with Qatar over allegations of supporting terrorism, 60,000 fans implored Barcelona to walk away. The club listened, but only to a point.

For the iconic blaugrana strip is now adorned by Rakuten, the Japanese e-commerce company whose online marketplace only banned the sale of ivory last month. While avowedly "more than a club", Barcelona are now grabbing what they can. Even by the standards of football's commercial sell-outs, it is some fall from grace.

The notion of Barca as the custodians of the game's soul is now no more than a veneer. Piece by piece, the gleaming facade of moral leadership has been eroded.

Whichever way PSG's plunder of Neymar is spun, it hardly reflects well on Barcelona. For a start, they have in recent years been the one football institution above anything so vulgar as selling their prize possessions. Want Lionel Messi? Try paying his €290m release clause - not that he would move anyway.

Fancy a swoop for Andres Iniesta? Pull the other one. He is a Barca lifer, schooled the La Masia way, manacled to the club since the age of 12.

Barcelona imagine themselves as a finishing school, not a halfway house.

They thought nothing of wresting Luis Suarez from Liverpool for €72m but he is now, so the theory goes, theirs to keep. Neymar, evidently, believes otherwise. We ought not to be surprised that the limitless financial muscle of PSG has forced his hand.

Josep Maria Bartomeu, Barcelona's president, acknowledged as long ago as 2014 that the club's image was suffering. A two-year transfer ban, enforced after Barca were found to have broken Fifa rules by signing internationals under the age of 18, combined with a messy saga over Neymar's move from Santos - still the subject of a corruption investigation in Spain - to create a badly listing ship.

That impression has only hardened with the latest machinations by Neymar and his entourage. His father and his agent, Walter Ribeiro, have run rings around Barcelona all summer. For too long the club's attitude was one of blithe assurance he would remain loyal.

Gerard Pique, the captain, posted a picture of the two of them on Twitter, captioned simply: "He stays." Actually, Gerard, he goes.

It is to be hoped that the absurdity of this interlude is not repeated any time soon. Qatar has already moved the needle with Neymar, agreeing a contract more than twice as valuable as any negotiated before. But where will this new-found tactic of triggering buy-out clauses end?

Will PSG splash €1bn on Cristiano Ronaldo, as Jorge Mendes stipulates?

Few doubt they could afford it. Their owners have within their portfolio of investments The Shard in London, Canary Wharf, the city's former Olympic village, roughly €3bn of Manhattan property, the fashion label Valentino and a plethora of artworks once deemed priceless.

In football, Qatar's sovereign wealth fund is of a size that renders all established norms of the transfer market redundant.

In many ways, of course, it is dispiriting that Neymar has succumbed to PSG's overtures. He earns the thick end of €11m a year at Barcelona.

Does he truly need to rip up all his loyalties for the sake of €40m at the Parc des Princes? The bald reality is that PSG are arrivistes. If you thought Abramovich-era Chelsea were the feckless nouveau riche, just look at the largesse of a Parisian club who only came into being in 1970.

Under Qatari control, it seems not to matter that Neymar stands to sow dressing-room unrest by earning up to three times as much as the next player. All that matters is that he is a bauble, a vital element of state-building.

Never can Barcelona have felt more like old money. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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