With transfers going through left and right as the soccer summer rolls into its final weeks, the one saga that looks no closer to concluding is that of Barcelona’s Frenkie de Jong. The 25-year-old Dutch do-it-all midfielder was a crown jewel of a signing for the Catalan giant back in 2019, moving over from Ajax for a reported €85 million. Just three summers later, de Jong is embroiled in a staring contest with his dream club, and now Barcelona is trying to throw sand in its player’s eyes to get him to blink first.
According to a report from The Athletic, Barcelona is now threatening legal action against the club’s previous board, specifically over the deferred-money contract de Jong signed with the club’s previous board in October of 2020. That contract lowered de Jong’s wages for two seasons, allowing Barcelona to register its signings while staying under La Liga’s wage limits. The trade-off was that the money that de Jong gave up during those seasons—around €18 million— would be paid over the following four, not solving Barcelona’s problem but rather kicking the can down the road.
The current board is arguing that there are “criminal irregularities” in that 2020 contract, though it is not clear what those might be. Evgeniy Levchenko, the head of the Dutch player’s union suggested that there might not be any, and that de Jong is the victim of extortion by the current board. It’s hard to say who is legally in the right, especially since Barcelona’s old board was plagued with accusations of criminality, but as of now, the current regime has not made clear exactly on what grounds it is seeking to void de Jong’s deal. This could just be a case of keeping the supposed evidence it has found under wraps until the case goes to trial, though Barcelona has now stated that it found evidence of criminality in the 2020 renewals of Marc-André ter Stegen, Gerard Piqué, and Clément Lenglet.
Exacerbating things is that Barcelona appears to be operating with Monopoly money right now. Because of wage issues and a sizable debt, the club has resorted to selling off fragments of its TV rights—or “pulling the financial levers,” something that has become part joke and part mystery for other clubs, who simply do not understand how Barcelona can sign anyone right now—in order to afford its new players. One of the faster ways to get under the wage limit would be to sell off de Jong and his backloaded contract, as it tried to do earlier this month.
Barcelona accepted a sale to Manchester United, but unlike in American sports, players must agree to moves too, and de Jong seemingly has no interest in moving to Manchester. (The timing of Barcelona’s letter to de Jong, informing him of its intention to explore legal action, can’t be ignored. It was sent on July 15, right around the time that it accepted the bid from United.) One important factor here is that Chelsea has also reportedly shown interest in de Jong, and de Jong appears to be more amenable to a move to London than to Manchester. That could be the easy solution for everyone involved, but the reports of this legal action complicate things.
The other solution, then, is for the club and de Jong to agree on a wage reduction. He has understandably not shown any interest in that, either, forcing the club to pay his salary as agreed upon in that 2020 negotiation. This is where the legal action comes into play. Despite the original salary being approved by La Liga, and the old board having sought legal advice to ensure that it was above board, Barcelona is looking to challenge the deal in a court of law in hopes of bringing de Jong’s salary down to the level it needs under the wage limit.
Whether Barcelona believes that legal action will actually amount to anything is unclear right now, and maybe beside the point. At least publicly, Barcelona manager Xavi has made it clear that de Jong is a part of his plans, with the midfielder’s versatility a key factor. Does the club really want to wage a legal battle with a player it reportedly wants to keep around? Or is this more likely a power play to get de Jong to either accept a wage cut or a move abroad?
It’s understandable from Barcelona’s point of view, if cynical. Despite becoming the best and most successful club in the world last decade under the regency of Messi, Barcelona is at a crossroads. One need only look at how AC Milan, one of the dominant sides of the 2000s, fell apart under the weight of financial mismanagement to see how precarious Barcelona’ s position is. It took Milan a decade to get back to winning Serie A. If the sacrifice Barcelona has to make is one of its most talented players, in the prime of his career, then so be it.
It’s a brutal way to operate, particularly when de Jong can clearly see Barcelona thirsting after expensive veterans like new signings Robert Lewandowski and Andreas Christensen, or potential targets like Manchester City’s Bernando Silva or Chelsea’s Marcos Alonso. On paper, it’s hard to say that de Jong is significantly worse than any of those, and he’s likely a better fit at a more valuable age. Perhaps that is why he is fighting so hard to stay at the club, or perhaps he just wants to paid what was agreed to. With the threat of legal action in the balance now, maybe de Jong changes his mind in one direction or another. That’s what Barcelona is hoping for, optics be damned. This summer is about survival, and coming across as the villain is a small price to pay.
Correction (12:52 p.m. ET): Barcelona has now stated that it has found evidence of criminality in the renewals for Lenglet, Piqué, and Marc-André ter Stegen, in addition to de Jong’s. Additionally, the article above has been clarified to explain that Barcelona’s threat of legal action is against the previous board, not de Jong himself. These changes have been made above.