The slow descent of Lionel Messi and FC Barcelona | La Liga 2019-20
The Barcelona captain has increasingly become disenchanted with the way the board has been running things, from appointing managers to bungling in the transfer market, repeatedly failing to bolter a team that has not been a confident Champions League contender for quite some time now.
But what really got the goat of Messi, was a comment that he took as nothing short of an insult. Eric Abidal, the Director of Football at FC Barcelona accusing some players of underperforming under recently sacked coach Ernesto Valverde.
The club captain let his disdain known and the response in calling out Abidal had the board quaking in their boots. It is quite apparent that he holds a lot of power at Camp Nou, but not enough to get him fired, but he did get the support of Barcelona legend Rivaldo, and of the Barcelona supporters.
FC Barcelona is one of the few clubs in the world to be owned by the club members themselves. The 140,000 club members (socis) forming the governing council realise that there is a systemic rot. 3 high profile signings have been following the laws of diminishing returns; with a gulf of difference in the player they signed and the player they get once he puts on the Barcelona jersey. Ousmane Dembélé, Philippe Coutinho, Antoine Griezmann, all above €100 million players, all stuttered and struggled to display their trickery and nous at Barcelona, owing to various combinations of injuries, lost mojo, and playing out of positions.
The board has essentially wasted 5 of Messi's prime years. Barcelona just has the genius to bank on, who for his own good is taking way too much of responsibility, when no one else around is willing to take accountability. A side with half a dozen players touching 30 and increasingly not playing in a way, rhyme, rhythm or pattern that they used to, has punctured the aura of Barcelona. It has not got the attention that an implosion would have demanded. That said if the crushing Champions League losses to AS Roma in 2018 and Liverpool in 2019 after holding such commanding leads in the first legs are anything to go by, these were twin implosions in successive years, which should have jolted them into action.
Far too often they are getting played in the transfer window. The club probably goes by the idea of Mes Que un Club in hubris and complacency, not in spirit and elegance. This is a sure descent, a gradual decline, a case of the frog in a pot with gradually boiling water.
It has become more than clear that Messi needs support and players to share the burden. The effortlessness of tiki-taka takes a lot of effort. It needs players of great calibre and intelligence. Barcelona is guilty of repeatedly not shoring up their defence and not investing in midfield wizards. The board kept on diluting the club philosophy until it lost its zest. And Messi seemingly has lost his nerve. If Barcelona wait for the Presidential elections to happen and the board to change, it will be too late, if not for the club, then for their talisman. Football is a better sport with a joyous Barcelona and a free-spirited Messi. That spirit is shackled now, unsure of the heights it can surge, too afraid of failing to reach out for the ecstasy of success.
It is a travesty that such a club has not build a great team since 2015. The faults are papered over by the league wins from a tapered version of Barça. The pragmatism has brought wins, but at what cost? The fans realise it and that's why the 'Valverde Out' cards were out. Despite consecutive La Liga trophies, the ex-manager was seen to have drained the club of its slick passing playing style, with the intent more on passing the ball sideways than scything forward with it. To say that fans are disenchated is quite the understatement. The dissent is because of the descent of Barcelona. Slow but sure.
Club President Josep Maria Bartomeu still has his plush chair and Messi is, if not scoring hat-tricks assisting hat-tricks. But the decay has set in.
They might still exceed expectations and go deep in the Champions League, but winning it would require a lot of collateral damage amongst other clubs and Lionel Messi to put up a show in every leg, every round going forward. That is a probablity, but an unlikely one. With Luis Suárez and Dembélé both out of action and no replacement signed, it is looking very hard for the Catalans. Quique Setién as a manager has a mountain to climb. But, only if they crash out sooner will it truly qualify as a crisis. Even then, heads might not roll.
To compensate, Neymar will be pursued to come back to Camp Nou. Heaven knows he wants to return to the hallowed turf that he left for the Qatari Rial ridden Les Parc de Princes, seeking that golden orb given out by FIFA. Perhaps, he will jump at the decision to swap the Parisian arrondissements for the gorgeous grid blocks of Barcelona. Maybe they need a coach who can put their arm around the young La Masia kids and youngsters like Riqui Puig, Ansu Fati, or Arthur Melo, and tell them they are good, they are the future, like Pep Guardiola did. Maybe they just need to bring in Eric ten Haag as their manager and the Barçajax model will bloom again.
The home has to be tended and nursed and the slogan on which it was built has to mean something. Maybe therein lies the answer, the flock has to return home. Could Guardiola? Unlikely until 2021. Would Neymar? Likely in 2020. But can anyone make it happen?
Can any of board members even try to align the stars? Because right now, Barça is but a disjointed acculturation of fading players. If the board were half as Cruyffian as Messi is or even a quarter of a culé as Xaviesta are, if they were truly dyed in the Blaugrana colours, this state of affairs should have hurt deeply.
It has hurt Messi and he has, according to grapevine which is tending towards the truth, said that he wants the club President, Bartomeu out. It is him or I. The 6-time Ballon d'Or winner has a breakaway clause in his contract and he can walk away. The Barcelona board can no longer use La Liga as a figleaf to hide their deficiencies and embarrassment; seeing as they are already out of Copa del Rey and Real Madrid are better placed to snatch the Spanish league title from them.
There is a saying that when small men begin to cast big shadows, it means that the sun is about to set. They are feeding off the club's goodwill while simultaneously dissipating it. It’s the board that needs to be sacked.
If Lionel Messi was really in charge of this club, you could bet every Argentine Peso in your wallet and your jacket had for it to happen.
Published 13 Feb 2020, 15:39 IST