At Real Madrid, they’re having the same fight they have every few years. A season of underachievement, a manager (this summer, Zinedine Zidane) and a club legend (this summer, Sergio Ramos) hitting the exits with hurt feelings, the always uneasy push-pull among Florentino Pérez, the talent, and Real Madrid as a towering institution resembling more a squabble among dirtbag kids in some crabgrassed backyard than a power struggle at the highest levels of the sport.
It doesn’t help that Spanish news outlet El Confidencial recently published a bunch of nasty stuff Florentino said about Iker Casillas and Raúl in 2006, and Cristiano Ronaldo and José Mourinho in 2012. The quotes are ranty and red-assed, Flo is clearly venting in the way a fan might after a tough loss, but it’s still really something to learn that the top boss in Madrid freely insults his best players and a highly decorated manager, has no qualms about calling them fraudulent, stupid, and crazy. “The guy is an idiot, he’s sick,” he says at one point about Cristiano, before going on to say that Mourinho is “abnormal” and that nobody likes him. The same year Flo was so grandiloquently burning them in private, Mourinho won La Liga and made the Champions League semis. Ronaldo scored 60 goals.
Florentino is 74 years old, he’s not going to be in charge forever, but this doesn’t seem like an incident that will bring his reign in Madrid to an end. Everyone already knows he’s a jerk, that he’s a wild partisan and a ruthless businessman. He’s also an expert in consolidating power and his second spell as Madrid president—he was in the wilderness for a while, from 2006 to 2009—has been very successful even by the biggest club in the world’s standards. This is an ugly and embarrassing PR flare-up. Meanwhile, Madrid are the odds on favorites to sign Kylian Mbappé, either this summer or next. Flo never loses for long.
Barcelona, on the other hand, appear to have a genuine problem on their hands. Their famously out-of-whack wage structure, barely tenable under normal circumstances, is threatening to sink them after a year-and-a-half of pandemic-induced financial turmoil. We’ve found out recently, with Manchester City eliding punishment for their creative accounting practices, that Financial Fair Play regulations are kind of a joke, but La Liga has FFP-style regulations of their own, and at least up until this point, they’ve had teeth. Basically, each club has a hard salary cap based on their annual revenues, and having played last season at an empty Camp Nou, Barcelona don’t have the scratch to pay all of their players.
Or more precisely, they do, but it would take some borrowing and private cash injections that La Liga won’t allow. Barcelona have to balance the books, by the book. Which means they’re scrambling to sell off assets. So far they’ve only nibbled around the edges, moving Carles Aleña and Junior Firpo, and cutting a handful of guys who weren’t close to featuring for the first team. (One of whom is now suing the club.) Maneuvers like this aren’t going to get them under the cap. They need to jettison big earners like Phillipe Coutinho, Samuel Umititi, and Antoine Griezmann. The French forward in particular is drawing a huge salary—precise, completely verifiable numbers for this kind of stuff aren’t publicly available, but it’s something like $45 million per year—and is an obvious candidate to leave, but it’s been reported that he 1.) would only accept a move to Atlético Madrid, and 2.) isn’t taking a pay cut. So Barcelona have to renegotiate his contract, perhaps spreading the money out over more years, or somehow convince Atleti to foot wages they probably can’t afford either. That conundrum has been playing out in the press for two weeks now, and doesn’t seem particularly close to a resolution. One way or another, Griezmann’s getting paid.
Here’s the part where we make a dramatic assertion that might not turn out to be true: if Barcelona can’t shed enough salary, they’re not going to be able to register Leo Messi. They also might not be able to use Sergio Agüero, Eric García, or Memphis Depay in La Liga. (All of whom joined the club this summer on free transfers.) Reports are conflicting and league president Javier Tebas has been cryptic on the matter. La Liga is an arbitrarily and haphazardly run organization, and they’re almost definitely not going to bar the best and most famous player in the world from participating in domestic competitions. The easiest thing for everyone involved would be for Barcelona to ship out, say, Griezmann and Coutinho and then La Liga can happily admit Messi and Agüero and the rest of the crew. If that’s not the case, something has to happen. A significant punishment: a fine, a transfer ban, a points deduction. As ever, La Liga are just making things up as they go along, but even in that disordered office, they have to know that they’re running the risk of their salary cap rule being an FFP-style regulation that applies only to smaller clubs and not to the larger ones. With how much effort Barcelona are putting into getting into at least rough compliance, they’re definitely feeling some heat.
Meanwhile, for once, Atletico Madrid are the most functional team in the league. They’ve signed Rodrigo De Paul from Udinese, don’t appear to be at risk of losing any of their key players, and just extended Diego Simeone through 2024. It’s been overstated what a great spot they’re in—they won a weak Liga with 86 points, got annihilated by Chelsea in the Champions League—but by their chaotic standards, and the ones set by their rivals, they’re having a serene summer. Real Madrid have some healing to do, Barcelona are hard up for cash, and Atleti simply need to prep for the season. Where this puts each of them in the league table come next May is anybody’s guess, but some starting positions are more desirable than others.