Barcelona is burning. A glance at the horizon in the direction of Spain and you can see the flames licking the sky, centered on the city's biggest attraction, FC Barcelona's Camp Nou. The fire, which has been smoldering quietly for years now, has already caused considerable damage: the play on the field is curiously aimless, the ability to strengthen the squad in the transfer window has been lost to FIFA sanctions, and the sporting director has been fired. New manager Luis Enrique looks to be the next log pitched into the pyre, with reports everywhere claiming he's lost the players and is in the midst of a battle of egos with Lionel Messi. Slowly but surely, though, the winds have finally blown the fires to where blame for the catastrophe ultimately lies: the club boardroom. Barça fans hope something better emerges from the wreckage, but before that happens, we will see the destruction of what has been the greatest era in modern soccer history.
It's disappointing if not surprising that, despite a demonstrable record of sustained mismanagement, what truly threatens the continued run of the people who somehow fucked up the unfuckupable is the play on the field. The most obvious scapegoat in the team's struggles, which started during the end of the Pep Guardiola era and have continued unabated since, is Luis Enrique.
A look at Barcelona's standings in the major competitions would have you believe everything is pretty much fine in Culéland. In La Liga, they're just a point behind the best Real Madrid team in ages. In the Champions League, they managed to win their group fairly comfortably in the end, despite heavily-fortified PSG's strong push. Messi is looking better than he has since his peak form a couple seasons ago, Neymar is developing into everything we all thought he could be, and Barça have done all this before Luis Suárez has fully meshed with the team.
However, things are not as positive as they seem. What was once a team defined by its midfield-driven tiki-taka now has little to no overarching structure to speak of. Despite the heroics of Messi—who has taken on an incredibly demanding role as the primary goal scorer and sole playmaker—and Neymar, the club still has a hard time working their way through deep defenses. And perhaps consequently, in almost every big game of the season, Barcelona have underwhelmed.
Sunday's 1-0 loss against Real Sociedad was a perfect example of the recurrent problems of Enrique's team. There was the lack of consistency: he's yet to feature the same lineup in any two league matches, and this time he left out the season's three best performers, Messi, Neymar, and Gerard Piqué. There was the lack of planning: Messi and Neymar were rested since they'd only had two practices ahead of the match after their extended winter holiday, an extension Enrique himself granted them. Most troubling of all was the lack of any semblance of an overarching strategy.
Only a couple seasons ago, the midfield threesome of Sergio Busquets, Xavi Hernández, and Andrés Iniesta was the envy of the world. They played specific roles that maximized their considerable talents and laid the foundation for Messi to do his thing. In Enrique's setup, the midfielders are mere bit players, subordinate to the forwards to whom they get the ball as soon as possible, watching from afar as the attackers attempt to hack their way through the thicket of defenders in the center of the pitch. With Enrique's tactics, each man's defensive positioning in protection of the full backs-cum-wingers is more important than Xavi's tempo-controlling passes or Iniesta's flitting dribbles and defense-unlocking one-twos and Busquets's perfect ball circulation. The three forwards are told, "Do whatever," which is often interpreted to mean, "Go it alone," while the midfield must maintain a rigid structure that doesn't really facilitate the attack.
Since those three midfielders, along with the other La Masia grads in the squad, were kids, they were drilled in the ball-dominating, short-passing positional play infused in the club's very DNA. It's often said that Barça fans would rather the team lose playing beautifully than win playing ugly, and that's very close to accurate. (Even Barça fans at some point shout at their TV screens, "Quit passing it already and shoot the damn thing!") And the forward-dominant, Messi-dependent style of Enrique does little to help the star attackers achieve anything close to beauty on the field.
Now, it's generally to a manager's credit if he lets great players do what they do rather than restricting them to some overly rigid or complicated scheme, especially if it leads to success. However, Sunday's loss and many of the other instances where Barcelona dropped points shows how easily thwarted this style of play really is. Just charge at the ball once it gets to a midfielder, choke the player's available passing lanes—which are already limited by the rest of the team's disjointedness—and either bide your time chasing around harmless back passes or intercept the low-percentage speculative balls up to the unlinked forward line. Enrique's "system" requires near-perfect levels of play from Messi and Neymar in order to work, offers little support when the super two aren't at their best, and doesn't play to the strengths of any of the seven non-attacking outfield players. And if Messi and Neymar aren't on the field, as was the case during the first half Sunday, God help anyone expecting anything good to happen.
Still, second place in La Liga is second place, and a Champions League group win is nothing to scoff at. Enrique is not the David Moyes-esque dunce he's made out to be. His rational adjustments made between matches and the largely positive results prove he isn't completely out of his depth. When negative results have emerged, he's addressed them with sensible moves in accordance with what many of the smartest fans have called for. The reliance on the forwards reflects both the fact that Barça have the one of the best attacking trios of all time and that the midfielders have gotten older, slower, and altogether worse, without many (if any) of the potential replacements who have been brought in even capable of reproducing the play of the Guardiola years. And let's not forget, that Guardiola team that continues to enchant the memories of observers, as if the matches of 2010 continue to play out in spectral form simultaneously on top of every subsequent match in the Camp Nou, was probably the best team of all time. Comparing any team to that one is an exercise in futility.
No one in and around the club is immune to the comparison, though, which has resulted in the manager's current predicament. And while Enrique doesn't appear utterly tactically lost, the worrying part is that none of his tampering seems to be leading anywhere. The team now looks further away from reaching its potential than it did early on in the season. There have been rumors for a while now about the players' discontent with how Enrique has run things, with his lack of ideas on how to play and his famous strictness. (Gerard Piqué, currently back in the manager's good graces, was ostracized for much of the first part of the season for his immature hijinks, which included setting off a stink bomb on the team plane.)
The shit really hit the fan after the latest debacle, though, because of the great chance they had to make a statement in the new year. Earlier in the day, Real Madrid lost to a very strong Valencia team, meaning Barça could have provisionally (Real have played one fewer match) topped the table with a win. After all the season's troubles, Enrique and his team had a shot at some redemption. Instead, we know what happened.
The next day—a holiday in Spain, which soccer teams often use to mingle with their young fans—Messi was absent from the open training session. The official reason was a bout of gastroenteritis, but that didn't pass the smell test. There had to be more. Soon after, the hot rumor was that he didn't train because he was mad at Enrique for not starting him, a kind of protest he's indulged in before, even in happier days. (While the dueling narratives of "Messi the Little Dictator" and "Messi the Saint" are both overly reductive, Messi is undeniably a ferocious competitor, prone to anger yet also fiercely loyal. He's a more nuanced personality than both his detractors and admirers would generally allow for.)
That little dustup was just the start. What was maybe one instance of the typical locker room ego tests common in all sports, or maybe just a stomach bug, was suddenly evidence that Messi hated, hated, hated his manager and wanted out. Enrique was reportedly furious at Messi's absence. The manager didn't buy the excuse and was about to formally write up the forward for his insubordination before being talked out of it by the three other team captains, who said they'd try to smooth things over. It's since come out that the Messi-Enrique beef has been boiling for a while now, complete with locker room confrontations and a complete collapse of communication between the two.
Everything seemed to point towards Messi inching towards the door. Transfer rumors have surrounded Messi for years now, despite him renewing his contract every other year as he and Cristiano Ronaldo take turns being the highest paid player in the world. In light of all this, the new scuttlebutt had him packing his bags for Chelsea or Manchester City, eager to get away from Enrique and the relative mediocrity at the club keeping him from the titles he so desperately longs for.
New goat entrails to study for clues as to the underlying issues between Barça's star and the manager came in the form of social media. On Facebook, Messi apologized to the young fans he was unable to visit with because of his absence from training. Meanwhile, his Instagram profile told a different story. Someone had the bright idea to check who Messi followed there, and wouldn't you know it, Chelsea and two current Chelsea players formerly of La Liga Thibaut Courtois and Filipe Luiz were among his most recent follows! This was it! The smoking gun!
Either Messi really had just orchestrated the most modern of "Come get me!" pleas, or, as another theory had it, he was sending a message to the board and fans that he wanted Enrique and the rest of those in charge at Barça out or else. Apparently he knew this series of IG follows would be discovered and parsed for meaning when earlier ones, such as his long-standing following of Man City's page and his good friend and Citizen Sergio Agüero, were not. (Very clever, this Messi.)
Of course, rumors of Messi's imminent departure are greatly exaggerated. With Financial Fair Play, it's basically impossible for almost any club—even the incredibly rich ones like Chelsea and PSG—to make the transfer and comply with the rules. He'd cost at least something like €200 million, and the only clubs with the combination of revenue and high-value parts to ship out in return are probably Real Madrid and Bayern Munich. The former is obviously impossible, the latter unlikely for a number of reasons. And that doesn't even touch on how Barcelona would be strengthening a direct European rival with no way of recouping on the loss due to the transfer ban, or how much he loves and feels like he owes Barcelona for taking a chance on him as a kid. In short, there's a better chance Messi gets to handpick the next manager, the next president, the next sporting director, and a whole new cast of teammates than there is that he leaves in the next year.
All of this focus on Enrique and Messi and whether Ivan Rakitić is being used correctly and if Javier Mascherano should play instead of or beside Busquets in defensive midfield has been a distraction, though, taking attention away from the true villains here. The problems on the pitch are intractably linked to the problems in the board. Put simply, the Sandro Rosell/Josep Maria Bartomeu regime has royally fucked up the club. The biggest example is the transfer ban, upheld by the Court of Arbitration for Sport only last week, which was caused by the club's flouting of straightforward (though admittedly poorly-aimed) rules about the signing of foreign youth prospects. Instead of copping to the problem as a whole, the club tossed their chosen scapegoat, the club's director of football, to the angry hordes by announcing his firing on Monday. Bartomeu is only the standing president right now because Rosell, who had been in charge since the summer of 2010, decided to resign after the judicial investigation into improprieties with the Neymar transfer. (There were all kinds of payments to third-party owners and Neymar's father hidden in the transfer fee, apparently meant to mask the true value and bypass taxes.)
The current board are the ones who went scrounging for sponsors on a jersey that had so long gone unadorned, or with only the UNICEF logo, by drumming up a fake debt crisis. Their concocted money problems also led to an austerity policy, whereby they refused to invest much in transfers just so their year-end balance sheets would show off impressive-looking profits to the voters as proof of their fiscal responsibility. (The recent problems on the pitch, from the rapidly deteriorating and aging midfield to the dearth of able bodies at center back, can all be traced back to this frugality.)
A partial litany of their other ignominious acts: they ran off the club's biggest icon, Johan Cruyff, going so far as to even strip him of what was nothing more than an honorary title; had a frosty relationship with Guardiola himself, which probably to some degree aided his departure; refused to offer a new contract to the beloved Eric Abidal after his successful bout with cancer; just recently had a lawsuit thrown out that was against their old pals in the previous board, from whom they sought repayment for their alleged financial lapses (and which most likely was just a way of sullying their names ahead of the planned presidential elections in 2016); and the alienation of Messi, including allegations that they secretly tried shopping him on the market for the past two years. The list of fuck-ups both large and enormous could go on. With the greatness of Messi, Xavi, Iniesta, and the like no longer masking the mismanagement underneath everything, the board scrambled to protect the only thing they care about: their power.
Andoni Zubizarreta, the now-fired sporting director, was the obvious fall guy after the transfer ban was upheld. It wasn't that anyone thought he had much culpability in the illegal youth-prospect signings; he was simply the obvious, unpopular executive the board could sacrifice to hopefully save their own skins. With everything that's been going on, Enrique looks to be next, either sooner or later.
More important, however, is the fate of club president Josep Maria Bartomeu and the board itself. With all the latent frustration that has been building throughout their tenure, they had to know that any number of fall guys wouldn't sate the bloodthirst. And so, in a press conference this week, Bartomeu announced that he was moving 2016's presidential elections up to this summer. Laporta is a cinch to run, and will almost certainly win. (A Barcelona paper polled its readers on who they'd like to see as the next club president and Laporta easily won. This was before everything in the past week.) Bartomeu also said he plans to run, though it's almost impossible to see him winning.
As singular and chaotic as these times of chaos often seem in the moment, history shows that this year is just like many others in Barcelona. While this run from 2008 up until 2014 has been more or less peaceful and prosperous, Barcelona are a club used to tumult, backstabbing, craven leadership, fan unrest, and undulating spells of wondrous, awe-inspiring soccer pockmarked by times of depressing mediocrity.
The longest-standing club president of recent times, Josep Lluís Núñez, will go down as the man who started La Masia, empowered Johan Cruyff as coach, and created the environment that lead to the Dream Team of the early 90s. He will also be remembered for penny-pinching the likes of Diego Maradona, Ronaldo, and Luís Figo out of the club and withstanding player- and board member-backed mutinies, and now sits in a Spanish jail cell for multiple fraud convictions. His successor had love for the club, but only lasted three years before numerous transfer flops and a parade of failed managers lead him to step down from his position. And the once and future president Laporta himself didn't have a uniformly positive tenure, as allegations of fiscal mismanagement and a dictatorial governing style meant he barely survived two different attempts by the club's members to oust him from his position before he decided not to run again in the 2010 elections. The more things change ...
Enrique will probably last through the season, giving him an opportunity to prove either that he was the correct man for the job and can make the necessary tweaks to get this team performing as it should or to remove all doubt that is hiring was an error. However, a couple more bad results or an embarrassing early Champions League exit could see him sacked, with an interim manager named to take over until the elections. The presidential campaigns will focus on who each candidate would try to bring in as the new coach upon winning, as well as the making the case for various high-profile sporting directors. The new president will have a mandate to improve the team at any cost, will probably spare no expense once the club is once again allowed to buy players, and should enjoy a promising future as the Messi era transitions into the Neymar one.
But then, sooner or later, play will dip or another scandal will pop up from nowhere and the accusations and condemnations will spark up again and many will wonder if it's ever gotten as contentious as in their present. Hopefully we will remember this history, and recognize that the natural state of FC Barcelona is to be engulfed in flames. Sometimes these are flames of passion ignited by brilliant play, and sometimes flames of anger born of incompetent leadership, but the fire itself is omnipresent. Barcelona will continue to be consumed and destroyed by it, and will continue to rise from the ashes.
Photo by Petros Karadjias/AP