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Barcelona Spent Its Way Into Crisis. Can It Now Spend Its Way Out?

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Joan Laporta’s smile was hard to miss. Staring down from a vast digital billboard last month, the grinning image of the president of the Spanish soccer giant F.C. Barcelona covered almost an entire side of the Palms Casino Resort in Las Vegas.

The billboard scrolled through other images — there was one of a handful of Barcelona’s players, and another of its coach, Xavi Hernández — but soon enough it was back to Laporta. And it was that sight, a beaming president front and center in the gambling capital of the world, that was perhaps the best symbolism of the financial mess in which Barcelona currently finds itself, and of the boundless confidence of the man who says he has a plan to fix it.

Barcelona, in true Vegas style, is doubling down.

A team that less than a year ago was unable to meet its huge payroll; a business that, with losses of 487 million euros ($496 million) last year, was described by its own chief executive as “technically bankrupt”; a club that is currently saddled with debt of more than $1.3 billion, has decided the best way out of a crisis caused by financial mistakes, rich salaries and extravagant contracts is to spend its way out.

It has sold off one club asset after another to raise roughly $700 million to help balance its books. Yet it is plowing ahead with a $1.5 billion project, with financing arranged by Goldman Sachs, to renovate and modernize its iconic stadium, Camp Nou, which because of the rush to raise funds will for the first time carry the name of a sponsor. And it has paid out more money on new signings this summer than almost any other major team in Europe, with a new flashy acquisition announced to great fanfare on a seemingly weekly basis.

The freewheeling spending has raised eyebrows among Barcelona’s rivals and concerns among some of its 150,000 members about the club’s financial viability if Laporta’s big bet doesn’t pay off. But the president, in an interview at the Manhattan headquarters of The New York Times, offered repeated reassurances that he knows exactly what he is doing.

“I’m not a gambler,” Laporta declared. “I take calculated risks.”

Risk, however, has become a fixture at Barcelona.

Laporta was elected club president for a second time last year after his predecessor and the previous board were ousted for what amounted to the simultaneous financial and sporting collapse of one of the world’s great sports teams. While many expected Barcelona to rebuild slowly, to live within its means in a period of humbling austerity, Laporta has decided instead to steer Barcelona on a completely different course. He says he has no choice but to try to win every year.

“It is a requirement,” he said.

More than $700 million has been raised by selling pieces of the club’s business. Twenty-five percent of the club’s domestic television rights — for a quarter century — went to an American investment fund. Spotify, the music streaming service, signed a four-year deal to put its name on the Camp Nou and the even more valuable real estate on the front of the team’s jerseys. On Monday, Barcelona announced the sale of a quarter of its production business, Barca Studios, to a blockchain company, Socios. It is in talks to sell part of its licensing business next.

Instead of paying off club debt, however, the money has largely gone toward accumulating new talent: $50 million for the Polish striker Robert Lewandowski, $55 million for the French defender Jules Koundé, almost $65 million for the Brazilian wing Raphinha. Several other players joined as free agents. More reinforcements may be on the way.

To Laporta, signing Lewandowski, who will soon be 34, and the others makes perfect sense. It is part of what he contends will be a “virtuous cycle” in which success on the field will shore up the team’s finances through an increase in revenue. The strategy is a repeat of the recipe he used during his first tenure as president, a seven-year period that started in 2003 and ended with a Barcelona team celebrated as one of the best in soccer history.

“In my time we put the expectations very high and we were successful,” he said of his previous tenure. “And then the Barça fans around the world, around 400 million fans worldwide, they require a level of success.”

But times, and revenues, have changed. The club Laporta inherited in 2003 was mired in a financial crisis, too, with losses of almost double its revenue and mounting debts. But the figures were 10 times smaller back then, and the club had not yet begun the process of transforming itself into the commercial juggernaut it has become.

Those teams also were not required to meet exacting constraints on player spending that have since been enforced by the Spanish league, and it is those rules that pose the most immediate obstacle to Laporta’s revival plan. Because La Liga has insisted it will not ease the rules by a single euro for Barcelona, the club has not yet been able to register any of this summer’s new signings. Wary that the team might not make the deadline, the league has not yet used any of those players, even Lewandowski, the reigning world player of the year, in any of its branding for the new season.

The most recent asset sales should clear the way for Barcelona to meet La Liga’s financial rules and register its battalion of new signings, Laporta insisted. “That’s been a decision that in honesty I didn’t want to do,” he said of the sales, even as they will — at least temporarily — push Barcelona’s balance sheet into profit.

That type of maneuver — a mix of boldness and brinkmanship — is typical of Laporta, who benefits from a cult of personality unmatched by previous presidents during the club’s modern history.

It is why he can put himself on Las Vegas billboards, and why he can continue to advocate publicly for the short-lived and widely reviled European Super League. (Barcelona, Real Madrid and Juventus — three of the 12 teams that signed up for the breakaway concept — are forging ahead with the project, which Laporta said is now being envisioned an open competition that will benefit the biggest teams. He met recently with Andrea Agnelli and Florentino Pérez, his counterparts at Juventus and Real Madrid, in Las Vegas to discuss the next steps.)

But Laporta’s popularity is also why he can get away with financial risks that most likely would have been unacceptable had they been proposed by previous presidents, and particularly his unpopular predecessor, Josep Maria Bartomeu.

“What would happen if Bartomeu did the same as the current president is doing?” said Marc Duch, a club member who helped oust the previous board. “We would all be on fire, pointing at him and trying to fire him.”

Laporta is granted a wider berth, and even backed by fanatical defenders on social media, Duch said, because of his links to the earlier golden era. “There is a success story behind Laporta,” Duch said. “He has a huge fan base: He’s like the Pope, like Kim Jong-un: the supreme leader.”

Laporta’s intensely personal style of leadership has also emerged in other changes at the club. To run for president, Laporta first had to raise a guarantee of 125 million euros, a bond that was established essentially as a protection against mismanagement. But recent changes to the law mean that he no longer has any personal risk, according to Victor Font, a businessman who challenged Laporta for the presidency. Because of that, Font said, Laporta — by borrowing money and selling assets — is risking the club’s future, not his own.

“If things do not work out,” Font said, “we will be hitting a wall.”

Conflict of interest regulations were quietly altered last year, too, ushering an array of Laporta’s friends, former business partners and even family members into executive roles. To Laporta, those changes were essential given the challenge he inherited. “I need to have the people that I trust,” he said. But the circle continues to shrink: A chief executive appointed by Laporta quit within months; instead of replacing him, Laporta took on his duties himself.

At the same time, he has had to rebuild trust with a group of players and persuade many to accept salary cuts, in some cases worth millions of dollars, at the same time the club is splashing eight-figure sums on new talent. Laporta described the players who have accepted pay cuts as “heroes,” and insisted that by reducing its wage bill and offloading some high-earning players the new arrivals would fit within a carefully crafted salary framework. But the business of getting there has not always been pleasant.

One player who has so far refused to accept either a pay cut or a move to a new club is Frenkie de Jong, a 25-year-old Dutch midfielder acquired in the summer of 2019 at the cost of nearly $100 million. De Jong has been the subject of intense speculation all summer as Barcelona has pushed publicly for him to agree to a reduced salary — he had already agreed to defer 17 million euros ($17.3 million) — or accept a move to a new club. (Manchester United reportedly has been the most eager bidder.)

But de Jong has made clear he wants to stay in Spain, and while Laporta declared his “love” for the player, and said he was not for sale, he added that de Jong needed to “help the club” by restructuring his salary. Unions and the Spanish league president have both warned Barcelona against exerting pressure on de Jong, and in response Laporta has said his club will pay de Jong what he is owed. “He has a contract, and we follow the contract,” Laporta said.

Much of Barcelona’s current plight, ironically, can be traced to the era of success it enjoyed during Laporta’s first term. Those teams played a brand of soccer that was unmatched, producing a string of trophies but also a squad of popular superstars commanding ever-increasing salaries. No single player personified that escalation more than Lionel Messi, whose last contract at Barcelona was worth around $132 million per year.

As Barcelona’s debts grew, though, signing Messi to a new contract that would align with La Liga’s financial rules became impossible. Priced out, Messi bade a tearful farewell to Barcelona, joining Qatar-owned Paris St.-Germain as a free agent. Laporta, who had pledged to retain Messi as a presidential candidate, has since wistfully suggested that he would like to bring him back.

“I feel like I have, as the president, a moral debt to him in order to give him the best moment of his career, or give him a better moment, for the end of his career,” Laporta said, offering no explanation for how that might be done.

The relationship, meanwhile, has frayed: Laporta, in perpetual campaign mode, continues to suggest he will try to bring Messi home. Messi has previously expressed his frustration at how Laporta characterized his exit, and his father reportedly has asked the Barcelona president to stop speaking about his son in public.

Discussion of how to resolve that situation, though, can come later. The same is true for difficult questions about where Barcelona will continue to find ever-increasing revenue streams in a post-pandemic economy, or about what it will do if it can’t register all of its signings, or what happens next year, or the year after that, when the nine-figure bill comes due.

Laporta is living in the present. “Winning,” he said, “is a universal human motivation.”

But now he is out of time. Laporta politely ends the interview, saying he has to rush off. He has appointment at Goldman Sachs, to discuss a new financing arrangement.



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Nets’ long homestand provides opportunity for season turnaround

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Ben Simmons has begun playing like the two-way star the Nets envisioned when they traded for him. Kyrie Irving is back from suspension and has built up his minutes. Kevin Durant is Kevin Durant. Coach Steve Nash is gone, one scapegoat sacrificed.

The Nets, getting healthier and theoretically more powerful, are about to embark on a lengthy homestand in which missing standouts or jet lag or the Los Angeles nightlife or Indiana officiating cannot be blamed for any losses.

If the Nets are going to realize their potential and turn their talent into victories, there might not be a more likely time than the stretch of seven games over 13 days at Barclays Center against beatable opponents, which will begin Sunday against the banged-up Trail Blazers.

“I think this is essential for our season,” Irving said after a loss at Indiana on Friday dropped them to 9-11. “Just to be able to establish some great habits at home like we’ve been doing, but now we’ll be tested on a seven-game home stretch.

“I’m looking forward to just being in front of our fans. But more important, being in front of our home environment and being able to flourish out there.”

With their three stars back in full force, now is the time for the Nets to kick it up another notch.
Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

At times the Nets have flourished, but in spurts rather than long stretches. Durant, Simmons and Irving looked like a title-contending Big 3 for three quarters against the Pacers before the Nets unraveled, their defense grew holes and they were outscored by 17 points in the fourth quarter.

Finding consistency has been the problem, and the built-in excuse is legitimate. Their trio of stars has played together for only half their games. Simmons lacked confidence and was not healthy at the onset of the campaign. By the time he turned the corner, Irving was suspended.

Head coach Jacque Vaughn has shuffled rotations both out of need and out of experimentation to find groups of Nets who could defend and rebound, which have been weak spots on a team that has not jelled together.

Their hope is that some time to bond, to practice and work together in Brooklyn as they gain strength can rescue a squad that has not been at .500 since it was 1-1.

“This homestretch is interesting for us in order for us to take care of business. You get in that space hopefully where you get guys to return and you can solidify rotations,” Vaughn said Friday. “That’s what we’re searching for. We’ve got some of it by getting Ben playing more minutes now. That piece looks like it’s pretty solved.”

The complementary pieces are still taking shape. After offseason ankle surgery, Seth Curry is improving, but still not playing back-to-backs. Joe Harris, who also had ankle surgery, which ended his 2021-22 season after just 14 games, has been a major disappointment, unable to find his shot. Yuta Watanabe has looked like a find, but has missed three straight games with a hamstring strain. T.J. Warren, coming off foot surgery, has yet to debut.

“There’s still some work to be done to get to know each other,” said Vaughn, who is 7-6 since taking over for Nash. “But we do need to start streamlining this thing and get going in the right direction.”

The Nets will open their homestand against the Blazers, who will be without the injured Damian Lillard, before facing the pitiful Magic on a back-to-back. The Nets won’t play on consecutive days again during the homestand, which will include one power (the Celtics), several solid opponents (Wizards, Raptors and Hawks) and a doormat (Hornets).

“You get a little bit of rhythm,” Vaughn said. “Get a chance to watch some film, get a chance to walk through some things. All that matters. We haven’t had a chance to do that on the road just because we’ve been on the road and trying to recover. So hopefully we can take advantage of that.”

And they need to take advantage of Durant while he still might be the best player in basketball and is complemented by two legitimate and unique stars. Simmons has morphed into the valuable, do-everything-but-shoot star he had not been for a few years. Irving has scored at least 20 points in each of his past three games and is looking more comfortable.

If the reality ever is to match the theoretical for the Nets, maybe the next seven games will be the catalyst.

“It’s only my fourth game back, so I’m still getting my legs under me, catching back into a rhythm. And we’re still figuring out lineups,” Irving said. “But I think once we do that, we’ll be in better shape. I don’t want to keep coming in [media sessions] and overpromising, but we’re utilizing these games to figure things out.”

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Revered Borje Salming leaves behind lasting Maple Leafs, NHL legacy as icon

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The beautiful part of it is that Borje Salming knew how the world perceived him before his passing as a victim of ALS on Thursday at age 71. The word “iconic” doesn’t quite do justice to the Hall of Fame defenseman. Salming was more that. He was revered. 

He was revered not only as a player, but also as an individual. Love and adoration flowed to Salming as a groundbreaker who became a pioneering role model in opening the door for an influx of his fellow Swedes into the NHL after he conquered an unwelcoming, antagonistic environment that confronted him and any who might threaten the Canadian hegemony of the league. 

Salming knew that. He knew that when he received a thunderous ovation at Maple Leaf Gardens during pregame introductions while representing Team Sweden prior to playing Team Canada in the 1976 Canada Cup. He knew that two weekends ago in Toronto on consecutive, emotional nights featuring one impromptu tribute and a second formal one that evoked tears. 

Similarly, he knew that at the Swedish Ice Hockey Federation Centennial Gala celebrating the country’s all-time greatest players at Avicii Arena in Stockholm just over one week ago, when his introduction evoked an emotional response. Salming was not only a beloved hockey player, but also a beloved individual in the way of Rod Gilbert, Jean Beliveau and Gordie Howe, and a beloved cultural icon in the way of Maurice Richard. 

Borje Salming
Borje Salming passed away at 71.
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Mika Zibanejad was born in 1993, three years after Salming retired from the NHL and the same year No. 21 stepped away from the Swedish League to which he had returned for his final three seasons. Zibanejad is of a different generation. But he’s not ignorant. 

“From my personal experience, the guys I grew up watching were Nicklas Lidstrom, Henrik Zetterberg, Peter Forsberg, Mats Sundin, Daniel Alfredsson,” Zibanejad told Slap Shots on Friday. “I was too young to see Salming play, and I’m sorry I never got the chance to interact with him, but I know what he did for our game. 

“He opened doors for players from Sweden and Europe and changed everything for us, and that is because of his courage.” 

Before Salming and countryman Inge Hammarstrom joined the Maple Leafs for the 1973-74 season, just three Swedes had played in the NHL. Ulf Sterner was the first, playing four games for the Rangers in 1964-65, but the slick center could not make the leap in an era in which European leagues did not permit bodychecking in the offensive zone. 

Juha Widing, another center who played for the Rangers in 1969-70 before he was traded to the Kings for Ted Irvine, was next. Detroit defenseman Thommie Bergman joined the league in 1972-73. Salming and Hammarstrom came over a year later in a time during which those of his origin were painted as, “Chicken Swedes.” By the way? In 2011, NBC analyst Mike Milbury called Daniel and Henrik Sedin, “Thelma and Louise,” so there was that. 

Salming joined the Leafs in an era during which Bobby Orr was just going out; Denis Potvin, Brad Park, Serge Savard, Guy Lapointe and Larry Robinson dominated on the blue line; and Raymond Bourque was just coming into the NHL. 

Borje Salming is honored in a ceremony on Nov. 11.
Borje Salming is honored in a ceremony on Nov. 11.
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From 1974-75 — Salming’s sophomore season — through 1979-80, the Swede was the only defenseman to be named either first-team or second-team All-Star in each of those six seasons. He was dominant at both ends of the ice, and was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1996. 

Salming was one of a kind. He kicked the door down for people like Anders Hedberg and Ulf Nilsson to join the Rangers in 1978-79 as the 12th and 13th Swedes to play in the NHL. They faced constant physical abuse. They endured the slings and arrows so others could follow. 

Seventy-nine Swedes have played in the NHL this season. 

A statue of Borje Salming resides outside Scotiabank Arena.
A statue of Borje Salming resides outside Scotiabank Arena.
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“I know it was not easy for any of those players. Of all of us who are in the NHL now owe them a debt of gratitude,” Zibanejad said. “They paved the way for us. 

“It’s not something I think about on a day-to-day basis, but I do try to keep that in mind. I’m very thankful for what they did. I want to be able to have the same positive influence and make things better for the next generation. 

“That’s a way I can repay Borje.” 


The NHL gets younger and faster all the time, while Brian Boyle gets neither. But the 37-year-old center, currently unemployed as a free agent, should be a person of interest for Stanley Cup contenders looking to shore up their bottom sixes. 

“I’m not retired,” the one-time Ranger and Devil said in a text exchange this week. “I’d love to be playing but so far the offers haven’t been there 

Boyle, the 2018 Masterton winner, rehabbed from knee surgery after sustaining an injury in Game 6 of the Penguins’ first-round series against the Rangers. 

“I was good in four weeks,” said Boyle, an inspirational figure after having conquered chronic myeloid leukemia. “I’m training hard and am staying ready. We’ll see. 

“But all is great.”

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Artemi Panarin’s scoreless streak grows to 12 games in Rangers’ loss

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Artemi Panarin has gone 12 straight games without a goal after failing to score in the Rangers’ stunning 4-3 loss to the reeling Oilers on Saturday afternoon at the Garden. The 12 games tied the longest scoring drought of the Russian wing’s NHL career.

Game 12 likely stung more than the previous 11, however, considering Panarin thought he had scored twice.

Panarin had one of his more active games of the season, in two of the three periods at least. In addition to assisting on Chris Kreider’s second-period tally, Panarin posted two shots on goal and one takeaway. Both of his shots came in the first period.

The first came on a power play. Panarin wired one home from the right faceoff circle and had a look of relief rush upon his face. But Edmonton challenged for offside and the goal was rescinded after the replay revealed that Panarin never fully crossed the puck into the offensive zone before Vincent Trocheck entered.

Artemi Panarin reacts during the Rangers’ loss to the Oilers.
Jason Szenes

“Yeah, especially when I can’t score the last [11] games,” Panarin said when asked if he was frustrated. “Posts or something, always something. Just keep doing what I usually do. Try not to lose confidence. That’s the most important thing.”

Braden Schneider also had a goal negated after the Oilers challenged for goalie interference, which proved to be the case when replays showed Ryan Carpenter had made contact with Oilers goalie Jack Campbell in the blue crease.

Panarin later smacked a one-timer from the other faceoff circle and Campbell slid over to get in front of it just in time. It was unclear if the puck went in or not, so the refs got on the headsets with the situation room to give it a second look before it was officially deemed not a goal.

Panarin skated on the right wing of the top line next to Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider , similar to how the Rangers lined up at the end of their 3-2 loss to the Ducks in Anaheim on Wednesday and again in practice on Friday. That left Trocheck to center Jimmy Vesey and Barclay Goodrow. The Kid Line of Alexis Lafreniere, Filip Chytil and Kaapo Kakko remained intact, while the fourth line featured Sammy Blais, Ryan Carpenter and Julien Gauthier.


Vitali Kravtsov was scratched for a seventh straight game despite taking part in warmups Saturday afternoon. Additionally, Libor Hajek replaced Zac Jones on the left side of the bottom defensive pair alongside Braden Schneider. Jones had played in the previous three games and seemed primed to get a run in the lineup, as Hajek already had, but  head coach Gerard Gallant opted to switch it up.


The Rangers dropped to 8-2-1 when scoring first this season after giving up four unanswered tallies in the third period.

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