It was a matter for enthusiastic debate in January, but in the early hours of Sunday morning the enquiries were of a rather more concerned nature. Could Luis Enrique, the coach who had just masterminded Barcelona’s double treble, really be leaving the club?
Enrique fended off repeated questions with all the adroitness of Lionel Messi slaloming through the Juventus midfield but had to concede that, "No, the truth is I don't [know if he will be in charge next season], but I'm happy at the moment. My challenge is to enjoy the moment and enjoy a good summer. The time will come when decisions have to be made.”
It says much about the environment at Barcelona – where you need to be as well versed in realpolitik as you are in tiki-taka – that winning the treble is no guarantee a manager's reign will continue. But even if this is the end of Enrique’s Barca story, after one glorious season in which they won everything, the club that has become a modern model for sustainable success will keep winning.
On a night in Berlin which provided ample plots, it was one of the more eyecatching facts that Barcelona have now won the Champions League four times in the past 10 years under three coaches: Frank Rijkaard, Pep Guardiola and now Enrique.
Luis Enrique hoists the Champions League trophy after completing a treble with Barcelona in his first season in charge
Image credit: AFP
No other club has won more than once. Milan, Manchester United, Inter, Chelsea, Bayern and Real Madrid have all seen the confetti cascade from the sky and ‘We Are The Champions’ blare out at the stadium of a major European city without being able to replicate the feat.
This perpetual ability to win marks Barcelona out from their contemporaries in a decade when the vast amounts of money flowing into the game have altered its complexion irrevocably. Power and finance is being centralised in an elite group of clubs, but even within that cabal Barcelona are an elite of their own.
Certainly Barca’s huge financial income comes into play. The Spanish government is fighting hard to dismantle the duopoly that Barca and Real Madrid have over TV rights income – with the row almost resulting in a player strike at the start of May – but the huge competitive imbalance remains in La Liga for now.
Added to their vast commercial income it is obvious why Barca were able to earn £405.2m in the 2013-14 season – but that only put them fourth in football’s rich list with Real Madrid on top with £459.5m. Such financial muscle explains Barca’s place among the super clubs, but not their dominance of them.
This is not about the power of money. It is about the power of ideas – and one grand idea in particular. It has almost become modern Barcelona’s creation myth: how Johan Cruyff descended from the heavens to create a club in his own image and instill a belief system which even to this day creates religious fervour. Enrique may have tinkered with aspects of Barcelona's approach but the fundamentals remain in place.
Iniesta, Messi, Neymar y Rakitic celebran un gol del Barcelona
Image credit: AFP
It is the idea of La Masia and the idea of football played in line with Cruyffian ethics – an ideological position on the mode of production and the style of play. First aroused by the Dream Team in 1992 it was reignited by a new generation: Lionel Messi, Xavi and Andres Iniesta, who have won the Champions League in 2006, 2009, 2011 and 2015.
Last night in Berlin, Sergio Busquets won his third Champions League with Barcelona, as did Gerard Pique, while Jordi Alba, another who received an education at La Masia, collected his first for the club. This is a golden generation to surpass any other. This outrageous collection of players explains Barcelona’s enduring success but they are the effect, not the cause. The deep philosophy at play has produced them, not the other way around, even if they’ve enhanced it to a huge degree.
A perfect season did not end with a perfect performance in Berlin: for 15 minutes after Alvaro Morata’s equaliser, as Juventus threatened to storm the barricades, it seemed as though Barca would be punished for failing to press home their advantage in a dominant first half. But the mesmeric passing moves, the dashing attacks, the Barcelona trademarks were all on display. To watch Barcelona is to watch something unique in football. Nothing else appeals to the brain in quite the same way.
There was undoubtedly something rather poignant about Xavi’s last game as he collected his 25th trophy in Barcelona honours. Some players, like Cruyff or Antonin Panenka, add to football’s lexicon, but few alter its language. But as the statistical outlier in the nascent age of analytics in football, data helped illuminate Xavi’s centrality to the dominant club and international teams of the decade and through his peerless passing performances changed how we talk about the game.
Barcelona's Xavi (C) and Ivan Rakitic celebrate with the trophy after winning the UEFA Champions League Final
Image credit: Reuters
But the system will not fail, not even without its greatest component part. Barca have already managed the Xavi transition effortlessly. It was his replacement, Ivan Rakitic, who scored the first goal last night to finish off the kind of gorgeous team move that has come to characterise Barcelona. There could of course be a moment of deeper reckoning when it is time for Messi to step away from the club - that will be the most decisive test of Barca's longevity - but for the immediate future there appears no imminent threat to their supremacy established over 10 years.
Even when the club’s management fails undergoes massive corporate failure, Barca roll on regardless. This season saw the resignation of president Sandro Rosell amid the scandal over Neymar’s transfer details; the calling of early presidential elections, due to take place this summer; and, in one chaotic day in January, the sacking of director of football Andoni Zubizaretta and the resignation of his assistant, Carles Puyol. ‘Crisis Total!’ cried the front page of Sport as Barcelona seemed to implode.
It was Enrique who led Barca out of that crisis and his treble must be seen as at least the equal of Guardiola’s in 2009 given he had to stomach the constant, often unflattering comparisons with that great team. If he stays at Barcelona it will be fantastic news for the club, but if he goes it will not be the end of the world.
Barcelona coach Luis Enrique celebrates with his team after winning the UEFA Champions League
Image credit: Reuters
“This is our 60th match [this season] – six defeats and four draws,” Enrique reminded the press at the Olympiastadion. “Those figures show that this has been one of Barcelona's best campaigns. In the last 10 years, this has been the most successful club in Europe.”
It can be a wild place, Barcelona. This is not a club immune to self-criticism or even brief bouts of self-destruction. If they get a coaching appointment wrong, as they did last season with Tata Martino, they will not win a trophy. Enrique, then, has done a stunning job. But the underlying structure is as formidable as any constructed in football.
No club will ever again win five European Cups in a row as Real Madrid did between 1956 and 1960. Football is too competitive for that and the Champions League is too exacting. But Barcelona’s era of dominance over the past decade is about as good as it gets. All because of the power of an idea.