Why Fabregas is a Gooner, not a goner
Cristiano Ronaldo to Real Madrid, Steven Gerrard to Chelsea, Matt Harrold to Southend United...every summer has its transfer saga and 2010's is Arsenal captain Cesc Fabregas's apparent desire to make a return trip to Barcelona.
The fight for Fab has all the hallmarks of classic tabloid-fodder: "come get me" pleas, "hands off" responses and almost daily utterances from agents, friends and would-be teammates.
But reading much into any of these would be a big mistake: where Fabregas plays next season will boil down to cold, hard cash.
Or to put it another way, can Barca prise their man away from a "seller" who would rather have the player than the money?
To answer this we need to look at the finances, squads and prospects of the two clubs, but when push comes to shove it will be the finances that have the biggest say.
At first glance there is little between the two as businesses. The latest report into European football by the accountancy firm Deloitte has Barca second in its rich list, with Arsenal fourth, while US business magazine Forbes ranks Arsenal third, with Barca fourth.
Fabregas suffered a season-ending injury in the 2-2 draw against Barca - was that his last outing for the club?
Much of a muchness, then, but closer inspection does throw up some important differences.
Generally speaking, Arsenal have spent the last few years operating under the burden of paying for a new home. To fund that move the Gunners took out a big mortgage, got into property development and kept a lid on manager Arsene Wenger's spending.
The downside of this has been five trophy-less years, some nervous moments as property prices tanked and the millstone of being stuck with long-term commercial deals they had to make in a hurry.
The upside is that Wenger (perhaps the best qualified man in football for this job) has kept the team competitive, Arsenal's property investments are about to bear fruit and the club is the proud owner of a fantastic stadium that should deliver market-leading revenues for years to come.
Barca's fanbase and on-field success should also bring mega match-day revenues but to do that they will need a newer Nou Camp. This has been identified by Sandro Rosell, the man who replaces Joan Laporta as Barca's president on 1 July (more on him later).
The Catalan giants score more highly with their commercial and broadcasting income.
In regard to the former, they earn the kind of cash Arsenal would like to bring in as soon as they can renegotiate their retail and sponsorship deals. And Barca do it despite paying Unicef to appear on their shirts, not the other way around.
The TV deal is more controversial, though, as it is of enormous benefit to Barca (and the other half of the Spanish football duopoly, Real Madrid) but great detriment to the rest of La Liga.
Unlike the Premier League, there is no collective selling of media rights in Spain. This means Barca and Real earn four times what the next most valuable contract brings in and almost twice as much as Arsenal. Is this good for the game in Spain? Many think not.
Where things get even more contentious is the issue of debt.
Give or take a few quid, Arsenal's only debt is the Emirates mortgage. This costs the club about £20m a year and runs until 2031. It is, for a business of this size, entirely affordable.
The picture in Catalonia, however, is less transparent and one of the most interesting aspects of the presidential race was how Barca's debt became an election issue.
On the one hand you had the numbers presented by the current regime (great revenues, almost no debt), and on the other you had the numbers claimed by Rosell (decent revenues, lots of debt). The distance between these positions was almost £400m. Somebody must be wrong, right?
Well, no, not really. Laporta's figure is a £25m loan from La Caixa, the state-owned bank that sponsors the club. As they are two of Catalonia's most important institutions, there is little chance of this being called in any time soon.
New Barca president Sandro Rosell has hinted that the Catalan club might not be able to afford Fabregas
But is this really debt? Apparently it depends on which accountant you ask.
One will say Laporta is right to include only bank IOUs - everything else is just the cost of doing business and perfect-storm scenarios not worth worrying about. Another will say a debt is anything you owe somebody else.
For more on this I recommend this blog by football finance expert the Swiss Rambler - a fascinating read.
The real issue, however, is why the two camps would downplay/talk up the debt and what this means for Barca's summer spending plans. Followers of British politics will recognise the tactics.
Laporta, keen to pursue his own ambitions in regional politics after seven years at Barca, did not stand in this month's election. But he did anoint a successor, Jaume Ferrer, and he campaigned on a "more of the same" ticket.
That did not go down well with the members, though. The "socios" gave Rosell, a former vice-president who fell out with Laporta in 2005, a record mandate. Ferrer came last, which seems harsh given the team's performance over the last two seasons.
They may also have agreed with his comments about Barca's increasingly cosmopolitan youth ranks losing their Catalan identity, which brings us neatly back to the one who got away.
Repatriating Fabregas, who left at 16 when first-team chances seemed limited, was a policy all candidates agreed on, although it would be fair to say it was more prominent on Ferrer's manifesto than Rosell's.
Listening to Laporta in recent weeks it would seem Fabregas is a done deal and Arsenal are simply haggling after rejecting Barca's first bid of £29m.
But in a recent BBC interview Rosell was a lot more measured.
"The first thing I will do is sit down with (manager) Pep Guardiola and his technical staff," he said. "If they feel they need Fabregas, and Barca and Arsenal can do a deal, we will try to bring him to Barca. So there are a lot of steps before we can say Fabregas is a Barca player."
I get the impression that Rosell views the 23-year-old midfielder as a bonus: it would be nice to have him but we won't/can't overpay. The most recent smoke signals suggest uniting new signing David Villa with his international strike partner Fernando Torres is a bigger priority.
And what of Fabregas in all this?
Having initiated this saga by suggesting his work here was done, he has kept his head down, which is understandable given the task of getting into Spain's starting XI at the World Cup.
Fabregas is probably Wenger's best signing and the two have enjoyed a great relationship over the last seven years
But the last statement he said before he left for South Africa was that he had talked things through with Wenger and his future was now in the manager's hands. If this is the case, Fabregas, is going nowhere. Not this summer, anyway.
With no financial impetus to sell (just the opposite), Arsenal are believed to have slapped a £80m price tag on their best player. A second offer is expected but you can be sure it will be closer to £29m than £80m. That will not be enough to persuade Wenger he is better off with the money than the player.
There is another element to this and it is there for all to see in South Africa: Fabregas is not guaranteed a game at Barca. It was a point made (perhaps unwisely) by Arsenal chairman Peter Hill-Wood last month.
My (reasonably informed) guess is that Wenger has asked Fabregas, who has five years left on his contract, for one more season, promising new signings to help him carry the weight of Arsenal's expectations.
The trade-off will be an assurance he can go next summer, for a figure much closer to Barca's valuation, if Arsenal come up empty-handed again.
Arsenal will have got eight years' service out of a player groomed by Barca, Barca will have a home-made replacement for Xavi and all-out war between two of Europe's greatest clubs, and one of football's good guys, will have been avoided - the "Henry compromise", if you like.
I might be wrong, though. Southend signed Harrold in the end. It was a disaster.
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