It was recently reported that Lionel Messi and Barcelona team-mate Neymar will each receive bumper pay rises in advance of the 2016/17 season. The increases, which come as a result of contract clauses triggering automatic salary hikes, are nothing out of the ordinary procedurally. It is normal for clubs to add such incentives when signing a player or pinning him down to a long-term contract. However, the reasons they make headlines are twofold.
It is suggested that Messi’s annual wage will climb from €22.8million (£17.34m) to €39.4m (£29.97m), while Neymar will see his pay packet go from €9.1m (£6.92m) to €17.6m (£13.39m), even before he signs a renegotiated deal in the summer, as is expected. In context, it is fair to say these are astronomical salary rises – Messi’s increase is greater than the entire wage bill of some La Liga teams.
More significantly, the increases could have serious consequences for Barcelona’s balance sheet. La Liga enforces a salary cap of €421m, and when all players and staff are accounted for, Barca’s total wage bill currently stands at €419m.
Not only would pay rises or contract renewals for the club’s stars, including Andrés Iniesta, Luis Suárez and Sergio Busquets push the Catalan side well beyond the permitted threshold, it would also likely increase the already high proportion of the annual budget spent on wages. It currently stands at 73 per cent, and under internal statutes related to debt payment and expenditure, the club must dramatically increase revenue or the board will be forced to step down.
Amid these revelations, there is insinuation from some quarters that Messi and Neymar are putting the club in a financial hole. Despite the club’s socialist heritage, Barcelona spends more on wages than almost any other team in world football, and there are those who would like to see its reputation taken down a peg or two. Inherent in some coverage and reaction is the suggestion that players aren’t worth their mind boggling salaries, or that exponential wage increases are putting clubs and the sustainability of leagues in peril.
This all may be true. Certainly, inflation in football salaries has warped the game as we knew it, with television broadcast rights deals the acting as the backbone to the house of cards.
However, when salaries of individuals players are published, through leaks or otherwise, it is sometimes hard to tell if they are being held up as gods, worthy of their chests of gold, or as villains, mercenaries to the piece.
In most industries, not all but most, it is a rule of business that salaries remain undisclosed. It is generally believed that if employees knew what their colleagues were making, there would be a dramatic impact on trust and cohesion, which would lead to a drop in job satisfaction and productivity. Ashley Cole’s bitter departure from Arsenal is a case in point. In 2006, Cole felt that a £55,000 a week contract offer was derisory when compared to what other Gunners stars were earning at the time. Like anyone else at the water cooler, footballers talk, and salaries don’t always stay secret. When he didn’t receive the £60,000 a week he desired, Cole decided his days at Highbury were over.
At this point, it must of course be said that footballers are not just working in any industry, and it can be argued that making public the details of players’ contracts and salaries can’t be compared to, say, knowing how much your dentist makes. For starters, we don’t have the same level of investment in our dentist, and for most of us, our emotional well-being doesn’t depend on how successful they have been in the calendar year; though some may have a delusional loyalty depending on how many ‘You’ve Been Brave!’ stickers they received as kids.
Perhaps given the scale of the football industry, there is a public right to know, but the way individual salaries are presented in special features, such as with Barcelona and Real Madrid last year, says something about our lust for details and individual assessment. Fans are owed a level of accountability, certainly, but if we are analyzing performance and value based on the size of a contract or salary, then are we not behaving like the passionless club owners who many supporters have come to despise?
How many Arsenal fans really care anymore how much their club paid Real Madrid for Mesut Özil or how much he pockets a week? Productivity can be quantified of course – Özil seems to be ticking those boxes – but the joy of football cannot. Neither can the romanticism. This week, John Terry announced he will most likely not be offered a contract extension, and will leave Chelsea and the Premier League at the end of this season. His club are making a decision based on finances and productivity. The fans who will be sad to see him go will largely see it differently. The recent departures of Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard and proceeding regrets show how myopic we can be in our value judgements.
Back in Spain, Cristiano Ronaldo, on the wrong side of 30 years old, has already begun his fall from grace on the pitch. Sadly, if perhaps more gradually, Messi will eventually follow the same path. On the pitch, they are Gods from heaven. As they descend back down to earth, will we remember how many millions they made per week or over the course of a career? The contracts will turn to dust, but their feats will remain worthy through time.
Follow Ciarán at @keep_score