Xavier Asensi: "I remember the days of the Barçagate case with sadness and anguish. It affected me"
BarcelonaInter Miami, the football team presided by Jorge Mas and of which David Beckham is co-owner, will play in front of its home crowd in US professional soccer (MLS) this Sunday for the first time. It is an ambitious project that has signed a Catalan to be its director, Xavier Asensi (Barcelona, 1981). At the age of 21, Asensi already left for China, and has spent half his life away from home. Director of Barça's Asia-Pacific (Hong Kong) office since its inception for over five years, in 2018 he returned home to become the club's new global commercial director. Asensi gives an interview in Catalonia for the first time.
Do you feel bad about being known as the man who refused to sign the Hong Kong invoices in the famous Barçagate case, and not for being responsible for making Barça the club with the highest revenue in the world?
— I can understand what has happened. A negative scandal like this is news, and from what I've seen you can't avoid making some headlines. Certainly what I did was my decision, 100% personal, and I can't and won't hide. If private emails become public I can't do anything about it. I didn't want to carry out those payments, period. Regarding what you say about being known, in terms of the club's all-time record revenue, I have to say that it wouldn't be fair to put it all down to me either. It is down to a team effort made by a lot of people.
Did you suffer at work in retaliation for refusing to sign those invoices, not knowing what they were? Many workers say that the atmosphere was unbreathable in the last few months.
— I remember those days with sadness and a certain anguish, yes. I'm a big Barça supporter and passionate. Everything that happened affected me. As you can imagine, like any company, if your superiors ask you to do something and you refuse to do it, it's not the best of situations. In life I have always been guided by several principles, or values, if you like. A phrase that sums up my philosophy of life quite well would be the one that says that "one is the owner of one's silences and the slave of one's words", and I would add, "and above all of one's deeds".
Were you surprised by the magnitude of the Barçagate case once the press reported it?
— Yes. I've read things that have surprised me unpleasantly. However, it must be said that once I refused to pay the invoices from Hong Kong, they didn't ask me for anything more. Time will tell if all these things that have been published are true or not. I understand that this is still in the courts, and therefore there have been no rulings on anything.
The Hong Kong office has been in the news for the unsigned invoices. But it was also one of the big sources of income for the club. Hasn't the work done there been sufficiently explained?
— The Hong Kong office was born as a possible answer to the question of how to try to increase the club's revenue. Because of my previous experience in China, the CEO at the time, Toni Rossich, asked me to think about how we could grow in China. I presented him with a plan to grow in Asia-Pacific and not just in China. By 2011-2012 at Barça we had hardly any Asian sponsors. The plan was to be on the ground 365 days a year, with local people, and not just going on trips. Toni Rossich believed in it and decided that we should invest. Today, apart from Rakuten, the club earns more than 20 million euros a year from sponsors and other revenue streams in the region. However, we can't forget that Barça is a football club, where the sport is the most important. Therefore, it is normal that the sporting news and also bad news, because of what I said earlier, will always receive more clicks than news that is not related to the sport and that perhaps is only seen positively by a small part of the audience. It's normal, people want headlines, and in the world of football even more so.
Speaking of potentially bad news, there has been talk of bad management in recent years. Do you agree with that?
— You'd have to define what management in this case. Management can be sporting, social or economic. I'm not the one to give my opinion beyond basing it on objective data and, therefore, I can only talk to you essentially about economic management. A good management in this field would be basically that the club, or the company, obtains benefits at the end of the exercises. That is to say, that the income is greater than the expenses, and if possible without increasing the indebtedness.
Well, we are talking about a club with losses in the millions and a level of indebtedness never seen before, right?
— That is correct.
So, mismanagement or covid effect?
— The covid effect certainly hasn't helped, but in this case I don't think it's the ultimate cause of the club's financial situation. Not only that, but I think this is where you have to remember that Barça were the highest earning club in world football during 2019 and 2020, according to Deloitte Money League. And as far as I know covid has unfortunately affected us all as badly.
Spending was not part of your area. Did it hurt you to see what your area generated being spent? Are you leaving because of this?
— No, no. I'm not leaving because of the club's financial situation. I think people who know me know that I don't leave places out of fear, tiredness or discouragement. In both work and life I try to do things on the positive side and not the negative. I leave because at the end of 2020 I received an offer that makes me very happy and to which we understood that we could not refuse as a family.
From a distance, but knowing the situation club is in, can Joan Laporta can raise a project in a few months that will allow him to sign players and renew Messi?
— Life can be understood as a state of mind, but you cannot ignore either the economy or gravity. As optimistic as you may be, which I think is fine, what cannot be denied is reality. And this is no other than that the economic situation of the club is critical. And, if the economic situation is critical, spending on new players or maintaining such a high wage bill I think it will be complicated. This industry is like a merchant ship. You can't change course overnight. It takes at least two seasons, if not three, to reverse situations or general dynamics. You are very conditioned by contracts, decisions and obligations of the past. Last season closed with losses, this season will close with losses and the total figure will be two or three times last season's figure. I would venture to say that next year there will surely be losses too, not least because of deferred payments, and it won't be until 2022/23 at the earliest when the club will be back on the profit track. That said, I'm glad to hear the positive message that is launched from the club and hopefully it will be for Barça's good. Especially the part about renewing Messi.
What would have to be done to return to the path of €1bn revenue?
— Many things. Order, work, success, firmness, vision, leadership, humility, generosity. And above all, above all, getting the ball in.
With all this context, does Messi get paid too much?
— It depends. Only time will tell us the true dimension of Messi. I personally believe that Messi surely generates what he charges. Now, the question is whether this is sustainable over time, and whether a better formula couldn't have been found. To give you an example on the level of Messi, I could tell you that I don't think Tom Brady has ever been the highest paid quarterback in the league, but on the contrary, he's the one who has won the most on and off the field. Obviously, I don't know if we'll be lucky enough to enjoy Messi until he's 43 on the pitch, but in any case I think the first piece of information is relevant and useful for comparison. Could Messi renew his contract with Barça? Well, it depends. In the end it is above all about two people who want to agree. As I said before, hopefully for the good of Barça this will happen.
Therefore, do you think it possible to renew Messi and sign a new star?
— As I said before, I believe in the economy and gravity. Seeing the current economic situation of the club, I find it difficult to believe that you can pay high transfer prices and maintain the wage bill at the current level. What's nice about it all and gives me hope is that there's a big part of the equation that still depends on the skills and attitudes of everyone put together. However, by default I don't believe in miracles.
Is the Espai Barça project still feasible?
— Well, to build a stadium you have to spend money. And, if you don't have it, you have to go into debt. To get into debt, basically in this industry you have two models. One is the traditional one, the one that Real Madrid has done, for example. If you have the capacity to get into debt, you take out a loan and negotiate when to start paying it back. Depending on your economic situation they can offer you better or worse conditions. It would be normal to negotiate to start repaying the loan once the works have been completed. The lower the risk for the borrower, the better the conditions for the club. If, on the other hand, you can't "get into" more debt directly, you have to look for creative formulas. One is the formula that has been explained with Goldman Sachs. You take out a loan and say that you will pay it back thanks to the future income from this investment. Whichever way you look at it, beyond the fact that it may be a more or less necessary investment, what is clear is that if you don't have the money to build, someone has to lend it to you. And, if someone lends you money, you owe it to them; therefore, you get into debt (even more), since this money you will have to pay back. Therefore, to your question of whether it is feasible, what would be feasible would be feasible; however, perhaps it would be good not to spend more than you can.
The words naming rights have accompanied you in recent years, first at Barça and now at Inter. Why was it not possible to close a contract for the future Espai Barça?
— Unless the company or the future sponsor that buys the asset is part of the shareholders, normally an asset like this is sold once the work is finished, and not before. If I remember correctly in 2014 we voted in favour of a project that would start in 2017 and would be completed just now, in 2021. Imagine what a mess if in 2016 we had sold the naming rights. All said, the governance model of the institution does not help.
Are you saying that Barça's model doesn't work?
— The current governance model clearly doesn't help. Maybe 20 years ago it might have made sense, but nowadays it's more than obsolete. This model generates such a high risk that, instead of prioritising the search for talent, what it does is look for who can vouch for it. The essence of the reasons why this system was created has been lost.
Let's go back to naming rights. You also had to look for the name of the stadium of Inter Miami. And in the very country where stadiums were first given names
— Certainly the concept of naming rights was born in the United States, yes. This is explained by the existing league format, with franchises as opposed to clubs like in Europe. Most of the commercial rights are owned by the leagues and franchises could only grow by investing in stadiums and selling as much as possible, among many other assets, the name of the stadium itself. With this they managed to escape certain limitations with which the league only lets you advertise within a radius of certain kilometers from where the franchise is. This is done, among other things, to protect the local markets of each franchise in each sport. As you can imagine, this in the 21st century and in the digital age could not be ruled out to be revised someday. We Europeans even wanted to import this idea, but we have reached a point where it has been copied so well that we have even copied what can be improved. For example, I think it's common knowledge that Bayern Munich's home stadium is the Allianz Arena, isn't it? Well, when they play the Champions League, look at what they call it. What's more, in 2023 the Champions League final will officially be played at the Football Arena Munich. I say all this because for me the issue of the naming rights goes beyond that and I understand that whenever possible it would be good if it was a platform to communicate and not just a commercial name. We at Inter Miami are very proud that the company AutoNation has accepted our proposal to use a campaign they started years ago under the name of DRV PINK. This campaign basically serves to raise awareness and funds for research and the fight against breast cancer. We felt it was a cause worth amplifying as far as we could and so we asked for our stadium to be called DRV PINK Stadium instead of AutoNation Stadium. They agreed and we are very happy with how well it has been received, both nationally and internationally. With this, and playing with the rules of the game, I think we have achieved that when the world talks about us, or our stadium, at least publicises a cause that in my opinion is necessary and beautiful. I think everyone is a winner and we are proud to have opted for a different idea. Let me say that all this would not have been possible without the full support and willingness of the owners of Inter Miami, so both personally and professionally I am very grateful.
What have the shareholders of the new club asked of you?
— What the owners have asked of me is that their investment is made profitable as soon as possible, and if possible in the best possible way. That means maximising revenue and increasing brand value. The more exceptional the things we do, the better. You have to create a brand that is close to the community, that can be loved. Don't just raise a club that wants to win money and titles, which is obviously also the idea and we don't hide from that.
You had several offers when you worked at Barça. Why did you choose to go to Inter Miami?
— Barça is undoubtedly one of the biggest clubs in the world and therefore a great showcase. As you say, and especially over the last three years, I've been lucky enough to receive several offers from other clubs and organisations. For one reason or another, it was never the right time, or looking back now, maybe it just wasn't the right time. But when I got this call in October, I talked to my wife and, as I said before, we couldn't refuse. It was what I had always dreamed of. It was what I had always dreamed of, working with ambitious owners, who are always looking to win, a project in a city with a lot of potential. Besides, I've always loved and admired of the United States. Now, leaving home is always hard, and even more so when you've been lucky enough to be born in Catalonia. But I've already spent more than 10 years living between China and Hong Kong, and although leaving is always this, this time I've left with better company than ever.
How would you explain to the public back at home how football in the United States is and what the project of Inter Miami is?
— MLS has room for improvement, of course. But it's still growing at a very high rate. The level of play is not the same as in the Champions League, but it's becoming more and more attractive. It wasn't so long ago that the big stars were going to sign their last contracts in China, but now we're hearing big stars openly saying they want to come and compete in MLS. I think, once again, David Beckham set a very smart and interesting path. After winning La Liga with Real Madrid he decided to come to Los Angeles when he could have easily stayed in Europe. Not only that, but then he went back to Milan or PSG. In this line I can tell you that working with Beckham is a pleasure and it helps a lot. To have as a shareholder, co-owner and leader a historic England captain, a world icon, being the first one to set an example at work, is priceless and, as I said, it helps a lot in many ways.
We see young Argentinian or Brazilian players preferring to go to the United States rather than to Europe, is the next step to see young Europeans preferring to go to the United States rather than to the French league, for example?
— It's already happened. Not with the big stars, of course. But it has happened with players like Oriol Rosell, who could have played in Europe for clubs like Sporting Portugal but chose to come here. The average salary in MLS has grown a lot in recent years. A lot of people want to come here first, with a high standard of living and their own way of doing business, rather than being at an average European club, for example. What is clear is that MLS is not yet at the level to compete with the top 10 in Europe... but everything will come.
Will we see Messi and Luis Suarez at Inter Miami in a few years, then?
— Players have to decide what to do with their time and their lives. And in the case of Leo and Luis, they've earned the chance to go wherever they want. In Miami their adaptation would be very easy, because culture and language, with a very high quality of life. Messi has already said that he would want to play in the MLS and, if you look at the league's franchises, Miami I think would be the ideal place to facilitate his landing in a new country. It would be easy for him and his family. But the decision is his, and his alone.
You'll be able to have spectators in the stadium for Sunday's opener...
— It's like living in a parallel reality. Since April 5 in Miami everyone can get vaccinated if they are over 18 years old. The percentage of vaccinated population is very high and the economy seems to be picking up again. In Texas, baseball games have started with full stands. We will have 50% capacity, with a crowds with no safety distance because Florida state authorities allow it. It's been months since I've seen a sight like that, it's going to be shocking. Last season, in our league debut, the first game was played in Los Angeles and when it was time for the pandemic broke out. It will be the first time that we will be able to see thousands of people in the DRV PINK Stadium, and this will be very special for everyone and we will remember it for sure.