Raphinha seems set for Barcelona, a club whose recent behaviour in recent years has undone a considerable amount of goodwill.
So, it looks as though Raphinha will after all be a Barcelona player next season. Latest reports indicate that Leeds United have accepted an initial offer of $49m (€58m), to increase to around €69m with the inevitable add-ons. It has seemed pretty clear since the end of last season that Camp Nou would be the player’s preferred destination despite ongoing interest from both Chelsea and Arsenal. Ultimately, even though we might assume that the selling club has the final say on whether he goes or not, it is the player who holds the cards in such a situation, even if – as in this case – what they’re holding isn’t an incredible hand.
There was room for Leeds to bite back over this, should they have wished to prove a point. Raphinha is, of course, a Brazil international and there is a World Cup to be played at the end of this year. Under normal circumstances, for Brazilian players these few months before a major tournament would be a period during which only the World Cup matters. Brazil do, after all, place greater sporting and cultural merit upon playing for the national team than they do for any club. Raphinha needs match time, and Leeds might easily have refused whatever Barcelona offered and forced him to sit on the substitutes bench until (at least) the January transfer window, had they been so minded. It would have been a colossal waste of money. They chose not to use that mutually assured destruction level of leverage.
For now, meanwhile, Raphinha leads a somewhat lonely existence. The Leeds United squad have already left for Australia for their pre-season cash cow, but the player set to leave the club didn’t travel with them. Instead, he was posting photographs of himself training on his own at Leeds’ Thorp Arch training facility on Instagram and receiving numerous welcome messages from supporters of the club that he hasn’t actually formally signed for yet.
Leeds themselves are just moving on. Luis Sinisterra has joined from Feyenoord, and the club has now spent £95m on new players this summer, all covered by the sale of Kalvin Phillips and – presuming he actually goes and that Barcelona actually pony up the money rather than trying to take Leeds to court to try and prove that actually Leeds should be paying Barcelona for the honour of taking him off their hands – Raphinha.
Leeds are taking the loss of their star player better than the Augustus Gloops of European club football took the loss of theirs last summer because, like 99% of football clubs in the world, Leeds are almost completely conditioned to eventually losing their very best players to someone, eventually. There have been no countdown clocks in West Yorkshire this week, no tearful cries that you just couldn’t understand the trauma that they’re going through right now. No-one at Leeds suggested that FC Entitlement should jog on and that player should just accept a huge pay cut and be grateful for the fact that they want him to play for them. They didn’t ask him to defer his wages and then try to use what they owed him as brinkmanship in a transfer that the player himself seems reticent over.
And there is a genuine sadness here, because as per the words picked out in yellow seats at the now-dilapidated Camp Nou, Barcelona at least used to give the impression of trying to stand for something. They stood for a fierce regional pride with a complex and sometimes difficult history, for the sanctity of a shirt that didn’t bear a sponsor’s name until 2006, more than three decades after they started to become commonplace across the rest of Europe. They were pushed as the ultimate fan-owned club, the proof that this membership model could work at any scale. They sold themselves as an inspiration to others.
But that ownership model is at the heart of the issues that the club faces now. Barcelona presidents are elected, and the upshot of this has been presidential elections that steadily have upped the ante in terms of promises to the voters which have then had to be acted upon. When Joan Laporta returned as president of the club in February 2021, they had just weeks earlier been described as £1.2bn in debt and ‘on the brink of bankruptcy’. Laporta was elected with a promise of signing new players.
At the time of writing, the only confirmed signings at Barcelona so far this summer have been Andreas Christensen, Pablo Torre and Franck Kessie, but this is not expected to remain the case. As well as Raphinha, they’re still chasing Robert Lewandowski, and have already had a bid of £34m turned down for him. Bayern Munich reportedly don’t really want to sell, but could be open to the idea. Chelsea may yet interject in too, though this is far from certain. And on top of all that, there’s the small matter of the Frenkie de Jong situation, which continues to be the football equivalent of Love Island this summer, all drama, sudden betrayals and people being ‘rattled’, all with a faintly desperate cloud of testosterone hanging over it.
And even if it was only ever a mirage, its trappings are either disappearing or literally crumbling. The sponsor-free shirts are gone now. Sixteen years on, they are no more than a twee reminder of a different age. These days, everything is up for sale. Everything has a price. Whether it’s the front of the shirts, a percentage of future television rights, or ripping up the fabric of European football for your own ends by trying to form a Super League, this is a world in which knowing the cost of everything and the value of nothing is no longer considered a pejorative. Twenty years ago, the idea of kicking Barcelona to the kerb would have felt unthinkable. Nowadays, it feels increasingly as though they should be cast asunder on their good ship Super League, completely separated from the rest of the game to play exhibition matches in perpetuity, for the good of the rest of the game.