Barcelona should be one of the most prestigious and respected institutions in world sports. This hallowed club should be capable of attracting and retaining the absolute best soccer players around the globe, operating with a dignity and professionalism befitting such a revered club in an era that in large part will forever be marked by the club’s sustained, ineffable, revolutionary greatness. And Barcelona were that, mostly, up until this summer, when those in charge of the club did their best to tear down every last impressive and laudable facet of their reputation, not out of evil or malice, but out of sheer ineptitude.
It’s hard to overstate just how monumentally calamitous this summer has been. Of course Neymar’s decision to leave for Paris Saint-Germain—which, to be fair to Barça’s higher ups, probably wasn’t within their power to prevent, though setting Neymar’s release clause so (relatively) low itself is a borderline criminal offense—was always going to be a blow, but that it has been such a debilitating one is down more than anything to the mismanagement of the people who run the place. It’s been more than a month since news broke that Neymar was potentially interested in ditching Barça to join PSG, and Barcelona have signed exactly one player to compensate for this loss. That savior? Paulinho, a 29-year-old Brazilian central midfielder who sold out to go play in China two years ago and whose signing was so staggeringly disappointing that it had some Barça fans grasping for conspiracies involving underhanded financial shadiness to explain the inexplicable. And even that doesn’t tell half the story of how huge a fuck-up this summer has been.
Barcelona came into the summer with a couple glaring needs and a few other areas that could use some minor touching up. The team had to buy a starting right back, still desperately needed a Xavi-esque controlling midfielder, and could stand to get some quality depth basically everywhere else. As a sign of things to come, Barça made it clear that their two big targets for the summer were Arsenal right back (and Barcelona youth product) Héctor Bellerín and PSG’s superstar middy, Marco Verratti. These were two players on long-term deals at their current clubs whom the club had targeted for years without gaining much headway, and whom anyone with a working brain knew were exceedingly long shots to leave their clubs to join Barcelona.
This didn’t prevent Barça from wasting time on these deals, however, nor did it prevent the club from leaking all sorts of positive stories about these deals’ imminent finalization while every report everywhere else contradicted that optimism by stating how dead set against both players’ clubs were to the idea of letting these players go. (While it’s easy to laugh at the Spanish media’s consistently inaccurate reporting of Barça’s transfer activity this window, you shouldn’t forget that most of these well-reputed reporters are getting their information from somewhere, most likely from club insiders with a vested interest in making farfetched deals seem further along than they actually are.) Barcelona ultimately failed to even get close to either of those signings. Instead, the club brought back Gerard Deulofeu in a cheap but ill-conceived deal while also signing Benfica right back Nelson Semedo—the latter of which has been the sole clearly good signing the club has made this summer. Since then, everything has gone downhill.
First, of course, was Neymar’s sale. Barcelona evinced a shocking lack of contingency planning in the wake of Neymar’s flirtations with PSG, focusing more on impotent denials that Neymar could possibly leave and scrambling to sign up compatriots of his rather than on working toward finding suitable replacements. When Neymar finally did leave, the club ran around crying about how screwed over they felt by the player and his father, going so far as refusing to pay an agreed-upon contract bonus and, just recently, suing Neymar over breach of contract. The player was gone, the money for reinforcements was there, and time was running out, but instead of working for the future, the board was still fighting about the past.
Eventually, Barcelona settled on two more players they would concentrate their efforts on trying to obtain: Liverpool’s Philippe Coutinho and Borussia Dortmund’s Ousmane Dembélé. Anyone paying attention to the state and mindset of Liverpool could’ve predicted that Liverpool would never let Coutinho go. And as was the case with Bellerín and Verratti, this fact did not dissuade Barcelona from going after Coutinho. Once again the club leaked all sorts of stories to friendly Spanish reporters about how the deal would be completed within hours if not days, and yet again we saw every report out of the putative selling club’s domestic press stating steadfastly that Liverpool would not sell their star for any price. Barcelona bid on Coutinho, Liverpool rejected them immediately, Barcelona regrouped and bid again, Liverpool rejected them immediately again, and on the cycle went until finally it looked like Barcelona would stop embarrassing themselves and move on.
The Dembélé situation has been a little different, but not much. Dortmund have been less categorically against Dembélé leaving this summer, instead reportedly setting an astronomical (though perfectly justifiable) figure of about €150 million as their asking price and refusing to negotiate. Pay up and Barça could have Dembélé; otherwise, kick rocks. So naturally Barcelona continued trying to talk BVB down, submitting one bid that was summarily rejected, and leaking to the Spanish press that Dembélé was on the verge of signing only to be corrected by incredulous Dortmund officials who clarified through their local media that Barcelona weren’t even an inch closer to wrapping up this deal. All of the talk about Dembélé’s move understandably unsettled the player, which led him to cut off contact with BVB and refuse to attend practice. Dortmund suspect Barcelona had something to do with Dembélé’s attempt to force BVB’s hand. With the way Barcelona have behaved this summer, it’s hard not to believe Dortmund are right.
After this unsettling of Dembélé and Coutinho (who has also formally submitted a transfer request and is desperate to leave) and antagonizing Dortmund and Liverpool, Barcelona still don’t appear any closer to signing these two or anyone else to supplement their woefully unprepared squad. The one player they’ve seemed closest to, Nice midfielder Jean-Michaël Seri, looked like the rare wise choice for this board. Coutinho might be a big, flashy name, but his style doesn’t really fit with how Barcelona play. Seri, on the other hand—the man Barça appeared to turn to after finally giving up on Coutinho—is almost an ideal fit. He’s not quite the Xavi-lite controller the team has needed since the original got old and left town, but he would be the most seamlessly-fitting midfielder the club has signed in ages, seeing as he is a natural central midfielder who loves to pass the ball and is great at doing so.
For these reasons Seri has been a name Barça fans have been pining for all summer. Such is the extent of Barcelona fans’ pessimism about the club’s rock-stupid board that oftentimes fans have resorted to hoping that other clubs would save Barça from themselves by refusing to sell players the board was after so that by the end all that would be left were the targets fans wanted to see. This was the case with Bellerín, with Paulinho (it was originally reported that Barcelona didn’t want to pay Paulinho’s €40 million release clause and that Guangzhou Evergrande wouldn’t negotiate a lower price because they knew they couldn’t find a suitable replacement; unfortunately for Barça fans, the board reversed course and coughed up the dough for the release clause seemingly out of nowhere, well after talk of signing Paulinho had died down), with Coutinho, and with a couple other names we’ll get to a little later. When Liverpool made clear that Coutinho wasn’t leaving, Seri-minded Barça fans rejoiced; at last, Barça would work towards signing the superior Ivorian midfielder rather than the ill-fitting Coutinho.
Little did Barça fans know how much sway they reportedly had in Seri’s potential signing. According to a report from a Catalan radio station, it was the torrent of Barça fans’ social-media messages in favor of Seri’s signing that spurred the board into action. Yes, Barcelona apparently decided to push for a player because lots of fans tweeted how much they wanted him. This is exactly as insane as it sounds.
And push for Seri Barça did—up to a point. Barcelona had reportedly been talking to Seri’s agent all summer and had gotten confirmation that Seri would jump at the chance to join. Though release clauses are illegal in France, Seri and Nice had a gentleman’s agreement that the club would let him go if anyone came in with a €40 million bid. For a club that happily paid that much for a 29-year-old player in the Chinese league and was attempting to throw figures north of €100 million for a couple other targets, €40 million looked like a great deal.
In the lead-up to the second leg of Nice’s Champions League qualifying match against Napoli yesterday, all reports in Spain and France were that Barcelona had hammered out nearly all the details with both club and player and that this transfer—for once this summer—really was on the cusp of going through. Sure, the club had angered Nice the same way they had so many other clubs this summer by trying to underbid for Seri while also failing to respect that the player’s de facto release clause had expired in July, but these did not appear significant enough roadblocks to prevent the move from happening. Some reports even said Seri had said his goodbyes to his Nice teammates on Monday, informing them that Tuesday’s match would be his last one at the club and afterwards he would be off to Barcelona.
Then came the latest bizarre twist in a summer full of them. After watching Seri play in Tuesday’s match—mind, against a much stronger team in a two-legged tie that Nice were big underdogs for, and with all this uncertainty about his future plausibly affecting Seri’s concentration and performance—Barcelona’s coaching staff decided that actually, this player they’d be monitoring all summer and were on the brink of signing wasn’t good enough to play for Barcelona. And so just like that they decided against signing him. A single game on the eve of him coming to town—local paper Mundo Deportivo, which has a direct line to Barça leadership, even had to change their front page from one saying “Seri Day” (meaning the day Seri joins) to “No to Seri” at the very last minute—was enough for the club to reject signing a player whom they only really pressed for once it became clear he was such a popular choice with fans.
If there’s anything to glean from the weight of all this it’s that Barcelona are very clearly a club without leadership and without vision. The powers that be simply don’t know what they want and don’t know how to get what they don’t know they want. There is no internal consistency to the names bandied about from day to day. There is no logical reason why the club would chop and change their targets from Verratti to Paulinho, from Coutinho to Seri, from Dembélé to Ángel Di María (yet another player the Spanish press reported as certain to join only for more credible reports to emerge that PSG have no intention of selling, much to the relief of Barça fans) to even Chelsea’s Willian.
Whether Barcelona really have or have not been interested in any given name here isn’t the point; the point is that even with the kinds of players Barcelona have definitely gone after, it is nearly impossible to surmise any underlying rationale behind the search process. The only explanation for all of this is that the club’s decision makers are running around like headless chickens, flailing about in search of decreasingly impressive names in order to protect their position at the club. In their confusion and lack of planning, all the club has succeeded in doing is wrecking its good name with the clubs with which they attempt to negotiate and making Barcelona a laughing stock the world over.
Even the players seem fed up with the gross incompetence on display. Lionel Messi is entering the final year of his contract, and while the board spent months trying to get his signature on a new deal so they could wave it before the fan base as proof of their competence, the Argentine has still has yet to sign a renewal. The club was so desperate for good news on that front that they publicly announced that the two parties had agreed to the broad terms of a new contract and even lied at one point, saying the deal was already signed.
The newest reports say Messi doesn’t want to see this board that has thrown the club into chaos use his new contract as a selling point in the upcoming censure motion that might see the entire board ousted, and has delayed his ultimately inevitable signing until he knows where things stand on that front. To further communicate his displeasure, Messi and some other players posted pictures on Tuesday of themselves with Neymar, who chose to throw his young son’s birthday party back in Barcelona and invited some of his old teammates, just hours after the board announced they were suing the Brazilian for breach of contract. Two of the pictures played off Gerard Piqué’s infamous “Se queda” tweet.
One Spanish columnist described this as an “Instagram Mutiny,” and the club’s board was reportedly furious that the players had the audacity to ... still hang out with a friend of theirs even after their employer sued said friend out of spite? It’s entirely conceivable that the players didn’t think too much about the photos, but it’s still hard to imagine they didn’t know this would be seen as a finger in the board’s eye. While the club has been busy trying to depict Neymar as some money-grubbing scoundrel who betrayed the team, the actual members of the team are still on perfectly good terms with him. This undermines the board’s narrative, and further threatens their tenuous grasp on power.
These truly are dark times at Barcelona, and there’s no reason to suspect things won’t get even worse. Best-case scenario, the club stops bullshitting and pays what Dortmund are asking for Dembélé, and then either signs Seri or conjures some other, even better-fitting central midfielder name out of a hat and signs that guy, and Messi takes leading what would be a pretty solid bunch against a historically great Real Madrid team. Worst case, they fail to sign Dembélé (which is very possible), waste even more time in a futile attempt to sign Coutinho (we already know of their dumbass plan to submit another bid for him and also that Liverpool are eager to spike it right back into Barça’s face when it comes), and wind up blowing some €100 million on terribly insufficient additions like Di María and Dani Parejo—a perfect echo of their infamous Marc Overmars-Emmanuel Petit panic-buy after Barcelona lost Luís Figo.
No matter which version of events is closer to what winds up actually happening, this summer has been overwhelming evidence of something many Barça fans have long suspected: that one of the best clubs in the world is being led by grossly unsatisfactory board members who don’t have what it takes to build a team worthy of the club’s stature. Club revenues that increase yearly and a steady flow of trophies won on the backs of a few generational homegrown players shouldn’t distract from the fact that this team could, should, and must be better than it currently is. Club president Josep Maria Bartomeu and his team have had ample time and opportunity to cope with Neymar’s exit, and they have repeatedly failed to do so. And maybe Barça do sign Seri and Dembélé and Messi has his best season yet and they win a title or two—that’s far from impossible, and we’ve seen Barça respond to chaos with greatness before. But until either those currently in charge of the club wise up and do better or are thrown out and replaced by a board that is up to the task of matching at board level the excellence players like Messi demonstrate on the pitch every week, Barcelona will remain something less than what it could be.