By Steve Alabi
Bayern Munich scandalously tore into Barcelona, Lionel Messi, and all, eight times in the semifinals of this year’s Champions League to ignite an atrocious unraveling never seen in Camp Nou in the modern era. Unfortunately, the diagnosis is all wrong. And the treatment is regrettably cosmetic. The Catalans’ management is completely befuddled and is amazingly looking for magic where it no longer resides. The result is easy to predict even for a kindergarten seer. The heights of yesterday that were so easy to attain will become difficult to reach.
President Josep Maria Bartomeu predictably went for the Zinedine Zidane solution to bring Ronald Koeman back to Camp Nou 30 years after he left as a player. The move is a poor imitation of the magic that helped their bitter rivals, Real Madrid, to rediscover their mojo. There is a world of difference between the Catalans and the Madridistas. In Santiago Bernabeu, there are gods any of which can be dispensed with. A great example is Gareth Bale, who has found himself consigned to anonymity in the just concluded season.
In Camp Nou, there is only one god, quite almighty and indispensable. The irony is that the worship of Lionel Messi, which was once the beginning of Catalan success, is now its undoing. But even if they have realised it, no one has the courage to publicly identify it. That is the cyanide pill the club has taken and which is asphyxiating it.
An overused magic loses its dazzle and potency. The greatest illusionist, Houdini, mesmerised the world endlessly because he kept reinventing his tricks. Cristiano Ronaldo must have picked one or two tricks from the master magician. When the hunger is failing him in a club, he seeks new pastures to rediscover success. But Messi is stuck in Camp Nou as an unapproachable denizen in the club’s firmament whose word is not only feared but irrebutably final. He it is who determines the key questions in the club, not the President nor the coach.
All authority in the club is deposited in the fragile but extremely talented feet of the petite battleship from Argentina. Woe betide the person who goes against His Majesty. He is sooner separated from the club.
The new coach, Ronald Koeman, has already publicly acknowledged Messi’s royalty with a well publicised statement that he wants to build the team around him. He knows he could not have been engaged to tinker with the club if His Majesty did not endorse it. He has not learnt from his predecessor, the ill-fated Quique Setién, who rode the Catalan horse fitfully for eight months, trying in vain to manage and massage the insatiable ego of the Camp Nou god. Trying to build the team around Messi is trying to reinvent the wheel. This god is now the most predictable soccer entity in today’s game. You cannot keep on building a team around the same player in the same club for years and expect success perpetually. A time must come when the shine will dip, and it has come.
The 8-2 drubbing the Catalans received at the hands of Bayern Munich in the quarterfinals of the Champions League definitively settled that and seems to have settled the keenest rivalry in modern football. The key difference between Messi and CR7 is not in the accolades each has won nor in the talent each is endowed with but in the ability of the latter to carry his team on his shoulders when the going gets really tough. Where Ronaldo can provide needed leadership and transmit energy to his mates when the chips are down, Messi has a leadership deficit that fails to lift a sagging squad. The irony is that Messi, not Ronaldo, is club captain. In the shameful defeat to Bayern when leadership was needed to inspire a resurgence, the Barca captain was incredibly absent.
He did not score a single goal. He did not provide any useful assist. He did not lift the team. He did not inspire his teammates. He did not ignite a revival. He did not spur a resurgence. He simply faded into anonymity. And the whole team followed suit and crumbled like a pack of cards. As BBC put it, “This was not just a defeat, it was a humiliation. A first defeat by a six-goal margin since a 6-0 loss to Espanyol in 1951. Their first concession of eight in a match since an 8-0 defeat to Sevilla in 1946.” But for Goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen, the score would have been more scandalous. You do not build a new team around the leader of such a hopelessly beaten side. You cannot hang the future on the sagging shoulders of a fading superstar.
The best option is to look the present in the face with cold candour and create a new future, one that can do without a single god of almightiness. Most fortuitously, Messi is bailing the club out by a resolute determination to leave. If the managers know what they are doing, they should cash in on this bolting cow and rebuild. If they hold onto him, he becomes not only an unwilling but also a ruinous horse. The consequences will be too dire for the Catalans.
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