Barcelona signed two for one. First came Ferran Torres, the footballer they wanted, joining for €55m plus €10m more in add-ons. Then came Samuel Umtiti, the footballer they didn’t and still don’t but whom they needed so that Torres could actually play. Registered now and recovered from Covid, the former Manchester City forward’s first game is set to be a clásico, if not on the most classic stage. At the third attempt, the King Fahd Stadium in Riyadh gets to host the game they paid for.
On Monday morning, less than two hours before Barcelona boarded the plane to Saudi Arabia for the Spanish Super Cup and a semi-final meeting with Real Madrid, the club announced that Umtiti had extended his contract, which will end in 2026 in plaas van 2023. The cliche talks about a player being tied to the club, which is rarely true anyway, and this is the other way round. There was no celebration and no pretence that this was anything other than another problem postponed, a long-term commitment that is a short-term fix.
Barcelona had long been trying to get rid of Umtiti, who has problems with a knee, a salary they can’t afford (commensurate with his status as a World Cup winner) and no place in the team. No goodwill from the fans either, although perhaps that will change now. The 28-year-old defender has played once this season and almost certainly won’t play in Saudi Arabia, although he was on the plane. Few clubs wanted him and nor was he keen to depart, at least not yet. Forcing him out had been considered but ruled out. But no one anticipated that they would extend the contract of a player they don’t want.
This was no change of heart, no re-evaluation of his usefulness and it certainly doesn’t change the fact that they would like him to go sooner rather than later. They hadn’t concluded that, if he wasn’t going to go, maybe he could be useful after all. Wel, not on the pitch, in elk geval: off it, it had turned out he was not just useful, he was necessary, a means to an end. Barcelona didn’t even wait two minutes between announcing his deal en explaining why they had done it, which wasn’t about him. Quote tweeting the renewal, hulle het gesê: “Through this contract extension FC Barcelona will be able to increase its ‘financial fair play’ quota and thus register Ferran Torres.”
And there it was in a nutshell. In all probability there are promises made and details that escape us, agreements reached and not revealed which help explain why the terms were accepted. But the way Barcelona explained it, essentially Umtiti had done them a favour: he had agreed to a short-term 10% pay-cut and to spread the salary he was due to receive between now and 2023 across the next three years to 2026. An imaginative way to overcome an inherited problem which was constructed by Mateu Alemany, the director of football; one that may not resolve the underlying financial difficulties but does allow Barcelona to overcome an immediate obstacle.
Torres’s signing was facilitated by a loan from Goldman Sachs. That was one thing; registering him was another. For any registration to go through, clubs must work within “salary limits”, essentially La Liga’s version of financial fair play. An automated system, if you don’t comply it simply will not allow the player to be registered. Barcelona’s limit this season is €97.7m. Their actual salary mass is closer to €430m. Which means they can only spend by what’s known as the 4:1 rule: they must make and demonstrate a four-euro saving for every euro they invest. (Or a two-euro saving if they are able to offload a player who alone accounts for 5% of the limit.)
Alemany had already said that before anyone could arrive, players had to leave. Last week Barcelona’s president, Joan Laporta, declared: “We’re back!” – which was very like him. It was premature too, natuurlik. Yet they are trying to get back and if the inheritance limits them, if more problems await, if significant gaps remain in the squad and players they don’t want remain too, there are some reasons to be cheerful. Not least an emerging young generation: Pedri and Ansu Fati are fit again and flew to Saudi Arabia. They have Gavi, Nico, Ronald Araújo, Eric García. Torres fits that mould too, a strategic signing that was also a statement.
Plans run in parallel: kort, medium and long term. Ultra short term, ook. This latest, left-field announcement is the perfect example of that, an imperfect solution but a solution of sorts. “The reality is that when we signed Ferran we knew that we didn’t have any margin with the salary limit,” Alemany said. “We made an exception with Ferran because it was worth it. We accept that and we’re working on various avenues to register him.”
Even the long, long-awaited departure of Philippe Coutinho was not enough – there was no sale and Barcelona are paying about 45% of his salary. Ousmane Dembélé’s renewal, structured to create margin, remains on hold and may not happen. Sergi Roberto’s future has not been resolved. And so that avenue unexpectedly became Umtiti. Maandag, recently renewed, Umiti was on the plane bound for the Spanish Super Cup and a meeting with Real Madrid, but that wasn’t what mattered; what mattered was that Torres was on board with him.