FOOTBALL IS A FICKLE WORLD. When a club is doing well, all seems plain sailing, with everyone over the moon. But when the club starts to sink towards the precipice of decline, the blame game begins. No one assumes responsibility for the mistakes that have led to troubles, and the club continues to meander on.
Football is also a cyclical sport. Clubs may enjoy a sustained period of success, like Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United, but success is a mirage that does not last forever. It runs out eventually, and clubs are rarely prepared for the fall, often blinded by fantastical hopes that troubles are far off. Ferguson was United’s bedrock, and his departure triggered their fall from the starry heights they once enjoyed.
With Barcelona, it appears that their slow demise has been caused internally, like a malignant tumour that most people had assumed was benign. Josep Bartomeu, President of FC Barcelona, has always received flak for the way he has run the Blaugrana, but it’s reaching its apex, casting blurry lines on a messy legacy. In the eyes of many fans, Bartomeu is the football version of Angel Eyes, but in reality, he is more in the mould of Tuco Ramírez, the ugly rather than the bad.
It was ironic that the last straw may have been Neymar’s sale, given that he was the player who was the subject of circumstances that brought Bartomeu to power. Sandro Rosell, long-term friend and colleague, was the president when the Brazilian was lured from Santos, beating Real Madrid to the punch, and in the process celebrating the capture of the superstar.
While the club claimed they spent just €57.1 million on the player – a bargain price now – the actual figure was later revealed to be €86.2 million. Rosell and his board had chosen to hide the taxes that were part of the deal, triggering a wave of controversy. When judge Pablo Ruz launched an investigation into the club, Rosell stepped down from the presidency.
Enter Josep Bartomeu. Vice-president to Rosell, he was announced as the new head under the club’s constitution to complete Rosell’s term. He came into the limelight under a wave of tax fraud accusations, while his predecessor had his own litany of charges to fight against. It was hardly the most welcoming of backgrounds, and it provided a glance into the chaotic boardroom at Barcelona, a swirling whirlpool of madness that hadn’t been evident in the team’s performances.
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As he was paraded at the Camp Nou in front of the press, he made the transition from club member number 15,247 to president number 40. And that brought its own challenges too. For even without the Neymar allegations, being the head of Barcelona is no piece of cake.
The club’s motto, Més Que Un Club, is a representation of what it stands for. They’re more than just a club. They represent Catalan politics and are a symbol of the region. They kept their jersey sacred for a long time, but eventually gave in to the lure of money and allowed a sponsor to blemish the stripes. Most people considered Barcelona as a symbol against modern football for a long time, a beacon in a world of money, but that identity has been resoundingly shattered.
Attaining success is the goal of any club, and in most scenarios, the ends justify the means – as long as the means are legal. But at Barcelona, the means are restricted. The powers that be have to maintain the high standards of the club and its identity at the same time.
It used to be all about the style of Pep Guardiola’s tiki-taka, and about youth nurtured through the famed La Masia academy, luring fans across the globe in search of purity. The club was built from within, grown from a sapling in bustling Barcelona. Guardiola was a Catalan and a student of the great Johan Cruyff, while the virtual core of the side was built in La Masia. Those were times that obscured the slow push away from the club’s identity.
Guardiola may have ironically kick-started the atrophy of the academy by luring Thiago Alcântara, one of the club’s finest assets, to Bayern Munich where he had just taken control. Pep knew Thiago was the missing puzzle in his concept, and demanded his signing be the first one. At €25 million, the midfielder was a steal, partly because his release clause of €90 million dropped as a result of less game time at Barça.
It was the same summer in which Neymar arrived to challenge Messi as the main man at the club. The signs were all there; the club was willing to spend massively on a precocious albeit inexperienced 21-year-old, but gave into Bayern’s demands for a player of their own. Most fans haven’t forgiven Rosell for this misdemeanor, for as it stands, Thiago would fit perfectly into the mediocre midfield at Barcelona.
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But in Lionel Messi, the club has its saviour, the man who so often covers up his beloved club’s flaws by inspiring its success. The summer of 2014 saw Barcelona undergo a restructuring of the club. While academy graduates left or retired, there was an influx of talent from elsewhere, including a certain Luis Suárez, one of the most lethal strikers in the world. His arrival heralded the start of the feared ‘MSN’ trident.
And yet despite the success on the field, there were troubles off it. One loss against Real Sociedad saw the club terminate the contract of club legend and director of football Andoni Zubizarreta, which then saw assistant director Carles Puyol quit. As always, though, the off-field troubles were masked by the performances on it. Despite an argument between Messi and Luis Enrique, the club delivered the treble, and all was fine. At least for the time being.
The transfer ban imposed for the registration of players under the age of 18 was a sign of incompetence, and its consequence – the lack of business in the summer transfer window – hamstrung the squad. The signings of Arda Turan and Aleix Vidal, to be registered in the winter, was sound in theory, but in reality they were not of the required quality. That was expected given no world-class player would sit out half a season twiddling his thumbs at home.
More academy graduates left, but the departures of Xavi and Pedro were most significant. The midfield legend has never truly been replaced, while Pedro was one of the few Barcelona loyalists happy to be a bit-part player. The team ethos that Cruyff had inculcated worryingly transformed into the attacking trident which became the Atlas of the club, carrying its burden. Trophies were delivered again, but outside of the first 11 players, the squad became stale.
This was only the onset, though, for the signing of André Gomes the following summer was a clear sign that Bartomeu was leading the club into increasingly murky waters. The club had had a reasonable window up to that point, even with the departures of more academy graduates such as Sandro and Munir. The sale of Marc Bartra, in particular, was an example of poor management as he left for under €10 million. But Gomes was the tip of the sinking iceberg.
It was paraded as a success when Barcelona beat Real to Neymar, and so it was. In a similar manner, the Barcelona board attempted to spin the signing of Gomes, in excess of €50 million including variables, as a success. But fans knew better; Gomes was a talented player, and while he was scapegoated rather unfairly, his performances reflected a man devoid of confidence.
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It was a deal, along with that of Paco Alcácer, again from Valencia, this time for around €30 million, that reflected a political agenda. Real Madrid had the better end of the tussle, for as it stood, they already had a superior midfield.
Madrid, fresh from a Champions League triumph, re-signed Álvaro Morata to be a back-up. Barcelona splurged more than €100 million and ended up with a squad inferior to their rivals, and a first team arguably weaker than the previous season following the exit of Dani Alves on a free transfer – another example of mismanagement.
The Copa del Rey hardly amounts to a successful season, especially for a club of Barcelona’s stature. The dramatic 6-1 victory over Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League papered over visible cracks exposed by the earlier 4-0 loss in the first leg. It was a victory high in drama but arguably undeserved. What it did was prolong the appraisal for another day.
In Joan Laporta’s words, Bartomeu has been “a disgrace who’s kidnapped Barça with intoxication and lies”. It was Laporta who set Barcelona into its golden era by facilitating the progression of Guardiola. It was he who paid UNICEF for the privilege of having their name on the jersey, ending a tradition of not having sponsor names. UNICEF, like Barcelona, is a prestigious foundation.
But Rosell and Bartomeu moved the club away from their rightful moral high ground in their desire for commercial success. Deals with Qatar Foundation, Qatar Airways and controversial Japanese company Rakuten are examples of the current board’s financial and commercial focus, reducing any transparency in their dealings.
Although Barcelona may try to convince the fans that it’s an inflated market, the truth is they failed miserably in their pursuit of various targets, hence their desperation for income to remain relevant. They fell on their own sword in giving Neymar a low – relative to Real Madrid, anyway – release clause, and they took their time with deals to their own detriment. And that’s not to mention the Paulinho signing, for whom the club spent €40 million on, and has airs of a political deal linked to Bartomeu’s company. Some are now even speculating that they may never have been serious about Philippe Coutinho either. Indeed, that saga highlights greater concerns.
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Chief of these is the lack of any succession plans at the club for Xavi or the ageing Andrés Iniesta – for whom Coutinho would have been the replacement. Even more worrying is the lack of a succession for Messi. It used to be Neymar, but he packed his bags and left. It may well be Ousmane Dembélé to pick up Messi’s mantle, the toughest replacement job in the world.
Not only is the club hurtling away from the values it’s based around, they are also falling behind Real Madrid, a beacon of meticulous planning at the moment. It used to be the other way around, and it’s a double whammy that fans are not willing to take on the chin.
It’s difficult to put a positive spin on Bartomeu’s time at the club, even as a neutral, for the on-field success can hardly be attributed to him. The progression that the club has made off the field has been remarkable in terms of financial gain, but sponsorships were not what the club used to seek to achieve glory.
By general parameters, Bartomeu has achieved success, but by the parameters set by Barcelona fans, he has failed to live up to those key morals. The values of the club have been pawned off for extra money. It is no wonder why fans are furious; they’ve become just like any other club.
Barcelona, once the steadfast and idealistic club that the world adored, are slowly drifting into a black hole of materialistic and capitalist gain with no direction. It may take the return of Laporta to solve things, but even that is no guarantee, and he carries his own baggage and enemies.
By tempting fate with Messi’s agreed but unsigned contract, they are signing off on the end of an era. With Messi as Barcelona’s on-field saviour, the club are afloat. A reality without that may be too harsh to handle. It’s time for Bartomeu to move on for the sake of his own tarnished legacy and reputation, but mainly for the sake of the club he runs.
In William Shakespeare’s words, “no legacy is so rich as honesty”. Bartomeu and his board have displayed all but honesty in their time at the club, lying to socios and fans about their transfer policy and other issues. That Bartomeu will be remembered for leaving the club more than anything else speaks for his eventual legacy and his standing amongst the fans. It’s an ugly picture and one many couldn’t have envisaged just five years ago.