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FC Barcelona’s battles: The football giant is left stumbling and staggering

FC Barcelona's president, Josep Maria Bartomeu. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Alejandro Garcia)

The beleaguered club, mired in controversy, is asking its supporters to remain calm and keep up their support.

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

It’s been a tough few years for Spanish club Barcelona. However, there is hope that a change in the club’s leadership will eventually result in the giant rising to its feet once more.   

One of the most prestigious sporting institutions globally – having been represented by some of the most iconic names in football history – is ailing.

Names such as late Dutch superstar Johan Cruyff, Brazilian icons Ronaldo (the first one) and Ronaldinho, Argentinian great Diego Maradona and, most recently, the likes of Xavi Hernández and Andrés Iniesta have worn the iconic blue and garnet strip of the Spanish side.

Not forgetting the exceptional Lionel Messi: the 34-year-old, during his almost two-decade tenure in Catalunya, rewrote not only the club’s history but completely altered the landscape of what people think an athlete can achieve during their career.

In the dying embers of the presidency of Josep Bartomeu, the stratospheric heights reached by the club over the past 15 years almost ended in the sewer after being flushed down the toilet by Bartomeu and his board.

“I can’t say if he is the worst [president the club has had],” long-serving Barcelona defender Gerard Piqué said recently about Bartomeu.

“From what I have lived, he must be [up] there. We are all guilty, but it is true that the club [has] not gone where all the Catalans want. Now I am hopeful and excited. The next five or 10 years will be very good for Barcelona.”

Coincidentally, Piqué is one of the players – both current and former – for whom Bartomeu allegedly hired a public relations company to run online smear campaigns against, merely because they were critical of the direction the club had taken during his almost seven-year reign.

This resulted in Bartomeu, five months after his resignation as president, being arrested in March 2021, alongside some of Barca’s other board members. They were accused of misusing the club’s funds to see this campaign against the players come to fruition.

Before Messi’s eventual departure to join Paris Saint-Germain on a free transfer, the Argentine had pushed for a move away from the club during the 2020 European summer transfer window.

The club, along with LaLiga, moved to halt the departure of its most prized asset.  

Two years before Messi joined the club, it had revenues of $123-million (R1.82-billion), which, during the pre-Covid-19 pandemic season, had risen to more than $1-billion (R15-billion). It is also estimated that after the pint-sized left-footed magician’s stock started rising within the footballing ranks after his debut in 2004, the Blaugrana’s value increased by well over 150%.

So, it is understandable why the influential number 10 grew resentful of the president after being forced to stay when he was itching to depart from an ailing club.

Messi’s insistence on leaving was probably triggered by how Bartomeu conducted business. Anyone who has followed the Argentine since he burst on to the scene as a teen with surfer-long locks knows how much he adored his boyhood club. He would not just up and leave.

“I believed that the club needed more young players, new players, and I thought my time in Barcelona was over. I felt very sorry because I always said that I wanted to finish my career here,” he told Goal of his first failed attempt to jump ship in 2020.

“I told the president and, well, the president always said that at the end of the season, I could decide if I wanted to go or if I wanted to stay. And in the end, he did not keep his word.”

Laporta returns

That Messi would not have considered departure had things been going swimmingly under the former president became evident when Bartomeu’s predecessor, Joan Laporta, was re-elected to the hot seat after the former’s resignation under pressure.

During Laporta’s first tenure, which began in 2003, Messi began to establish himself. Although it could be argued that the Argentine would have become the phenomenon he is with or without the 59-year-old’s contribution to the club.

Nevertheless, Messi’s rise – and one of the most emphatic phases of dominance by a football team – coincided with Laporta’s period as president.

It was during Laporta’s tenure that Barcelona, with their golden generation of players such as Iniesta and Xavi and managed by Pep Guardiola, firmly entrenched themselves as one of the finest football teams to set foot on the pitch, between 2008 and 2012.

So, it made sense that when Laporta ascended to the presidential seat once more, Messi changed his mind about wanting to leave. Unfortunately for the duo, and Barcelona’s supporters, the club was and still is in financial crisis. This meant that it could not afford to re-sign the 34-year-old, and he subsequently left as a free agent for Paris.

Other high earners such as Antoine Griezmann and Miralem Pjanic also left the club, which helped Barcelona shuffle around their finances and at least register their new signings – the likes of Memphis Depay and Sergio Aguero – who joined as free agents but also with significant wages.

“You know we are living difficult moments, and these are the moments you need to stand by us… The team needs it.

“Try to remain calm, we know what needs to be done, and we will solve it,” Laporta said in a recent statement.

On-field frustrations

Ansu Fati of FC Barcelona during the La Liga Santander match between FC Barcelona and Levante UD at Camp Nou on 26 September 2021 in Barcelona, Spain. (Photo: Pedro Salado / Quality Sport Images / Getty Images)

Although the Blaugrana registered four league titles and one Uefa Champions League trophy during Bartomeu’s reign, the club’s decline has been evident for all to see.

An aggregate 8-2 defeat at the hands of Bayern Munich in the last eight of the Champions League in 2020 was the lowlight of Bartomeu’s term. It was the first time the club had conceded eight goals, albeit over two legs, since 1946.  

Recently, the two sides clashed in Europe’s premier club competition, with Bayern running out comfortable 3-0 winners in the group stage match. 

The club’s decline was so significant that the score left few who were associated with it surprised, as was evidenced by Piqué’s comments after the thrashing.

“The result is rough, and playing at home, it’s a bad result. We can’t lie to ourselves,” Piqué told Spanish broadcaster Movistar. “It is what it is; right now, we are who we are.”

The club, which is unlikely to make any marquee signings soon, is now heavily reliant on the products of its prestigious La Masia youth academy.

Oscar Mingueza (22), Eric Garcia (20), Gavi (17), Riqui Puig (22) and Pedri (18) are seen as the light at the end of the tunnel. The most promising, Ansu Fati (18), has already been handed the iconic number 10, which was previously worn by Messi and the mind-boggling Ronaldinho. 

With talented youths at their disposal, a turnaround is not impossible for Barcelona. It will, however, take time and patience to return this iconic club to its former glory. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.

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