The frenetic last days of European soccer’s midseason player trading market — that whirlwind of spending and sales known as the January transfer window — are always full of drama. Rumors fly. Deals are made. For most clubs, the final hours, which arrived Tuesday, are spent engaged in last-minute haggling over the prices for new players.
At F.C. Barcelona, the Spanish club trapped in a yearslong financial crisis, the close of this year’s window was even stranger than usual: While most of its rivals scoured the market for players, Barcelona went to court to keep hold of one of its own.
The crisis was of the club’s own making. Having spent heavily on new talent last summer despite repeated warnings that its spending violated league cost controls, Barcelona was told by the Spanish league that it could not register any new players until it could find savings or new revenues. That did not stop the team from offering a new contract to Gavi, a prodigiously talented teenager who is one of the club’s most valuable assets.
The new contract meant a new, higher salary and, crucially, a new registration with the league. The league balked, and refused to register Gavi. And so Barcelona turned to a hometown court, and on Tuesday it got the ruling it sought.
In a statement, the club said it had persuaded a local commercial court to require Spanish league officials to register Gavi, an 18-year-old midfielder, before the trading window closed at midnight. The court had agreed with Barcelona’s argument, the club announced, that the league’s failure to register the player would have caused the club “serious, irreparable damage.”
The Spanish league, known as La Liga, was not represented in the hearing. It said it would study the ruling before deciding the next steps, but it signaled that its battle with Barcelona over its financial controls was not over.
“If the court tells us to register Gavi, we will,” a league spokesman said. “And if there are grounds for appeal, then we will appeal it.” Should there be a successful appeal, the league, the spokesman said, would deregister Gavi.
The case of Gavi’s new contract highlights the dire financial straits Barcelona continues to find itself in, even after its president, Joan Laporta, swept back into office in 2021 on a promise to restore the club’s reputation and its finances after a fiscal collapse that had sent F.C. Barcelona spiraling toward bankruptcy.
Laporta managed to raise money quickly. Lots of it, in fact, under a program in which Barcelona sold club assets — including years of commercial rights — to outside investors. But instead of using that influx of cash to balance the books, Laporta went on a mammoth shopping spree, bringing in a slew of new players. The acquisitions left the club’s fortunes reliant on sporting success, coupled with the need for even more new revenue sources.
The results have been mixed. Barcelona sits atop the Spanish league with half the season remaining, but a humiliating — and financially disastrous — exit from the Champions League in the group stage has raised new doubts about its financial prospects.
La Liga’s president, Javier Tebas, this week offered an explanation for why Barcelona could not register Gavi. In the league’s view, he said, the new deal would put Barcelona in violation of financial limits when it went into effect.
“The issue of not registering Gavi comes as a consequence of the fact that it is a registration that takes effect next season and has no effect in the coming six months,” Tebas said in comments reported by the Spanish news media this week. He said Barcelona’s budget deficit next season would be more than 200 million euros — more than $217 million — based on current income projections, “so it does not seem appropriate to accept that registration.”
With the Spanish league unequivocal in its refusal to bend regulations to allow Barcelona to register any more players, the club’s board took its plea to the local court.
In its submission, made on Friday, the club said not being able to sign Gavi to his new contract — which he had agreed to in September — by the close of the January window “would imply the player’s free agency and therefore cause serious, irreparable damage to F.C. Barcelona.”
If the ruling stands, La Liga’s decade-old fiscal regulations, which had been drawn up with the clubs’ input in an effort to reduce volatility, would be rendered unenforceable, with teams able to bypass the regulations by challenging them in civil courts. Barcelona has largely been an outlier in failing to stay within the designated spending cap, which is calculated as a percentage of each team’s earnings from its soccer operations.
The league in recent months has moved to tighten those rules further by limiting the impact of the type of asset sales Barcelona has employed on teams’ salary and player cost caps.