BARCELONA, (Spain): Big numbers in football have largely lost their power to shock, such are the enormous sums increasingly being thrown around as a matter of course: pounds 5.1-billion for Premier League television rights; pounds 150-million for Louis van Gaal's summer transfer war chest; pounds 17.50 for a pot of wasabi peas at the Emirates Stadium.
Yet some figures retain their capacity to startle, and thus it was with this little nugget I gleaned this week: Thomas Vermaelen's buy-out clause at Barcelona is euros 80-million (pounds 59?million).
And yet, you uncharitably suspect, Barcelona might just be persuaded to let him go for less right now. This week, another injury setback looks likely to rule Vermaelen out for the rest of the season. He missed Barcelona's game against Manchester City last night, just as he has missed every game since signing from Arsenal last summer.
Fans are becoming restless. Andoni Zubizarreta has already paid for the fiasco with his job as sporting director. And so a signing that seemed strange at its outset has only gathered in strangeness: a loveless marriage that also serves as a peculiar parable for our age. Vermaelen is one of the increasing number of moderately gifted non?playing footballers floating through the game: squad ballast, a pounds 15-million counterweight, an extra in his own career.
For the purposes of balance, we should probably list some of Vermaelen's Barcelona highlights too. Last August, he was unveiled at the Nou Camp, managing to perform 16 keepy-uppies for the crowd before the ball squirmed away. There was his reserve-team debut against Indonesia Under-19s. And then there was that guiltily mirthful video of him trying to squeeze his Audi into the club car park, a process that took more than two minutes and involved half a dozen attendants wildly flapping their arms.
Apart from that, though, very little. Such was his plight that before a game against Espanyol in December, his team-mates warmed up in T-shirts saying "Cheer up Thomas". Which, if we are honest, is really just one step short of the full charity treatment: the sponsored walk, the #JeSuisThomas social media hashtag, the solemn video package in which Xavi explains that with your help we can pay for Thomas's entire house to be moved 10 yards back, so he can experience the sensation of being out of position without having to put his boots on.
This is a situation with which Arsenal fans will be dimly familiar. During his final season, he was club captain without ever actually playing, thus rendering him the Premier League's most expensive programme columnist. His departure left a giant void in the squad that did not go unnoticed by his team-mates. "Best of luck to @T-Vermaelen05 at Barcelona," Aaron Ramsey tweeted. "Will miss our rounds of golf."
So football has been largely been starved of Vermaelen of late, and the contention is that this is football's loss as much as Vermaelen's. There is a puppyish enthusiasm to him that is weirdly compelling to watch: a centre-back who clearly believes he has a higher calling. You sense that Vermaelen became a defender more out of expediency than anything else, in the same way that parents pretend to be Catholic to get their kids into faith schools. Tell Vermaelen to sit tight, and he will return to the dressing room 90 minutes later with a sheepish grin and the match ball under his arm, still bathing in the warm glow of an exhilarating 5-3 defeat.
For now, though, all this is on ice. Even when Vermaelen returns to fitness, he is unlikely to edge out Gerard Pique or Javier Mascherano for a first-team place. His time at Barcelona is thus likely to be spent in limbo: tweeting thumbs-up photos from the treatment table, giving optimistic interviews to the club website, perching at the margins of open-top bus celebrations. "Is that Thomas Vermaelen? It is, you know. What's he doing there?"
And yet, there is a way out. Remember that release clause? If every Telegraph reader donated just pounds 125, we could buy out Thomas Vermaelen's Barcelona contract, release him from his purgatory, set him free. Imagine the look on his face. With your help, Vermaelen could be roaming the pitch once more, terrorising opposition defences, terrorising his own. Your money could make the difference. Thank you.