By Matias Grez
In recent times, mention Barcelona and the word “crisis” probably isn’t too far behind. For a number of years, talisman Lionel Messi, widely considered to be the greatest player of all time, has been the glue that has held the Catalan club together.
His consistently brilliant match-winning performances have papered over the figurative and literal cracks that have been steadily widening at the Camp Nou.
Yet this season especially, an aging team without an apparent identity has seen performances and results fall apart, regardless of Messi’s exploits; off the pitch, the regeneration of the stands of a once great stadium has been put on hold due to the financial difficulties Barcelona finds itself in.
Without a trophy so far this season — the team finished five points behind Real Madrid in La Liga — the Champions League offers Barcelona one final chance of silverware.
On Saturday, it welcomes a rejuvenated Napoli to the Camp Nou for their round of 16 second leg, with the scores delicately poised after the 1-1 draw in Naples. Defeat would undoubtedly be a disaster and would present Barcelona with its first trophy-less season since 2007-08.
“We’ll see what happens, but I see a black future,” Catalunya Radio journalist Ernest Macià Ballus tells CNN.
At the turn of the decade, Barcelona was, in many ways, the model for any elite European club; a young visionary coach with a clear philosophy, a revered and highly productive youth academy and a clear transfer strategy.
Pep Guardiola’s promotion to head coach from the Barcelona B team in 2008 signalled the start of the most successful era in the club’s history.
With a core of graduates from the club’s academy, La Masia, Barcelona won 14 trophies during Guardiola’s four seasons in charge, including an unprecedented treble for a Spanish club.
Fast forward eight years and only Messi, Sergio Busquets and Gerard Pique of the acclaimed La Masia alumni remain on the pitch, while the rest of the club appears in disarray. So, what has gone wrong at the Camp Nou?
Barcelona’s ‘Espai Barça’ project, the ambitious renovation plan for the Camp Nou and surrounding area, was due to be completed by next year. Instead, it hasn’t even begun.
The estimated cost of the project is reported to be between $600 million and $800 million, money the club has struggled to raise.
Some of the blame can be apportioned to the coronavirus outbreak, but this is a project which the club has wanted to undertake for more than a decade.
The enforced lockdown due to the pandemic brought football to a halt around the world and slashed clubs’ income through ticket sales and television rights deals.
Barcelona was particularly badly affected. The club’s wage bill is the highest in world football, according to a report published by UEFA earlier this year.
The Global Sports Salaries Survey by Sporting Intelligence puts Barcelona’s average annual salary spend per player at $12.3m for the 2019-20 season.
According to Barcelona’s last accounts, up to June 30, 2019, the wage bill for all their sporting teams, which includes basketball, handball among other teams, was 671 million euros ($792 million), with the vast majority going to the football club’s first team.
That year, the club’s turnover was 990 million euros ($1.16bn) and projected to increase the following year.
However, with money no longer coming in through gate receipts, TV deals and museum tickets, first team players and staff had their wages reduced by 70% in March to “minimize the economic impact” caused by coronavirus.
Barcelona, of course, was not the only major European club to enforce a salary reduction, but it laid bare the precariousness of its current finances.
These problems have been exacerbated by the club’s move away from promoting La Masia players to the first team — an academy which has developed a host of stars, notably Messi, Guardiola, Andres Iniesta and Xavi — instead choosing to spend vast transfer fees and wages on already established stars.
Barcelona has reportedly spent more than $1 billion on transfer fees since the 2013/14 season.
The world record $263 million sale of Neymar to Paris Saint-Germain in 2017 temporarily plugged the financial gap, but the club immediately spent the money trying to find an adequate replacement for the Brazilian, often paying big on desired players.
Around $170 million was paid to Liverpool for Brazilian forward Philippe Coutinho, whose unproductive time at the club came to end with a loan move to Bayern Munich after less than two years in Barcelona.
Another $120 million — plus $45 million in potential add-ons — was reportedly spent on the largely unproven Ouseman Dembele from Borussia Dortmund.
The Frenchman has shown flashes of his potential, but his three years at Barcelona so far have been defined by several long-term injuries that have limited him to just 74 appearances.
Most recently came the $135 million signing of Antoine Griezmann, who has so far failed to replicate anything close to the form he showed while at La Liga rival Atletico Madrid.
Such are its current financial woes, the club sold promising young midfielder Arthur to Juventus in exchange for the 30-year-old Miralem Pjanic.
These signings, and many others, have not only negatively impacted the team, the results and its finances, but also the very fiber of what it means to be FC Barcelona.
“There have been problems with how they basically run the club, as far as money is concerned,” Macià says.
“Bringing in players with high prices, players that didn’t work. They did buy some good players, like Frenkie de Jong, for example, a young and talented player, but … he needs to adapt to our philosophy.
“But if there’s not anyone who ignites this philosophy, it’s difficult. If there’s not a leader that tells the new players how we play at Barcelona, it’s difficult because the only priority is to win the next game. And if this is the only priority, you will never win that title.
“[We cannot] play like an ordinary team. Other teams are better at playing ordinary [football], like Milan or Inter, they do not need to play beautifully and with a style, they have good players and they are good at it.
“While in Barcelona, they need to do something more than just win titles … and it still won’t be enough.
“So Barcelona will need a reconstruction and, I’m afraid, they wouldn’t have enough money to do it.
“They wanted to refurbish the Camp Nou and the project has been stopped. They also had to build a new [arena] for basketball and other professional sports at the club, and this project has been stopped as well. There’s no money for these projects.”
‘Soul of the club lost’
Back in 2012, the season after Guardiola left the club, his replacement Tito Vilanova famously fielded an entire 11 of players who had graduated from La Masia.
Barcelona beat Levante 4-0 that day and it was an occasion heralded around Europe, as the academy was put on a pedestal as the gold standard for other clubs to aspire to.
Messi, Busquets, Pique and Jordi Alba still remain from that side, but La Masia’s production line has since slowed. In the subsequent eight years, only Sergi Roberto has graduated to become a first-team regular.
“From 2004-2010 there was a policy for years of bring players from La Masia to the first team,” Macià says.
“When Guardiola was the coach, everything was easier for these young, talented players growing up in La Masia. But then Guardiola went and the coaches that came here were basically focused on trying to win and the current board didn’t force them to try and raise players born in La Masia, so the soul of the club has been progressively lost.
“It’s gone from ‘More than a Club,’ which is the motto that is still in the stands, to more of a simple club in which you can see a good football team, but one that is losing its identity.”
While the board’s decision to focus on big-money signings, instead of nurturing its own talent, could be the root cause, as Macià also noted, Barcelona is also no longer able to hold onto La Masia’s most promising stars.
Cesc Fabregas’ move to Arsenal in 2003 as a 16-year-old is perhaps the most famous example of this, but it’s a trend that has continued.
Manchester City defender Eric Garcia, Paris Saint-Germain midfielder Xavi Simons, and Manchester United-bound Marc Jurado are just three of La Masia’s most gifted youngsters to have left for pastures new.
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