After a rough start to the 2020-21 season, spring is in the air for Barcelona and there's a lot to be hopeful for. Ronald Koeman's side have cut the gap on league leaders Atletico Madrid to just five points (Atleti have played one game more) thanks to an 19-game unbeaten run -- they've lost just once in 20 La Liga games since the Dec. 5 defeat to Cadiz -- and have also won the Copa del Rey thanks to a dominant 4-0 performance against Athletic Bilbao. Coupled with Joan Laporta's return for a second spell as the club's president, confirmed in the March 7 election, there is cause for optimism.
Barca's rise up the table has coincided with Koeman placing his faith in youngsters. Ronald Araujo, Oscar Mingueza, Sergino Dest, Pedri and Ilaix Moriba -- without even mentioning Ansu Fati, who's been out injured since mid-November -- have all taken huge steps forward under the Dutch coach.
With eight games to go in the league (Atletico and Real have just seven left) and a victory in the Copa del Rey fresh in the mind, what was initially dubbed a transition year could yet end with a domestic double. However, behind improved performances on the pitch, Barca are still feeling the effects of a stormy winter under the previous regime. Lionel Messi is free to walk away in June if he doesn't sign a new contract, gross debt has risen to almost €1.2 billion and the club desperately needs to reduce the wage bill.
The problems on and off the pitch had been festering for several years but were accelerated by the coronavirus pandemic. That sewed the seeds for Josep Maria Bartomeu's resignation last October -- he is also facing allegations of misuse of funds and corruption relating to his time as president -- and Laporta's return.
During his inauguration speech, Laporta said his primary aim is to make fans happy again but warned that he won't shy away from making big, potentially unpopular decisions to get the club back on track. That could mean player sales and wage cuts, but first of all sources tell ESPN he is conducting an internal audit to get a thorough grip on the problems he has inherited. Only then can he start shaping the future.
There is no shortage of issues that need resolving. From the most urgent to the least, here are 10 of the biggest decisions Laporta is facing.
1. Contract renewals
Several of Barca's best players are in the final months of their contracts. The obvious one is Messi, whose deal is up on June 30. Messi told the previous board he wanted to leave last August, but the appointment of Laporta, coupled with improvements on the pitch, could see him change his mind this summer. Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City are lurking, but Laporta has started the charm offensive to keep him. "We love you," he told Messi, seated in front of him at his March 17 inauguration, "I will do all I can to convince you to stay at the club."
News broke on Sunday that Messi's father, Jorge, had arrived in Barcelona, though no talks with Laporta have yet been scheduled; sources tell ESPN that Laporta is putting the finishing touches on a contract offer for Messi to review.
Even at 33, Messi remains as important to Barca as ever. He has scored 31 goals in 40 appearances this season, despite often playing a deeper role, and in the wake of claims that Messi's four-year €550m deal had "ruined the club," Laporta pointed out the Argentine is actually responsible for around a third of the club's annual income (€855m in in 2019-20 despite the losses caused by the pandemic).
Elsewhere, the reinvigorated Ousmane Dembele is out of contract in 2022, as are Pedri and Ansu Fati, although there's a clause for two-year extensions in each of their deals. It's not clear if the club can execute it unilaterally, though, or if the players would need to approve it as well. Sergi Roberto and Ilaix Moriba are also out of contract in 2022, while Oscar Mingueza's terms are up this summer but will be extended.
Before turning to the transfer market, there's a huge amount of work to be done in-house to ensure Barca don't lose some of their top talent for the present and the future.
2. Fixing the debt
While all the talk is of signings and finding the money to sign someone like Erling Haaland -- sources insist the club are genuinely exploring how feasible it is to try this summer -- the most important thing Laporta must do is restructure the club's gross debt, which has risen to almost €1.2 billion. Talks have already begun with banks to renegotiate the short-term debt into long-term debt to give the club more time to pay it. Carles Tusquets, who acted as president between Bartomeu stepping down and Laporta taking over, said around €250m is owed to banks before June 30. On top of that, Barca's accounts revealed they also owe €126m in transfer fees by the same date.
With all that in mind, you can see why entry into a new European Super League is tempting.
3. Reduce the wage bill
Barca had the biggest salary cap in Spain last season at €671m, but must now adhere to La Liga's new limit of €347m if they want to remain in line with UEFA's Financial Fair Play rules. They have already taken steps to meet that new limit. The cuts started last summer with the departures of Luis Suarez, Ivan Rakitic and Arturo Vidal. Meanwhile, the first-team squad have also agreed deferrals on a percentage of their salaries for this season, although that has just kicked the problem down the road.
Will Super League clubs be punished by UEFA and domestic leagues?
Gab Marcotti discusses how UEFA should work with clubs that've left the European Super League to find financial solutions.
4. European Super League
Bartomeu re-opened the Super League debate when he used his resignation speech in October to reveal that Barca were involved in plans to shake up European football. He said the club had "approved the requirements to participate in a future European Super League [...] to guarantee the future financial sustainability of the club."
Laporta was initially critical of the project last December, saying it went against the essence of the game, but his stance had softened by January. Then, this week, it was revealed that Barca were one of the 12 founding members of a European Super League. The plans have been condemned around the world, culminating in the collapse of the project as nearly every team has confirmed their withdrawal, but Barcelona have yet to formally exit.
Regardless of timing, the Super League is finished for now and Laporta must decide how to manage the potential fallout. Bartomeu said club delegates (around 5,000 from the club's 100,000-plus members) would have had to vote the proposals through at a general meeting, but one source suggested the club may not be obliged to take the matter to the members. Now that it's over, Laporta's work is all about repairing and rebuilding trust.
5. Outgoings and Griezmann
Who Barca can sign, how much they can spend and the salaries they can offer will be dictated by who they can shift first. There's a long list of players they're open to selling -- some, they're even pushing to sell -- but finding buyers in the post-coronavirus market is difficult. In addition, players are on pre-coronavirus salaries at the club -- wage reductions were temporary at the start of the pandemic and recent salary alterations have been deferrals, not reductions -- and are reluctant to leave for big pay cuts. Laporta has boasted about his relationship with the game's biggest agents, but that alone will not be enough to find new homes for some of Barca's unwanted players.
Offers would be considered for goalkeeper Neto, defenders Junior Firpo and Samuel Umtiti, midfielders Philippe Coutinho and Miralem Pjanic, and forward Martin Braithwaite, among others, but Laporta's biggest decision is what to do with €120m signing, Antoine Griezmann. The French forward, who has just turned 30, has blown more cold than hot since joining from Atletico in 2019. He's occasionally found himself out of Koeman's XI, but has found some consistency in 2021. However, with his tendency to want to take up similar positions to Messi, coupled with his standing on the transfer market, he's considered one of the few players the club could sell to help fund a move for a younger striker.
6. Funding signings
Barca's debt makes it easy to be dismissive when they're linked with potential signings this summer, but sources have told ESPN that Laporta's board are looking at how they could be innovative and make money to improve Koeman's squad.
Selling players is key, but it's not the only way of making cash to fund transfers. Laporta also has offers on the table for a 49 percent stake in Barca Corporate -- which includes merchandising rights, the club's franchise of academies around the world and the Barca Innovation Hub -- worth around €250 million. However, it could be a case of selling tomorrow to pay for today.
7. Identifying the right players to restore club
Laporta and Koeman concur the squad still needs some work despite an upturn in performances. Defender Eric Garcia is likely to arrive from Manchester City on a free transfer this summer, sources have confirmed to ESPN, but any business beyond that will be dependent on the club's financial position.
Barca need to decide whether they bring in right-back Emerson outright from Real Betis this summer, a player they co-own and can sign for €6-8m, while Koeman has expressed an interest in signing Liverpool midfielder Georginio Wijnaldum and Lyon forward Memphis Depay, both of whom are out of contract in the summer. Depay is more likely to join given that Barca are prioritising signing a striker, but there are other targets. Haaland is the dream and the club met with his agent Mino Raiola this month but his cost is likely to prove prohibitive; Alexander Isak, among others, is also being tracked as a more affordable option up front.
Meanwhile, following the success of Pedri, Barca continue to scour the market for the finest young talent. Sources have told ESPN that Rapid Vienna's Yusuf Demir is one player being followed. The 17-year-old, a tricky left-footed forward, has already broken into Rapid's first team and won his first cap for Austria in a World Cup qualifier against Faroe Islands in March. Barca believe he would be available for around €15m.
8. Clarifying Koeman's future
When Bartomeu stepped down in October and the snap election was called, Koeman's job was far from secure. Barca lost four of their first 10 league games under the Dutchman, who was appointed last August. Xavi Hernandez's name loomed large throughout the election campaign and Mikel Arteta (Arsenal) and Julian Nagelsmann (RB Leipzig) were even linked with the role in the event that Laporta was elected.
Sources have confirmed to ESPN that members of Laporta's team sounded out former Schalke manager and RB Leipzig director of football Ralf Rangnick over an executive role at the club -- he would have liked to bring Nagelsmann with him -- but Koeman's position has significantly strengthened since December. Barca have not only won the Copa del Rey, but have surged back into a wide-open title race with a 19-game unbeaten run. Most importantly, the football being played is good and the players are happy with the coach.
Laporta used his inauguration to speech to publicly back Koeman, and ESPN can confirm the two held meetings during the March international break to begin planning for next season.
9. Updating the Camp Nou
The €850m Espai Barca ("Barça Space") project, which included the renovation of Camp Nou, has been stopped in its tracks by the coronavirus pandemic. Laporta must decide what happens next. Does he press on with the renovation work? Does he look to build a new stadium? Sources say the renovation of the 100,000-seater stadium is the most likely option, but that poses a second question: is the work carried out quickly or over a number of years?
The former option, Laporta has said, could see Barca move to the Olympic Stadium in Montjuic, built for the 1992 Olympic Games, for two years while the work is completed. The ground is located centrally in Barcelona, about three miles (five km) from Camp Nou, but only has a capacity of 55,000. Messi made his debut there for Barca's first team in a derby against Espanyol, who played home games there between 1997 and 2009.
10. Revamping the sporting structure
Laporta still needs to officially confirm who will be in charge of managing the club's future on the pitch, but the lion's share of the work has already been done. Ex-Valencia executive Mateu Alemany has been handed a general manager-type role and sources have confirmed to ESPN Laporta also wants Jordi Cruyff as sporting director. Cruyff is currently the head coach of Shenzhen FC and an agreement would need to be reached with the Chinese Super League club first if Barca are to bring him on board.
Ramon Planes, one of the few remaining players from the Bartomeu regime, is overseeing scouting and recruitment, and the former assistant to Eric Abidal is likely to be given a new contract when his current terms expire in the summer.
Below the first team, Patrick Kluivert won't have his contract renewed and Jose Ramon Alexanko will replace him as the director of the academy.