This article was initially published in June
Do you remember when Barcelona sacked Ernesto Valverde and tried to hire Xavi Hernandez only for him to reject them and instead force them to turn to Quique Setien?
Do you remember when Lionel Messi called out Sporting Director Eric Abidal for his comments about players’ work-rate under Valverde?
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Do you remember when six of the club’s directors resigned in protest at the way the club was being run?
Incredibly all of that happened in the last eight months.
2020 has been an astonishing year so far for Barcelona and that is without mentioning the issue between the board and players regarding a potential pay-cut or taking into account that their league season was suspended for three months due to a global pandemic. Or that reports have emerged casting doubt over the future of Messi. On Friday evening they were humiliated by Bayern Munich, who stuck eight past the hapless Catalans. And now, to crown it all off they have sacked their second manager of 2020, with Quique Setien being relieved of his duties on Monday.
At the start of the last decade Barcelona were the pinnacle of club football. Yes they were about to watch their arch-nemesis Jose Mourinho lift the Champions League with Inter Milan but they were the kings of the world. Their team was a perfect blend of experienced signings and superstar academy products led by a tactical revolutionary.
Yet 10 years later what do Barcelona have to show for it? Pep Guardiola won one more Champions League title in 2011 before calling it a day at the club citing fatigue. Since his departure the team has only one more European title whilst eternal rivals Real Madrid have won four.
Barcelona's Spanish coach Josep Guardiola is put through in the air in celebration at the end of the UEFA Champions League final football match FC Barcelona vs. Manchester United, on May 28, 2011 at Wembley stadium in London.Barcelona won 3 to 1.
Image credit: Getty Images
Domestically Barcelona have been dominant, winning seven out of eleven titles, but given the disarray Real were in during the first half of the decade, and then their open prioritisation of the Champions League, how impressive is that?
Off the pitch the decade began with Sandro Rosell taking over from Joan Laporta as president. He oversaw the transition away from Guardiola and brought Brazilian forward Neymar to the club. He also signed off on Barcelona’s controversial shirt sponsorship with the Qatar Foundation, a huge break in tradition. In 2014 he was forced to resign after a Spanish national court accepted a lawsuit that alleged Rosell misappropriated funds to sign Neymar with board member Jordi Cases alleging that the amount paid for the transfer was more than was initially claimed.
While Rosell went to prison his deputy, Josep Maria Bartomeu took over. The 2014-15 season under Luis Enrique was nothing short of remarkable, a domestic treble delivered thanks to the fabled MSN partnership. But it was the same board that allowed Neymar to be stolen away from them by PSG, and has thoroughly failed to replace him since then. The result is that whilst Real have continued to dominate in Europe they also added a domestic title.
Luis Suarez, Lionel Messi and Neymar
Image credit: Getty Images
And here we are today, Barcelona finished second after La Liga's return from the coronavirus suspension, having been overtaken by Real. They have suffered one of the most embarrassing defeats in the club's history after throwing away big first-leg leads in previous years against Roma and Liverpool. Lionel Messi reportedly wants to leave. Both Eric Abidal and Josep Bartomeu are in trouble and Setien has just been fired.
How bad is the financial situation?
“They will not go bankrupt,” Eurosport Spain’s Fermin Delacalle said back in June. “But they need to sell some of their stars to solve their economic problems.
“The future of Barça and its financial sustainability goes through the sale of some of the players who were signed as stars and have not shown that category.
“[Ousmane] Dembelé, [Philippe] Coutinho and [Ivan] Rakitic will be out this summer.”
Yes those are the same Dembele and Coutinho who are the two of the most expensive signings in the club’s history and were signed in part to replace Neymar, the latter of course signed twice on Friday evening in Portugal. The Coutinho signing can be defended, it seemed like a logical move at the time, but Dembele came out of nowhere, after just two seasons of professional football.
Ousmane Dembélé of FC Barcelona
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Both have been unmitigated disasters and it speaks to the random nature of Barcelona’s transfer activity since the sale of Neymar.
The most recent of which is selling 24-year-old Arthur to Juventus and receiving 30-year-old Miralem Pjanic in return. The move has reportedly partly been conducted because Barcelona can receive €70m from Juventus to help their immediate accounts whilst the €60m they send to Turin for Pjanic can be spread out over the coming years to ease the financial situation at the club.
In the same summer that they sold Neymar, Barca signed the likes of Nelson Semedo, Gerard Deulofeu, Yerry Mina and Marlon. Since then Malcom came and went whilst the jury is out on Junior Firpo and Emerson. Before that you have the likes of Andre Gomes, Paco Alcacer and Aleix Vidal. Barcelona have never had a perfect hit rate in the transfer market but recently it has become absolutely chaotic.
After the defeat to Bayern it emerged that Barca legend Hristo Stoichkov tried to recommend teenage sensation Alphonso Davies to his old club. Only for Bartomeu to arrogantly dismiss the notion.
It just doesn't look good no matter how you paint it.
In 2017 during an interview with Bleacher Report Victor Font, who was involved in the 2015 presidential race spoke about the board and their way of operating.
"If I'm someone who wants to become president," says Font, "I have to be a member and wealthy enough to be able to put up all the bank guarantees that are needed—15 percent of the budget. Taking round numbers if this year's budget was €700 million that would be €100 million, split it up amongst 20 directors is around €5 million per head. Those are the only requirements you need.
You end up having good cules, good FC Barcelona fans, wealthy enough to put up the bank guarantees as directors, but they lack the relevant experience to govern the club. The track record they have in managing a multinational of the world of football is questionable.
Of course, Font was speaking from the outside and as someone who did not become president but his words can explain a lot when you examine the recent dealings of the club. More than ever it feels like a political game to them rather than anything to do with football. Whisper it, but it’s eerily similar to Manchester United, the team they beat in the 2009 and 2011 Champions League finals.
Perhaps it can go some way to explain why in Delacalle’s words “Messi has never had such a strained relationship with the club president".
“He has denied it several times in public, but there are elections in 2021 and Messi would welcome the return of someone like Laporta.”
The return of Laporta has been oft-mentioned as a potential catalyst for the club, and as a possible reason that Xavi decided not to return to manage the club. Might it also prove pivotal to Messi’s future?
FC Barcelona former president Joan Laporta casts his ballot during the FC Barcelona's president elections
Image credit: Getty Images
You can certainly understand the Argentine’s frustration; for years his brilliance has masked the failings of those above him and there is an argument to be made that his prime has been completely wasted. You couldn’t blame him for considering his options.
“There is much talk of Messi's departure,” says Delacalle. “But the only thing he has confirmed is that he wants to return to Argentina to play his club, Newell's, before retiring.”
Realistically you would expect Messi to see out his career with Barcelona, despite these recent reports, before a season or two back in Argentina perhaps but now more than ever things seem unclear. Is it unfair to pin everything on the board? Possibly, but the nature of the way the club is run means that the buck stops with them, there is no delegation in that regard. If they are so keen for the glamour of the role they have to accept the judgement that comes with it as well. It seems as if perhaps something is going to change following the post-Champions League exit crisis meetings but will it be enough?
When the club was well-run, and well-coached, they were the best in the world, the pinnacle for everyone else. What are they now? One of the best five teams in Europe? Possibly not to be honest, and even if they are how much of that is down to Messi?
In the past Barca and Real were elevated in part because of the presences of Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. Yet Real without Ronaldo are set to take the league lead from Barcelona and beat them 2-0 in the most recent Clasico. They have their own issues but comparatively it’s obvious that they are much better run right now. Florentino Perez may be a walking meme but he has a far greater understanding of footballing matters than anyone at the top of Barcelona and has put the right decision-makers around him. Imagine going back to 2011 when Barcelona won that second Champions League title in three years. Imagine then telling their fans they would win just one more European title over the next decade, they would have laughed at you.
Until this board start owning up to the decisions they have made there will be no changes. Realistically however with elections on the horizon next year it’s unlikely that any change will be forthcoming. As much as it pains Barcelona fans they probably have to accept that this is going to get worse before it gets better.