Barcelona's Braithwaite move shows up inequality of a broken system

Smaller Spanish clubs can be broken up by another club’s bad luck and bad management, and without the chance to seek a fix

Barcelona’s Great Big Striker Chase was so entertaining that they were given a second series. On Monday the club were handed the chance to do it all over again, only this time not everyone is laughing. Leganés definitely are not: for the team from the south of Madrid, in their fourth season in the top flight, this is not remotely funny. It is frightening. But then, it is only Leganés and who cares about them?

Throughout January Barcelona chased about as if stuck on fast forward and accompanied by a silly soundtrack, up to the moment they finally called off the search, leaving Cédric Bakambu stuck in Hong Kong. When he boarded a plane in South Korea, the Congolese forward was told he was going to the Camp Nou; when he disembarked to catch a connecting flight, he was told he wasn’t. And nor was anyone else. At least not yet.

Barcelona had negotiated for Rodrigo Moreno from Valencia but not with very much money. They had then looked one way and the next, names tossed about, desperately trying to sign someone. Or desperately trying to look as if they were trying to sign someone. This time would be different, they said: it wouldn’t be like last year when they brought in Kevin-Prince Boateng on loan and he played four times without scoring.

But when the window shut they had not signed a forward. They had, though, got rid of two: Carles Pérez and Abel Ruiz had been loaned to raise funds for a footballer they never bought. No matter, the manager Quique Setién said, trying to hide his disappointment, Ousmane Dembélé had been working harder than ever in Qatar. He would be back from injury very soon and he would be “flying”. He could be their “signing”.

Before he had the chance to play again, Dembélé sustained a torn thigh tendon during training. Signed in desperation after the departure of Neymar, Dembélé has barely been able to begin his Barcelona career. Setién said he was devastated for a young man horribly unlucky with injuries. He also had a problem, even more of one than before. With Luis Suárez out, Barcelona were already short of forwards; now, with Dembélé out too, with Pérez and Ruiz gone, they were even shorter. And the market had closed.

But unlike in England where Tottenham, say, will be unable to buy anyone now that Son Heung-min has joined Harry Kane on the injury list, in Spain clubs can apply to make an emergency signing in the event of a long-term injury. And Barcelona planned to do just that. Valencia had the same idea after an injury to Ezequiel Garay.

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Doctors announced that Dembélé would be out for six months but it was not enough for them to say so. The last time he sustained a similar injury he was out for three months and the federation had to ratify that the injury would be greater than five months, the regulatory threshold, before it gave permission for a signing. On Monday, it did just that. Barcelona had the green light.

Because this is a Spanish rule, not applied by Fifa or Uefa, Barça would only be able to sign and register a player from a Spanish club and he would not be able to play in the Champions League. The selling club are not given permission to sign a replacement.

Barcelona players wear a shirt for Ousmane Dembélé before last weekend’s game against Getafe.
Barcelona players wear a shirt for Ousmane Dembélé before last weekend’s game against Getafe. Photograph: Soccrates Images/Getty Images

Few clubs would willingly sell but they could easily find they had no choice. Every player in Spain has an official buyout clause. So long as Barcelona paid that – and the player wanted to go – they could not be stopped. More inequality built into a system constructed upon it, smaller teams broken up by another club’s bad luck and bad management, and without the chance to seek a fix.

Names appeared again, all short‑term solutions – Barcelona’s long-term targets lie elsewhere, Lautaro Martínez particularly – and with affordable buyout clauses. Three men emerged as the most likely: Lucas Pérez from Alavés (€15m), Ángel Rodríguez from Getafe (€10m) and Martin Braithwaite from Leganés, whose clause is around €20m. Where they go at the end of these six months is for another day. The question of how often they will play lingers too but all that matters now is the hope that Braithwaite has the speed, quality and goalscoring that Barça need.

Leganés need those qualities more, and this may prove the moment at which the rules are challenged and changed. If the regulation’s intention is good, the application is not. An insurance policy for some that leaves others unprotected. The damage it can do to innocent bystanders may be irreparable.

In the winter Leganés lost one striker, Youssef En-Nesyri, to Sevilla, who paid his €20m buyout clause; now they may lose the other to Barça. That’s life, the market: big fish eats little fish and all that. Only this is worse. At least then they could replace the departing striker even if it was far from easy and not like-for-like, Miguel Guerrero arriving on loan; now they are powerless.

They weren’t exactly powerful before. Braithwaite has scored six league goals; the rest of the squad have eight. They had started to recover before Christmas, hope emerging under Javier Aguirre, but that optimism has been shattered. They are in the relegation zone. Lose the Dane, many fans fear, and that’s them silently condemned to the second division. The feeling grows, yet again, that they just don’t matter. Barcelona had an emergency, sure, but there is no greater emergency than the one with which Leganés are left.


Sid Lowe

The GuardianTramp

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