- Graham Hunter is a Barcelona-based freelance writer for ESPN.com who specializes in La Liga and the Spanish national team.
You have to hand it to Barcelona. They’ve put years of the same effort, consistency, doggedness and imagination into careering downhill toward their 8-2 humiliation and self-flagellation against Bayern Munich as they once did into carefully building up to what’s widely acknowledged as the greatest Champions League final performance of all time at Wembley in 2011.
This era of Josep Maria Bartomeu’s club presidency, and the previous one, appear to have been on a mission to root out every trace of common sense, existing wisdom, identity and any of the other elements that once made FC Barcelona the greatest team in the world. And, boy, they’ve put their heart and soul into it.
Perhaps they’re aware of an award system, about which the rest of us know nothing, for setting an objective, even if it’s a negative one, and achieving it with such massive success? In which case they should be dusting off their dinner suits and gowns because the gala night must be coming pretty soon.
– Marcotti: Bayern’s brilliance the story of the match
– Ratings: Barca woeful all over the field in defeat
– Stats: The numbers behind Messi’s worst ever loss
– Champions and Europa League fixture schedules
If it emerged that there had been a check-list circulating among the club’s various decision-makers over the past five years that read: “Would Johan Cruyff make this kind of decision?” and if the answer was “Yes” the decision had to be reversed, then no one would be shocked.
It takes a special kind of obstinate nihilism and rampant self-regard to inherit the kingdom of Cruyff — via a succession of disciples like Pep Guardiola, Txiki Begiristain, Frank Rijkaard, Joan Laporta, Tito Vilanova and Andoni Zubizarreta — to be inducted into the rules, to benefit from the vast degrees of football wealth and admiration that brings, and then still behave like sporting Visigoths and tear the empire down brick by brick.
I’ll be very disappointed in the decline in football humour if, next season, some wags at Real Madrid or Atletico Madrid don’t hold up a big banner that says: “Thank you, Agent Bartomeu, your mission has been accomplished, return to base.”
And at this point, I need to make it crystal clear that only to Barcelona fans, true supporters, is the score on the board at the Estadio da Luz the big headline. That’s a stain on the history books, but it passes. Rust, rot and fetid decline does far, far more damage and for longer.
Good luck to Barcelona’s fans with their pain, the fear of going out in public in order to avoid mockery, embarrassment or football shame for the next few weeks. All of those opposition clubs and supporters who’ve been made to kneel and eat humble pie over the past 15 years frankly deserve their moment of schadenfreude, they really do. But there really is a far bigger context than simply what happened in Lisbon on Friday night.
The first recorded trace of the phrase “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me” is at least 350 years old. Yet the people in charge at Camp Nou, in a very wide variety of positions (principally the presidential office) either haven’t heard the expression or, in fact, have no shame. If a heavyweight boxer walked into the same telegraphed punch round after round, he’d either be declared unfit on a technical knockout or his corner would throw in the towel. If a motorist repeatedly turned into oncoming traffic or kept on failing to notice a stop sign, they would have their licence withdrawn.
One of society’s important constructs is the presumption that repetitive, self-destructive behaviour is an indication of something being badly wrong. That intervention, education and re-direction are essential. And if the first evidence is spotted, but not acted upon, it’s then a case for blame, investigation and remonstration if it keeps on happening.
My point is that this laying waste in Lisbon hadn’t so much been hinted at, while Barcelona were humiliated by Paris Saint-Germain (4-0) and Juventus (3-0) in 2017, Roma (3-0) in 2018 and Liverpool (4-0) last year, it was like the football gods were holding a giant placard over the heads of Barca’s staff that read: “Your continued ineptitude and inability to even recognise that ineptitude, let alone correct it, means that you’re going to hell in a handcart.”
Perhaps the font size wasn’t big enough?
This is what I mean about Bayern’s mauling of one of their greatest European rivals not actually being the really big story. This is simply an advanced version of Paris, Turin, Rome and Liverpool. Losing by a six-goal margin to a team that can now equal your record as the only club to win the Treble twice is hideous. But being told the knockout punch is coming, having people shouting it at you from the sidelines, continuing to drop your guard and then jutting out your chin … well. When you’re on the floor, head spinning, spitting out teeth and wondering if it’s Wednesday or Westminster — that’s your own damn fault.
This week, previewing the match for ESPN, I pointed out:
“……If there’s one athletically superb team going into this tie….. with attractive momentum given their recent propensity for scoring seven times against English rivals – it’s patently not Barcelona.
“Perhaps, just perhaps, Barcelona have one of their most remarkable modern performances up their collective sleeves …. the evidence, however, says no. Loudly.
“Bayern have too potent a combination of skill, aggression, physical power, speed and stamina.”
Friday night’s corrective experience was coming. It was simply a question of time, and then of whether anyone was willing to learn the important lessons. It’s only a corrective if corrections are made. Only the self-deluded didn’t know all this. The self-deluded includes Bartomeu who, a couple of weeks ago, declared Barcelona to be favourites to win this Champions League.
We are talking about a squad that, in Lionel Messi’s own words a couple of weeks ago, is now regularly beaten by teams like Granada, Levante and Osasuna “because they show more intensity and hunger than us.” If those three, plus Leganes and Celta Vigo in recent seasons, can give you the rag-doll treatment, then a side as daunting as Bayern’s will brutalise you.
Messi’s damning words were last month. But they were reported as him being angry rather than daring to point out what nobody else was willing to — that the Emperor isn’t wearing any clothes. The bigger point was missed. Again. He mentioned the need for institutional review and change from top to bottom… just as Gerard Pique did postmatch on Friday.
Neither is shirking responsibility but both know, and have clearly discussed, that there’s something rotten in the state of the Camp Nou. That this board must be evacuated as soon as is feasible. And to quote Pique, the Catalan club has “hit rock bottom.” Partly because Barca, as a squad, are old and tired. Partly because their key players have, literally, won everything. (Who knew that success rusts the elite sportsman…? Well, everyone. And their neighbours.) Partly because there are too many players at Barcelona who aren’t elite.
Some who are not elite at all (Nelson Semedo), some who were elite but now aren’t (Luis Suarez, Arturo Vidal, Jordi Alba and Sergio Busquets), some who could still be elite but need to be functioning within a dynamic, challenging and talent-ridden atmosphere (Pique, Antoine Griezmann, Frenkie de Jong, Clement Lenglet, Marc-Andre ter Stegen, Ivan Rakitic, Samuel Umtiti). And then there’s Messi — tired and reduced not just by Father Time, but by the extra effort of carrying so many people on his shoulders for so long. But the biggest factor in Barcelona hitting “rock bottom” is that the board has systematically torn up or discarded all the rules which the various Cruyff eras taught them.
It’s arguable that the 8-2 defeat is a great way to commemorate the 20th anniversary of Florentino Perez’s smash-and-grab raid for Luis Figo. Back then, the Real Madrid presidential candidate was street-smart beyond belief in how he ripped the Ballon d’Or winner out of Camp Nou pretty much against his will. Barcelona’s “headless chicken” response 20 years ago in terms of how they re-evaluated (not at all), how they sharpened up (the opposite), how they re-invested the world-record fee they received for Figo (atrociously) has been beautifully mirrored by the absolutely chaotic manner in which the modern Barca has responded to losing Neymar in a similar way three years ago.
But the absolute nadir of Blaugrana headless chickenry arrived in Lisbon on Friday night, exactly two decades after the club and fans felt as helplessly humiliated and embarrassed as they do now. Bartomeu and his acolytes were wholly unprepared for Neymar leaving them for Paris even though the warning signs were there for months. Honestly, a child could have deduced what was happening when he turned down both a wage increase and the club’s wish to raise his buyout clause. Barcelona just carried on blithely and were caught with a sucker punch that had been telegraphed for about nine months.
Once Neymar stomped off, this board not only failed to re-assess their performance, their priorities, their decision making or their football manual, but they made things significantly worse by handing out fat contract renewals to players who, frankly, needed to be either replaced or feel challenged rather than ultra-secure. Just FYI, Busquets and Alba, who look dog tired and are in their very late autumn years athletically, have contracts for three and four more years respectively.
Institutionally, the past three years have, literally, been a re-run of the years between 2000-2003 when Barcelona alternated between being a figure of fun, a trophy-less desert and an institution careering toward a desperate cash-flow problem. More lessons that have gone unlearned. The key difference is that the football era Bartomeu and Co. have squandered and complacently misused benefited from players who were talented, tough-minded and determined enough to keep winning trophies. While the wheelhouse was overtaken by terrible decision-making and faulty strategy, the sailing line was maintained because the crew was worth a thousand of the commanding officers.
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The thing Bartomeu’s reign wanted to be famous for was their financial turnover. Would they rate higher than Real Madrid in the rich lists? It became an obsession. It’s the kind of cart-before-horse nonsense where the overall lust for cash quickly obscures the real football values, corrodes the health of the relationship between a club and its squad, and ignores the delicate micro-climate in which the local fans’ love for the club exists.
This board used Messi. Forgive the animal metaphor, but instead of thinking of the best way to protect and support their “G.O.A.T.” (greatest of all time), they viewed Messi as a cash-cow, no more than a part of the Barca brand and a means to global marketing nirvana. They piggy-backed on his greatness, wondering not how they could support him, make him greater still, prolong his excellence but how much they could make out of his fame and global adoration while he was still active. It has been disgusting.
And then, having suffered the impact of Real Madrid’s original “Galactico” era, they failed to notice either that Perez had moved on strategically, or that his new idea was bearing fruit. Just as Madrid’s president stopped insisting on buying whoever the best in the world happened to be at the time and began to throw all his resources into discovering the cream of youth talent before anyone else, Bartomeu began to adopt a “Galactico” buying strategy of his own. Playing catch-up (20 years too late) by abandoning all Cruyff principals, trashing the club’s existing philosophy and then doing the whole job badly, anyway. It has been a farce.
The overall prices (including agent fees and wages) for Philippe Coutinho, Ousmane Dembele and Griezmann weren’t simply far too high compared to what should have been spent. Those footballers were bought largely because they were shiny new toys for the board to boast about. No one at the club seems to have known precisely what to do with any of them.
How comical it will be if Barcelona will have to pay Liverpool €5 million they can ill afford if Coutinho — who scored two goals and set up another as a second-half substitute on Friday — wins the Champions League, but with Bayern instead of the club that owns him. The Brazil midfielder, at Bayern, has fitted into a much more demanding climate and re-produced his Liverpool form because he’s in a working environment that is rigorous, where the training ground is all-for-one-one-for-all and demands intensity. He’s played 36 times for Bayern this season and scored 11 goals. Not bad.
Griezmann, who had a clearly defined position at Atletico and for France, was bought for over €100m and then asked to re-invent himself as a left winger. More inept planning and decision-making.
Dembele? Well, no matter how much this ultra-exciting footballer has to learn about taking care of his highly strung physique, I’d point out that Arjen Robben was widely perceived to be made of glass until, at Bayern, he was taught how to become a robust, high-performance winning machine. His injury record went from atrocious to amazing. Barcelona haven’t come close to this kind of holistic resource protection with Dembele. They are, as usual, either wholly, or partially, authors of their own downfall.
I truly believe that over the years I’ve addressed all these issues, and more, on these pages. Now’s not the time to begin to speculate whether Messi leaves, or to where he might go.
And in the midst of a pandemic, when every rival club will view Barcelona as sitting ducks to be asset-stripped at cheap prices or fleeced for every cent if they come looking to sign players, it’s extremely hard to imagine anything positive coming out of the chaos of presidential elections being advanced from their obligatory date, next summer, to this autumn.
Barcelona are between a rock and a hard place and, mostly, it’s their own damn fault.
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