Raphinha took a trip to Disneyland Korea last week and, after keeping the relegation wolf from the door at Leeds United, it was a case of off one rollercoaster and onto another.
We’re into the close season but football never stops and where Raphinha is concerned, this summer promises to be quite a ride.
The Brazil squad were in South Korea to play a friendly — where they emerged as 5-1 victors — and Raphinha’s international ascent has been so steep that wherever Brazil go these days, he goes too. He is their overnight success story. He took his leave from Leeds a fortnight ago with no cast-iron guarantee that he would ever be back, his future hanging on developments in the transfer market.
Leeds have spent the best part of a year fielding questions about how long they can hope to retain the electric winger they signed from French club Rennes at the start of the 2020-21 season.
They encounter the same questions about Kalvin Phillips but there has long been a view that persuading the England to stay put at Elland Road, at least in the short, will be easier than pinning Raphinha down.
As Leeds wrestled with relegation last season, only finally fighting it off on the campaign’s final day, the general feeling was that the 25-year-old would gravitate towards bigger things once the summer transfer window opened, moving to the level he is patently good enough to play at.
In that sense, Leeds staying up has changed very little.
They are sympathetic to Raphinha’s ambition and do not intend to be unfair or obstructive if their valuation is met. They no longer anticipate him accepting a new contract — something that appeared to be on the cards midway through the season — and although Raphinha has not directly asked for a transfer, it is no secret that he sees himself as a Champions League footballer. The names of the clubs being linked with him prove that others see him as a Champions League footballer too, and it already feels certain that a fit Raphinha will be in the Brazil squad for the World Cup this November and December.
All the same, survival as a Premier League club left Leeds holding a helpful number of the cards.
Raphinha’s contract contains a relegation buy-out provision that would have allowed him to leave for well below his market value had Leeds gone down, and it is no coincidence that Barcelona’s interest in him intensified in the period when Jesse Marsch’s side looked doomed. It was no coincidence either that Manchester City’s attention regarding Phillips became more formal and concerted as the odds on Leeds falling into the Championship shortened sharply.
Relegation would have made Leeds vulnerable to low offers and other clubs knew it.
As it is, they are under no pressure to consider cut-price bids or allow third parties to dictate to them.
Raphinha has two years left on his deal and Leeds will be conscious of the fact that, if he stays, his value will be significantly lower in 12 months than it is now. But sources have indicated to The Athletic that it is likely to take a bid of between £60 million and £70 million to get Raphinha out of Elland Road — potentially four times what they paid for him less than two years ago.
Barcelona are his prime suitors and the club where all the noise about Raphinha has been coming from — the club who seemed destined to sign him for many months.
But the question for Barcelona is a pointed one: Can they actually afford this deal?
Time was when the ownership in Catalonia could rattle off a signing like Raphinha in any given window, when virtually no transfer target was impossible. But Barcelona are a very different animal now, with debts of more than £1 billion and strict controls on their recruitment and expenditure.
A club who were forced to part with their talisman Lionel Messi on a free by La Liga’s rules last summer are no more able to flex their muscles a year on, and they face a challenging window unless they can find new streams of revenue or raise significant funds through player sales.
La Liga’s application of a tight salary cap at the Nou Camp, far below the limits placed on their 2021-22 title and Champions League-winning arch-rivals Real Madrid, have seriously limited Barcelona’s spending power.
Their situation was summed up this week by La Liga president Javier Tebas discussing whether they were in any position to acquire Bayern Munich’s wantaway striker Robert Lewandowski for a £25 million fee and wage annuals of around £17 million.
“Barca know what they have to do,” Tebas said. “They know perfectly well our economic controls and their financial situation. I don’t know if they will sell Frenkie de Jong, Pedri or Pepito Perez (a Barcelona-born actor who died in the 1970s). They have to fill up their tank, which is empty. As things stand, they cannot sign Lewandowski.”
Of course, the club’s hierarchy, including president Joan Laporta, were unimpressed by those comments.
Laporta accused Tebas of “damaging Barcelona” by speaking publicly about their recruitment. But it is true they have only limited financial flexibility.
Barcelona have agreed to sign free agents Andreas Christensen (from Chelsea) and Franck Kessie (AC Milan) but, as things stand, do not have space under their salary cap to register them. Head coach Xavi also wants Ousmane Dembele to sign a new contract but the forward has not accepted any of the club’s offers and could depart for nothing with his existing deal now up.
As Tebas said, before any new signings, Barcelona need to load up their coffers again. Laporta and his fellow directors are looking at several ways of doing that, including the possibility of belatedly entering into La Liga’s controversial CVC deal. They have the option of selling future TV rights to an investor and could raise additional cash by relinquishing stakes in their BLM merchandising arm and Barca Studios production firm.
Estimates set the potential earnings from those potential agreements at more than £650 million, although much of it would have to go towards paying off existing debts.
There is also a long list of players Barcelona would like to move on, thereby creating additional wiggle room and freedom under the salary cap. These include back-up goalkeeper Neto, defenders Sergino Dest, Samuel Umtiti, Clement Lenglet and Oscar Mingueza, players Miralem Pjanic and Riqui Puig, and forwards Memphis Depay, Martin Braithwaite and Francisco Trincao.
The complication is that finding willing buyers for some or all of the surplus crowd will be difficult, not least because many of them are on large salaries. This explains why they are open to the idea of selling De Jong, closely linked with Manchester United recently. Though the 25-year-old Netherlands could be seen more as an asset, he is also a player Barcelona easily use as collateral.
A clearer picture of where Barcelona stand should emerge after an emergency general meeting on June 16 and the end of their financial year two weeks later.
The priority for Laporta and the directors around him is to build a competitive squad for next season and the players they want to sign for that include Raphinha and Lewandowski. They are also keen on Manchester City’s Bernardo Silva, Carlos Soler of Valencia, Sevilla’s Jules Kounde and two more Chelsea players in Cesar Azpilicueta and Marcos Alonso.
While it is inconceivable that they will land all of those names, they want to give themselves a fighting chance in the 2022-23 La Liga after runners-up but 13 points adrift of champions Madrid last month.
That Barcelona turned their attention to Raphinha in the first place is no surprise.
His agent, Deco, was a star player for them in the early years of this century and is very close to Laporta.
It was reported in February that Deco is effectively the Catalan club’s chief scout in South America, the market where he picked up Raphinha as a teenager at Avia, a club who have yo-yoed between Brazil’s top two divisions over the past decade, before moves to Vitoria Guimaraes and Sporting Lisbon in Portugal, then the switch to Rennes in the summer of 2019.
Perennial German champions Bayern have been touted as another possible destination for the winger with Lewandowski pushing to leave but they have made no contact with Leeds. Barcelona, on the other hand, opened channels of communication a while ago but their interest has not ramped up in the two weeks since the English season finished.
Those financial handcuffs mean Barcelona’s 2022-23 squad is unlikely to be finalized until very late in the summer window.
The answer to the question of whether they can afford Raphinha might be unclear for a while yet. Barcelona might try to dangle excess players in part-exchange, a way of cheapening any deal for them. But La Liga’s salary-cap rules would make that process complicated as a set percentage of money received would have to be spent servicing their debt.
Also, Leeds have pre-existing plans for the coming window and might not be interested in a cash-plus-player proposal.
Survival on the last day of the Premier League season averted an out-of-control summer at Elland Road.
With the 2022-23 calendar rejigged to accommodate a winter World Cup, this off-season is so short that Leeds are due to begin pre-season training in a matter of weeks.
At this juncture, there is a high probability that Raphinha will be with them when they do, albeit after some extra time off to compensate for international duty.
Where this ends remains to be seen but Leeds are in the box seat, with no reason to bend on their price, rush into anything or do anyone any favors – Barcelona least of all.
(Top photo: Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)