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Men’s Football Barcelona: Less than a club

MARTIN BRAITHWAITE moved to Barcelona from Leganes in February 2020, transferring from a relegation-threatened club in their fourth-consecutive and fourth-ever season in Spain’s top division, to one looking to win their third league title in a row and 27th in total.

By the end of the season, it was a move from a relegated club who saw their valiant stay in the Primera Division come to an end, to the one that finished runners-up. But there was much more to it than that.

The alarm bells should begin to ring when looking at the month of this transfer. February. Outside the transfer window. 

It’s a story of a rule used unfairly, a release clause and a big club taking advantage of a smaller one.

Barcelona pride themselves on being “mes que un club” (more than a club), a motto and claim which emerged on the back of their values, near-150,000 members, Catalan roots and style of football. But this season “more than a club” meant something more imposing, especially to Leganes.

By the time Braithwaite scored his final goal for Leganes, helping secure a point against Real Valladolid, he and fellow mid-season departee, Youssef En-Nesyri, had contributed to 14 of the club’s 16 goals, either by finding the net themselves or assisting others.

Coming into the 2019-20 season on the back of a 13th-place finish, their highest ever in the Spanish leagues, Leganes endured a disappointing start, setting themselves up for a relegation battle which would be fought until the final day of the season.

December saw an upturn in form and provided hope that this four-year stay in the top-flight would be extended to another year. Braithwaite scored in a draw at Alaves, and both he and En-Nesyri found the net in a 2-0 win against Espanyol.

Things were beginning to look up for the club based just south of Madrid, and by matchday 22 they were 18th with a glimmer of hope.

By that time, En-Nesyri had already left for Sevilla in the January transfer window, pocketing the club €25 million (£22.4m), but at least they still had Braithwaite, who at that time was their top scorer.

Then, shortly after the transfer window closed, Barcelona forward Ousmane Dembele had surgery on a hamstring injury which would keep him out for at least six months.

In order to fill the space in their squad, the defending champions, who had already fallen behind Real Madrid at the top of the table, took advantage of a rule which allows clubs to make an emergency signing outside the transfer window if one of their players is set to be out injured for longer than five months, as was the case with Dembele.

As the rule is specific to La Liga, this emergency signing had to be either a free agent or from another Spanish club, and would only be allowed to play in domestic competitions.

The player they chose was Braithwaite, activating his convenient release fee of £16m.

The club with one of the most famed youth academies in the world, who had also loaned attacker Carles Perez to Roma in January knowing they might need cover for Dembele, took advantage of the rules, the release clause and, most of all, they took advantage of Leganes.

To make things worse for the relegation-threatened club, the rules also state that they were not allowed to sign an emergency replacement of their own.

“We will raise our voice,” said Leganes general manager Martin Ortega at the time. “We are in a situation of enormous and serious damage.

“We cannot understand the current regulation that a club, having a long-term injury, can perform this transaction unilaterally and transfer their problem to our club.

“We consider that there is a regulation that is unfair, from which Barcelona has benefited. The one who is damaged by this is Leganes.”

Barcelona lost a player for six months. Leganes lost a player for good, and one who could have played a big part in the battle to retain their top-flight status.

For the player, it was a dream move. Arguments have been made that Braithwaite could have stayed loyal to Leganes and said no to the transfer, but there was no way the then 28-year-old was turning down a move to Barcelona. 

Which professional footballer would refuse the chance to play alongside Lionel Messi? Barcelona knew this, and knew as soon as the fee in the release clause was activated, the deal would be done.

Ortega understood the situation Braithwaite found himself in and praised the professionalism of the Denmark international.

“The player has been a gentleman and a professional,” Ortega said. “He trained fully yesterday, knowing he could get injured. We thank him for the immense performances he gave us.”

Ortega also believes the issue lies with the rules, not with Barcelona, but for a club whose mes que un club values state that “humility, ambition, effort, teamwork and respect are just as important a part of the way we play as winning,” the episode left a sour taste.

Despite their disadvantage, Leganes put up a good fight towards the end of the season but never made it any higher than 18th.

Right up until a remarkable final fixture against Real Madrid, they were still in with a chance of staying up. In the final 15 minutes of that final game, a goal was all they needed to remain in La Liga, but it didn’t come, though it wasn’t for lack of trying or lack of chances.

Would Leganes have survived with Braithwaite in their team in those final moments? Maybe, maybe not, but the transfer made no difference to Barcelona’s season as they fell further behind Real Madrid.

To add insult to injury-induced-emergency-transfer, Barcelona are now thought to be looking to sell Braithwaite in the current transfer window, making the whole affair seem unnecessary as well as unfair. 

The positive chapter in this story is the one on Braithwaite himself who, even if sold this summer, was not only able to don the Blaugrana shirt, but also hold his own in this team of stars and register a goal for the club. But it’s a club that emerges from the saga a bit less the one it claims to be.

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