Thursday, August 18, 2022

Joan Laporta Exclusive: Barcelona president on re-signing Messi, being offered Ronaldo and avoiding bankruptcy

NEW YORK — Barcelona have had an incredible summer so far. President Joan Laporta has overseen a dramatic financial recovery that has allowed freedom in the transfer market. 

The 26-time Spanish champions have spent around $130 million on Robert Lewandowski, Raphinha and Jules Kounde, with Franck Kessie and Andreas Christensen also arriving on free transfers. And Ousmane Dembele re-signed for the club on a 40% pay cut after his contract ran down.

Laporta still hopes to bring in two more players and resolve the future of Frenkie de Jong, with Barcelona hoping he’ll half his salary. This is not only an urgent necessity but part of a wider aim to reduce the club’s mass wage bill to $400 million. Manchester United have been pursuing the Dutch midfielder all summer and a sale is still not entirely ruled out.

There remain some challenges, particularly around registering new players under LaLiga’s stringent financial rules. But a new four-year sponsorship deal with Spotify, plus selling 25% of LaLiga TV rights to investment firm Sixth Street, has alleviated any fears of bankruptcy and allowed Xavi to strengthen his squad.

Barcelona now enter the new season with a newfound confidence on and off the field, and their 1-0 preseason Clasico victory in Las Vegas will give fans hope they can win LaLiga and go far in the Champions League, too.

In an exclusive interview with CBS Sports, Laporta gives Nico Cantor and myself his expectations ahead of the 2022-23 campaign and admits he’d love to re-sign Messi.

The following Q&A has been lightly edited for clarity and flow.

On a Messi return

CBS Sports: Do you still feel under scrutiny for Messi’s exit?

Joan Laporta: I did what I had to do in order to put the institution above the best player in our history. I have known Messi since he was a kid and I love Leo. I feel in moral debt to Messi. He’s the best player in our history and I will do my best in order to ensure he can have the best ending of his career with a Barça shirt on.

I would like to bring him back. It will not be easy but I think with the correct strategy we could do it. I think Messi has been the most important player in our history. During a long period of success he was the leader. He was the one who excited our supporters. We will do our best to have Messi ending his career at Barcelona and being applauded by everyone.

CBS Sports: So how likely is a Messi return?

Laporta: As I have said, we have a moral debt to Leo. The end of Leo at Barcelona was not the best. It was a difficult time. We had to take a decision and put the club above the best player in our history. But I think we have to work now to have Messi end his career back wearing the shirt of Barcelona being applauded on every field that he plays. We will do our best to give him the ending he deserves.

CBS Sports: Have you spoken to Messi to see if he has an appetite to return?

Laporta: This is an idea and our motto. All I can say is I will do my best — that’s all.

CBS Sports: Are you actively moving for Messi now or will you wait until after the World Cup?

Laporta: Again, I am telling you this is a wish we have and I hope we can convert it to reality. We have a strategy to get him back to Barcelona. Barça loves Leo, the fans love Leo and I love him, too. I will do my best.

CBS Sports: Would he have to come back on a pay cut?

Laporta: We will see. Now is not the best moment to talk about this because he’s a PSG player and has one more year on his contract and we must respect this.

On being offered Ronaldo

CBS Sports: Is it true before you signed Robert Lewandowski you were offered Cristiano Ronaldo?

Laporta: Well, this type of story is all within the process of the summer window. There always appears a lot of news. But in the end the truth is we wanted Lewandowski. We have a very good relationship with Jorge Mendes. I have known him for a long time. He is one of the best player agents. He knows how to do his job and I respect him.

In this case, we decided to go for Lewandowski and knew he was crucial to our success. So we went to Bayern instead. This is the reality. The other [Ronaldo] topic is just part of the “little history” of football. It’s a very nice story, but you will always hear lots of contradictory news about it.

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Barcelona signed Lewandowski from Bayern for $50 million.  Getty Images

CBS Sports: So to confirm, did you ever consider Ronaldo?

Laporta: We got Lewandowski. He was our main target and I prefer not to comment further.

CBS Sports: Are you surprised Ronaldo can’t find a new club?

Laporta: Ronaldo is a very good professional and he’s still so fit. He’s a player who is very ambitious and competitive and I am sure he has a lot of options. He’s still a player of Manchester United, an extraordinary club who I respect very much. His future is not my business. It’s the business of Manchester United and Cristiano.

On new signings

CBS Sports: You must be delighted with your transfer window so far?

Laporta: I am. I think we have shown on the U.S. tour, and with our Clasico win, we are competitive and the fans (both Barcelona supporters and just football lovers) are excited by that. That game in Las Vegas was unofficial but there are really no friendlies between Barcelona and Real Madrid. And what was important was not just that we won but the style we played in doing so. For us, it’s about having the same philosophy as during many other periods of success during our history. We have improved with new signings like Lewandowski, Christensen, Kessie, Kounde and Raphinha and there are probably still some more to come.

CBS Sports: Is Bernardo Silva a possibility?

Laporta: He is a very good player. I have to respect, though, that he belongs to Manchester City. I have some friends there, like Pep Guardiola, Tixi Bergstein and Khaldoon Al Mubarak. There are a lot of people I know.

CBS Sports: Will there be issues registering new players?

Laporta: With LaLiga, nobody knows. But we are trying to do things with full respect for the rules. Sometimes there are different interpretations. We will see what happens. But we have put in huge effort to increase our revenue. We have brought in over €600 million in around 45 days. I think LaLiga will understand our effort and our intent to follow the rules and I hope there won’t be any problems.

On Frenkie de Jong

CBS Sports: You also need to resolve Frenkie de Jong’s future. Will he stay at Barcelona?

Laporta: The first thing to say is we want Frenkie to stay at Barcelona. We love the player and him as a human being. I want him to stay at Barcelona. He’s a high-quality player and a good guy. I also know that he wants to stay.

CBS Sports: How much of a headache has it been trying to get Frenkie to take a pay cut?

Laporta: All we are doing with Frenkie is the same as the rest of the squad. The signings coming in have adjusted their salary to the new structure. But Frenkie has a contract and we respect that. We can’t force him to take a pay cut. It’s his decision

We are trying to manage the football club in a prudent and sustainable way. So we have to have these talks and we do so in a calm and considered way. We have explained the situation and are grateful to any players who can help us. It was the same with Dembele and I am very grateful to him. And after months of talks, he accepted a renegotiation of his salary and he can be proud of his decision.

CBS Sports: What happens if Frenkie doesn’t take a pay cut and just stays at Barcelona?

Laporta: Then he will continue. Has has a contract. We will respect that decision. For us, he’s a Barcelona player. We count on him.

CBS Sports: Can you categorically confirm Frenkie won’t join Manchester United?

Laporta: In football, you never know. I can’t say categorically. It all depends on the different parties. But in principle, I can say there is a strong possibility he stays, and I can say as president I will do my best for him to stay at Barcelona.

CBS Sports: What is your response to Gary Neville, who says de Jong should take legal action?

Laporta: No answer. I respect his opinion. But in my opinion he’s not right because I insist we are respecting all our players. We follow the contracts. If we invest in new players it’s to make the club more competitive. It’s a circle: You invest in new players, the fans engage and that in turn improves our economy. Gary has been a very good football player for Manchester United. I respect his opinion and that’s all I have to say.

CBS Sports: What did you make of the Dutch players union chairman, Evgeniy Levchenko, who accused you of extortion tactics?

Laporta: There is no extortion being used on Frenkie or anyone else. I respect his opinion, but if talks between two parties counts as extortion then I think this guy is wrong.

CBS Sports: What makes you comfortable asking players to cut wages?

Laporta: The club has a payroll that’s 40% higher than our competitors. We have to reduce this and it’s not easy. But the players we are talking about — who have taken pay cuts — all love Barça. They reduced their salaries for the love of the club. All the players, new and old, understand the constraints. And they want to be artists who bring Barcelona back. They are aware they can be part of one of the most splendorous periods in the club’s history.

CBS Sports: And morally, is it right to spend your newly-generated income on signings instead of deferred wages?

Laporta: I respect any opinion, but when people form this view they often don’t have enough information to make such a statement. To me, the players we have signed this summer are investments not expenses. And our existing players understand this perfectly. The new signings adjust their salaries to the new structure that we have created and all we ask is the current squad, where possible, do the same.

People outside the club don’t have all the information. We have to act this way or the club will probably disappear. We are not risking the club. On the contrary. I love Barcelona. So you can imagine, I don’t take any decisions that risk the future of the club and our 122 years of history. It will be very difficult for anyone to damage the club with me as president because I am here to protect Barcelona. We have been so brave during difficult times and I know the fans believe in us. I feel the confidence and trust of the fans and what I want to do is bring back the splendorous times from my first period as president.

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Lewandowski was introduced as a Barcelona player last week. Getty Images

CBS Sports: Did you ever offer de Jong to Chelsea when you had dinner with their minority owner and chairman Todd Boehly?

Laporta: No, no, no. We had a very nice dinner in Barcelona and we talked in general about football. He is a very successful businessman. He is involved in sport with the Lakers and Dodgers and now with Chelsea. He looks like a man who knows what he wants to do and it was a very nice dinner.

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On Chelsea relationship

CBS Sports: Is it fair to say Barcelona and Chelsea have been intertwined this window? 

Laporta: We have a good relationship and we respect our opponents. Chelsea’s [minority] owner Todd Boehly is an extraordinary person. We have had this necessity to be active in the transfer market in order to improve our squad. And it just so happens that some of the players they wanted, we did also. Those players wanted to come to Barcelona because they believe in our project, our history, our style of playing and our coach. Xavi is important.

CBS Sports: You recently signed Jules Kounde from Sevilla, but did you ever genuinely think Chelsea had won that race?

Laporta: The player preferred Barcelona because he understood we have a consistent project with a coach he likes. And in this case, we had an advantage compared to our competitor. This was thanks to the good job that Mateu Alemany did. He and Jordi Cruyff performed miracles last summer and are doing an excellent job again. The player also helped us in this specific deal.

CBS Sports: Was it the same situation with Raphinha?

Laporta: It was the same. Not only did he wait for us, but in terms of salary, he (like other players) accepted the new wage structure. We are very grateful and I think players who do this will be proud of their decision and enjoy Barcelona.

CBS Sports: Do you still expect to sign Cesar Azpilicueta and Marcos Alonso from Chelsea?

Laporta: They are under contract at Chelsea and we respect this as well as the new owner. I don’t want to talk about players who belong to other teams. I respect Cesar and Marcos as footballers. They are very, very good players. They show their quality and talent at Chelsea. But I don’t want to talk about them as a matter of respect for Chelsea.

On a healthier future

CBS Sports: What has been the biggest key to improving Barcelona’s finances?

Laporta: We had to get out of hospital. A year ago, it was practically Chapter 11. We had to work very hard to revert the financials and avoid bankruptcy. I can say with pride that we did it. One year later, we are in positive equity. That’s very important. This season, we have €1 billion in revenues and €124 million in profits. That means we are getting better and better.

And now we have sold the 25% of our LaLiga TV rights for 25 years. Honestly, I didn’t want to do it, but I had to do it in order to save the club. I would like to thank Sixth Street because we reached a very good deal for both parties. We had higher offers but this was the right one for us. And we have enough now, under Financial Fair Play, to buy players again.

CBS Sports: Was it stressful getting back to a positive balance?

Laporta: It has been very hard. But my expertise is in managing chaos. It also happened in my first period as president and I succeeded and we had the most successful period of the club. We had some luck but part of that was because we took care of all the little details. Now in this second period, it has been more stressful but we have a strategy. The plan is “work, work and work” and thanks to all the people around me, the board of directors, my staff and employees, everyone has helped to save the football club.

CBS Sports: How important is the Spotify deal to the club’s future?

Laporta: We are excited by the strategic partnership with Spotify. Two global brands are able to engage, who are both leaders, and we are sharing philosophy and values. Also, this has never been seen before — a partnership that unites football and music, sports and entertainment. It has huge potential. When I arrived one year ago, Barça were in a very difficult situation. But thanks to the work that all of us are doing, now we are out of the hospital. Now we are healthy again and are ready to compete.

CBS Sports: You have also sold your first ever NFT. What appeals to you about this sector?

Laporta: It will be the first NFT of Barcelona in our history and it is a piece of art. When they showed it to me for the first time, it was very touching. I was emotional. It’s an iconic image in our club history related to the best player that I have ever seen in my youth — Johan Cruyff. He was the player who inspired so much of our present and also me on a personal level. When we won six trophies in 2009, this was thanks to this excellent human being. We displayed the NFT in Time Square in New York and auctioned it at Sotheby’s. We are excited.    

On time in America

CBS Sports: How important is the U.S. market?

Laporta: The U.S. is an interesting territory for Barcelona. It’s very important for our global growth plans. There are some links between Barcelona and the States that are very nice. We are committed with this country. I’ll tell you why. It is the 13th time that Barça has come to the United States for a summer tour.

The first one was in 1937. This was crucial for the club’s survival because it was in the midst of the Spanish Civil War and without doubt, without that tour, Barça would not exist. For the economy of the club, that trip was very important. I would like to thank America for their historical and current hospitality towards America.



CBS Sports: 
You also signed a partnership in New York with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Can you give us more details?

Laporta: We held an event in New York with the UNHCR. We have agreement for both the club, and our Foundation, and it’s a priority. We will focus our efforts to help refugees and displaced people around the world. We have signed a strategic partnership starting this season. It is a great honor for us. We want to proudly display our love for the UNHCR on the shirts of our men’s and women’s teams.

This partnership is part of a message of solidarity to the world. UNHCR data says there are 100 million refugees or displaced people who are specifically children or young adults. They are forced to flee their countries due to war or oppression. Our social commitment is to help to address this problem as a responsible football club.  We want to help alleviate the situation as best we can.

On expectations for the new season

CBS Sports: Finally, what would count as a successful season in 2022-23?

Laporta: I believe we will compete for LaLiga and the Champions League. We are a stakeholder in these competitions and we will be trying to win both. I hope we have a chance. But we’ll see. But I am sure we will show our genuine style of playing football that fans love. They will be very proud of us this season.

Barcelona president Joan Laporta was speaking to Ben Jacobs and Nico Cantor.

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