Soccer

The Problem When Teams See Athletes as Assets

If the sale of Emerson Royal to Tottenham was a little strange — he had officially joined Barcelona only a month earlier — it is the departure of Antoine Griezmann that will sting the most: the sheer humiliation of allowing a player signed with great pomp and ceremony two years ago to return, initially on loan, to Atlético Madrid.

Still, it could not be helped: Barcelona’s most pressing need was first to save and then to raise money, and at the end of the transfer window it had done just that. Lionel Messi has gone; Sergio Busquets, Gerard Piqué, Jordi Alba and Sergi Roberto have all agreed to reduced terms; Griezmann is off the salary bill. By next summer, when his move to Atlético is made permanent, Barcelona will have generated $115 million in sales.

What Barcelona could not do, of course, is sell off the players that it most needs to sell: the high earners, the waning stars, the reminders of its years of folly. Philippe Coutinho, Miralem Pjanic and Samuel Umtiti are all still there. Barcelona does not have a vast amount in common with Real Madrid, but here, perhaps, there is some common ground.

Whether Real’s approach (or approaches) to entice Kylian Mbappé this summer was real or not we will never know, not truly: Real Madrid insists it was, Paris St.-Germain is adamant it was not. Either way, the club has spent the last couple of seasons trying to raise the funds necessary to sign the 22-year-old Mbappé: funds that would either have been used as a transfer fee or as a golden handshake.

To do that, it would have liked to sell players like Gareth Bale and Isco: big names on money to match. But nobody came forward, and so instead Real Madrid has had to cash in on a suite of promising youngsters: Achraf Hakimi and Sergio Reguilón and Óscar Rodríguez last season and Martin Odegaard this summer.

The policy has worked, of course, but it brings with it an unavoidable question: How much brighter would Real Madrid’s future have been, how much more balanced would its side be, if it had been able to add Mbappé to a promising young squad, rather than having to sell off many of those players to finance his eventual arrival?

It is the same question that lingers over Barcelona. Emerson, like Junior Firpo and Carles Aleña and Carles Pérez and Arthur before him, might not have made Barcelona great again, but he would, at least, have helped to rejuvenate an aging squad. Instead, he was sold, as they all were, to cover the costs of the mistakes of the past. Barcelona’s finances are in better shape now than they were a month ago. The price is a high one, though: It has had to mortgage tomorrow to pay for yesterday.

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