It’s been a tough summer for Manchester United. Paul Pogba has gone to Juventus, a loss that stings less because of the departure itself—United had no desire to retain his services—and more because of what it stands for: the sorry end of yet another massive, expensive flop of a signing. Cristiano Ronaldo, hailed as a returning hero after joining the club last summer, has already had his fill of tilting at windmills and is presently scrambling to find a new club capable of pointing him at more substantial objectives. As for the Red Devils’ flashiest attacking reinforcement target, it now appears more likely than not that Antony will be staying at Ajax. And the new manager’s chosen centerpiece in central midfield, Frenkie de Jong, would seem to prefer to be grumpy and disrespected at Barcelona than to join the flaming circus that is Man United.
This, I believe, is the proper context in which to situate the recent tweets of Gary Neville, formerly a United playing legend, formerly a Valencia managerial laughing stock, and currently an insightful TV pundit. We can start with the following tweet, sent on Monday:
Whoa now, this seems pretty dramatic! If what Gary said is true, then it sure would appear to be some serious, and probably illegal, shenanigans going on in Barcelona. The problem, as Gary surely must know by now, is that what he said is not actually true.
Now, it would be fair to state that Barcelona is at the moment treating de Jong poorly. The Catalan club has for months now being waging a covert media offensive aimed at pushing de Jong out of the club, and making it seem like it’s all his fault. So when Neville characterizes Barça’s treatment of de Jong as “bullying,” he may be overstating things, but not by too much.
But it’s the contract aspect that both complicates Barça’s treatment of its star midfielder and puts the lie to Neville’s caterwauling about immorality and illegality. The matter dates back to October of 2020. Back then, at the start of the first full COVID–19 season, with empty stadiums starving clubs like Barcelona of much-needed matchday income, and with then-club president Josep María Bartomeu well into the throes of a fan-initiated vote of no confidence, Barcelona announced that several key players, including Frenkie de Jong, had agreed to extend their contracts. These extensions were structured to alleviate the club’s cash problems by offering players significant salary reductions over the next couple seasons in exchange for equivalently large salaries on the back end of the contracts. According to Spanish paper Marca, this is what the restructuring looked like for de Jong:
So, in exchange for roughly a €16 million pay cut over the 2020–21 and 21–22 seasons, de Jong accepted a sizable pay raise plus roughly €16 million in loyalty bonuses over the final four years of the contract. One week after signing de Jong and the others to these heavily back-loaded extensions, Bartomeu resigned as club president.
To be clear, these salary numbers—nearly €21 million this season, nearly €30 million the next—are shockingly high. For comparison’s sake, United reportedly paid the famously well-remunerated Pogba a cool €15 million per year on average throughout the duration of his contract there; new Barça signing Robert Lewandowski will reportedly make €9 million this season; in his first season at PSG, Lionel Messi was reportedly paid €30 million. The idea that Barça would pay Messi-type money to Frenkie de Jong is absurd. If you’ve wondered just how an enormous, filthy rich club like Barcelona could’ve spent itself to the brink of oblivion, the answer looks a lot like the de Jong contract—promising gargantuan sums of money to players who don’t merit such towering figures and whenever possible kicking the can just a little further down the road in hopes of avoiding all the bills coming due at the same time, or at least not until there’s someone else standing behind the door the creditors will inevitably come knocking on.
In light of all that, it is perfectly understandable why Barcelona would try mightily either to get de Jong to agree to a new, more sensible contract, or else sell him to someone willing to foot such stratospheric bills. (That fact does not, however, make it any less ugly the specific way the club has gone about trying to ensure one of those two understandably attractive outcomes.) It is also understandable why de Jong reportedly has been annoyed by Barcelona’s attempts to get out of that 2020 contract. In de Jong’s mind, those massive loyalty bonuses are essentially deferred payments of money he had coming to him over the previous two seasons, which he agreed to defer only to help out the club in its time of need. Especially when Barça is spending money like wildfire this summer, de Jong is supposed to believe the club when it cries poverty in contract and transfer negotiations with him? And even if he does agree to leave this summer, shouldn’t Barça still pay him that €16 million?
But regardless of which side you feel is more in the right, what is clear is that Barcelona is not actually refusing to honor de Jong’s contract, and thus is almost certainly not doing anything illegal. Admittedly, the nuances of the matter are a little complicated. But they aren’t so complicated as to be outside the ken of a smart guy like Gary, especially not when many, many replies to his tweet point these very facts out to him. Not that those explanations have convinced Gary of the errors of his ways, seeing that he tweeted this on Thursday:
Jules Koundé, if you don’t already know, is Barcelona’s latest signing in what has been an unexpectedly sensational transfer window. According to the papers, Chelsea was leading the race to sign the French phenom from Sevilla, until Barça swooped in to play spoiler. Key in Barça’s success in landing Koundé was apparently the player’s own adamantine determination to subordinate all other interest to Barça’s. Something very similar was the case when Barcelona beat Chelsea to Raphinha earlier this month. It was also the case when Robert Lewandowski snubbed all other interested clubs, reportedly including Chelsea, and focus solely on getting to Barcelona.
And so we return to the previously explained context at the top of this post. Methinks that what bothers Neville isn’t so much that Barcelona is treating an employee unfairly—since what Neville accuses the club of isn’t really true—but rather that Barcelona, even after everything it’s gone through recently, still enjoys a position above Neville’s beloved Manchester United and probably every other English soccer team. Some of the best and most promising players in the world are clambering to get inside the Camp Nou; meanwhile, players of that same stature either have already or are trying to flee Old Trafford. In Frenkie de Jong, we have one player caught right in the middle, with an option to play for either club. Up to now he has made it quite clear that he’d rather endure the indignities Barça has subjected him to in order to continue living in one of Europe’s most beautiful cities and wearing some of the world’s most iconic colors than to play for Manchester United. If I were in Gary’s shoes, this probably would royally piss me off, too. But I’d probably try to do a better job of keeping it to myself, if only because jealousy is unbecoming, and I don’t think I’d be tweeting stuff that isn’t true, either.