The best player in the world has never commanded a transfer fee. Lionel Messi, the best footballer on the planet for the last five years, cost Barcelona nothing when he joined the club when he was barely a teenager.
Logic would dictate that, if the best player in the sport cost his club nothing to sign (well, beyond the cost of the growth hormone therapy treatment he famously needed at the time), no club in the world should ever pay a fee for another talent who, by definition, is always going to be inferior. Yet quite the opposite keeps occurring; every transfer window sees clubs offer bigger and bigger transfer fees to sign players they hope will have the same impact on the football pitch as Messi.
They never do, some just get closer than others.
Lionel Messi is Barcelona, and Barcelona is Lionel Messi. For the club, their Argentine star is an example of everything that makes them, in their own words, "mes que un club" ("more than a club").
“Messi stays, no matter what,” as the current club president, Josep Maria Bartomeu, told The New York Times earlier this year. “Messi is the identity of our club, our academy, our way of playing football. There is no price that could tempt us to sell him.”
Barcelona do not buy stars, they develop them. Messi, Andres Iniesta, Xavi Hernandez—all came through the club’s youth system. All buy into the club’s specific philosophy, a way of playing developed by some of the game’s greatest luminaries, an approach that in recent times can be traced from Johan Cruyff to Pep Guardiola, via Louis van Gaal and Frank Rijkaard.
That refined style has brought success, and lots of it. Since the turn of the millennium, Barca have won six La Liga titles, three Champions League crowns and two Copa del Reys, with five Ballon d’Ors being awarded their players (four of them going to Messi).
In recent years the success has begun to dry up, however. Barcelona have not reached a Champions League final in the last three seasons, winning a solitary domestic title and one Copa del Rey in that period. For most clubs that would still be a remarkable haul, but Barcelona, as they seemingly never tire of pointing out, are not most clubs.
Those on-field disappointments have also been joined by a variety of off-field dramas. The club’s signing of Neymar in 2013 appeared set to spark a criminal investigation into financial impropriety when details about the transfer emerged in early 2014, while later the same year the sport’s governing body, FIFA, handed down an unprecedented (for a club of Barcelona's size) two-window transfer ban for breaking rules on signing international players under the age of 18.
The Barcelona academy, La Masia, the font of the club’s success, was suddenly threatening to be its undoing. With the prospect of going two transfer windows without signing a player, Barcelona acted like any other club would—they bought a number of players for big money, a lot of them with the unmistakable tinge of panic attached.
The club that built its success on its academy was now flashing the cash just as desperately, if not more so, than any other European team. What had happened to the philosophy it so prided itself on, and what brought about that transformation?
Power corrupts, as the old phrase goes, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. At Barcelona, the power distributed by the club’s political structure—and the pressure to keep delivering greater and greater success—seems to have gradually led to misguided (or worse, arrogant) decisions at boardroom level that perhaps only highlight how warped the perspective up there had become.
When Barcelona’s recent appeal against their transfer ban was rejected, for example, the hubris contained within the club’s statement on the matter was breathtaking.
Let it not be forgotten that this was a case involving the treatment and recruitment of children who will have had to be displaced from their homelands.
"We agree with the regulations, what we want is for clubs like Barca to be an exception," Bartomeu said, per ESPNFC. "The [punishment is] against a model of 35 years which is the essence of our club, an exemplary model which has been praised by FIFA.
“We look after the kids, their education. Maybe in their country they would not receive this education. In our youth system we have 230 children from 18 different countries, 40 of these are not Spanish. The message is that you cannot touch La Masia."
The club will now appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) as they look to overturn the ban. CAS previously overturned a similar ban involving Chelsea in 2010, although in that instance only one player was involved (Gael Kakuta) and he, his former club and the Premier League side reached a pre-emptive agreement that almost made CAS’s decision for them.
Considering the scope and complexity of the charges against Barcelona, a similar outcome in their case seems unlikely.
The charges against Barcelona boil down to their recruitment of as many as nine junior players from different corners of the globe, including Asia and Africa. FIFA rules only permit foreign transfers involving under-18 players in the rarest of circumstances—if the player’s family have relocated for reasons unrelated to football for example—but Barcelona seem to have fairly aggressively (and transparently) signed a number of young starlets purely for their footballing talent, bringing them to Catalonia to enhance their footballing education with a long-term view of bringing them into the first-team.
The club claims that they offer the best footballing education and, as a result, employment prospects to these youngsters, and thus the regulations should be bent to take that into account. Barcelona’s complaint does have some merit; the regulations have grey areas and have often been inconsistently enforced (they were never punished for Messi, for example—even though his father went with him, nobody could deny it was his son’s talent that was the driving force).
As Bartomeu surmised: “Youth academies should extend beyond the boundaries of just football, forming young people and not only young players.” FIFA, however, stands firm by its guidelines and its decision in this instance.
Some of the players involved have been banned from representing Barcelona at youth level, although many of them, such as the supposed jewel in the crown, South Korean Lee Seung Woo, have pledged to remain at the club and represent it again once they come of age. It remains to be seen how the first team is faring when that time comes.
The club still intend to complete their appeal to CAS, but their rampant summer transfer activity would seem to suggest that they know the likely outcome. The club signed eight senior players before Monday’s deadline—including two goalkeepers, Marc-Andre ter Stegen and Claudio Bravo, defenders Thomas Vermaelen and Jeremy Mathieu and the Croatian midfielder Ivan Rakitic.
The biggest signing, however, was Luis Suarez, the controversial Uruguayan forward who was recorded biting an opponent for the third time in his career during the summer World Cup. For that, Suarez had already been banned by FIFA; perhaps sensing a kindred spirit, Barcelona bought him from Liverpool anyway.
Perhaps it was the ideal partnership—a club and a player both searching for a brighter future after seeing their reputations scuffed by their recent actions. For players, playing for Barcelona remains the realisation of a lifelong goal.
While it is the legacy of Cruyff and, later, Guardiola that should be credited for the brilliant technical play—tiki-taka—the club exhibited, Barcelona’s recent era of success can be traced back to the start of the presidency of Joan Laporta and the consortium that dragged the club into modernity.
At Barcelona, like Real Madrid, the club is owned by its members, socios, who vote for the president via regular elections, with the personal wealth of the candidates and the various pledges of signings and success (either promised or already attained) usually the deciding factor in any election.
After the 22-year, trophy-laden tenure of Josep Lluis Nunez, the club went through a period of turmoil until Laporta arrived three years later, promising to sign David Beckham and return Barcelona to their rightful place as the biggest club in Spain. Nunez had enjoyed great success in his time, but the club had faltered towards the end of his term as he grew increasingly out of touch with the rapidly evolving game—Laporta lobbied for Nunez's removal for years before he finally left. The club later introducing a new by-law that no new president could serve for more than two four-year terms in succession.
A successful lawyer, Laporta was just 40 when he became Barcelona president, although his reign got off to a rocky start when Beckham turned down his overtures to join Real Madrid instead. For Laporta, that proved to be a blessing in disguise—instead he turned his attentions to Paris Saint-Germain’s Ronaldinho, who would emerge as the most exciting player in the world during his time at Camp Nou.
Laporta’s other decisions were less about good fortune as smart business sense. Surrounding himself with clever people—Sandro Rosell, his vice-president of sports, and Txiki Begiristain, his sporting director, among them—the board made astute decisions and reaped the rewards. Frank Rijkaard was an unexpected choice as head coach but soon brought brilliant success, working with a squad that had been more carefully compiled than recent iterations.
With Xavi already in the first-team squad when the likes of Iniesta and Messi began to emerge, the club was on the fast track to the stratosphere. In 2006 they won the Champions League for only the second time in their history, although Laporta’s reign was not without its own problems.
Many of his closest allies (including Rosell) resigned in protest at Laporta’s changing attitude—which was perceived to have become more dictatorial—in 2005. This appeared to be borne out a few years later, when Laporta refused to consider resigning from his post despite 60 per cent of fans polled being against his continued presidency.
A brilliant documentary, Barcelona Confidential, captured the first season of Laporta’s presidency in great detail. At one point he makes a telling comment, one that not only captures the enthusiasm of the time and excitement of the job but the growing nature of his ambition.
“The greatest thing in the world is happening to me,” Laporta said. “It is so wonderful it cannot be for only one person. If you really do it well, you get four more years and that’s it. Let an even better man come into office.”
Then a companion suggests the president of Barca could one day also be the president of Spain. Laporta, eyes lighting up, responds: “The first Catalan in history who is the president of the Spanish government!”
The job was a heady one, considering the power, the influence and (when things were going right) adulation that came with it. Maintaining that feeling became an addiction, one that eventually dragged Laporta into trouble.
Amid recriminations and allegations, many of them relating to financial matters, Laporta finally stepped down in 2010, with the club having won another Champions League against Manchester United in Rome the previous season.
His replacement was a friend-turned-foe: Sandro Rosell.
Rosell had accused the previous administration of being neither “independent or transparent,” but perhaps feeling the pressure to deliver even greater success than Laporta had managed, it appears Rosell eventually fell into that same trap. With Guardiola in charge, the team continued to produce winning football on the pitch, while away from it, Rosell, a businessman and former Nike executive, oversaw annual big deals for the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, David Villa, Alexis Sanchez and Cesc Fabregas. It was to be the biggest, and last of those deals, that would prove his downfall.
It was considered a huge coup when Barcelona signed Neymar, the Brazilian wunderkind long touted as the spiritual successor to Ronaldinho, Rivaldo, Ronaldo, Romario and the many Brazilians entwined with Barcelona’s recent history.
The player’s ownership situation was complicated, however, with both his father and third-party investors owning a share of his economic rights. It was always going to be a complex deal to complete, yet months after the forward’s unveiling it would be revealed that the club had made several undisclosed payments to push it through.
With the club accused of misappropriating funds, Rosell’s brand had become toxic. He resigned before any legal case could get any more embarrassing, and Bartomeu stepped into his seat.
“I've always stated that we acted correctly with the Neymar transfer,” Rosell said (per Sky Sports). "The board of directors is a team. And this team leads a project that has brought the club great success.
“I don't want unfair attacks to negatively affect their management or the image of the club. This is why I think my time here has come to an end."
The questionable recruitment of youth-team players would come to light soon after, but the critics of the club were growing more vociferous—even with Bartomeu now in charge.
Not only was the club acting dubiously in negotiations, it was struggling with football matters. After Guardiola resigned in 2012, citing exhaustion, the board faced growing accusations that it was meddling with footballing matters.
"I said a long time ago, whoever decides your team is the coach and for four years it's not been the coach of the club," the legendary Johan Cruyff told Barcelona paper Sport (via FourFourTwo) in April. He added:
What is happening is logical. The first thing done by this directive was to sell a player Guardiola wanted. And from then on, who's the boss? The coach?
It's not one detail, it's many details. It's the coach who makes players better so the coach has to decide things. They've had four years and it's getting worse.
The solution? Normally the best option is having elections.
The next presidential elections are scheduled for 2016, with Bartomeu expected to run for (re-)election, legitimising a role some say he has not earned. Laporta has already hinted he could run again—while it is not inconceivable Rosell will put his name forward too, should he and the club be cleared of any wrongdoing in the final reckoning of the Neymar case.
The prospect of an ugly three-way battle is not impossible—with further, independent candidates likely to take advantage of the disagreements to steal away votes and press their own case.
A number of conflicting agendas will be in play. For the socios, their selection could prove decisive in the club’s future direction.
Youth development is a famously unpredictable business. Manchester United’s "Class of ’92" formed the basis of its domination of English football in the 1990s and early 2000s, yet the club has struggled to produce talents of similar ability in the years since. Individuals—Jonny Evans, Danny Welbeck, Tom Cleverley—have progressed to the first team, but none have made the impact of the “golden generation” of Beckham, Paul Scholes and the Nevilles.
Barcelona have fared better in that respect. The emergence of Messi, Xavi and Iniesta gave the Barcelona academy a certain gravitas, leading La Masia (which was replaced by the Joan Gamper Training Centre in 2011) to be considered the best youth development centre in the world. On that reputation the club has continued to build.
Barca have continued to bring young talents into the first team, with the likes of Sergio Busquets and Pedro Rodriguez adding to the club’s roster of self-developed talents and going on to become vital cogs for the Spanish national team as well.
The pipeline has slowed in recent seasons, however, as expensive signings have increasingly been made to complement the existing talents, reducing the opportunities for some of the youngsters. This culminated in the summer spending spree, which seemingly underlined the board’s determination not to be forced to rely on their academy more than absolutely necessary.
In the opening game of the season, against Elche, the absences of both Neymar and Suarez (due to injury and suspension respectively) nevertheless allowed two youngsters to start. Rafinha Alcantara, brother of the departed Thiago, played on the wing alongside teenage forward Munir El Haddadi.
Munir—a standout of the previous season’s B team—grabbed the game’s second goal in a 3-0 win. Messi got the other two.
“I am so proud to have scored at Camp Nou with Messi and so many other great players around me,” the 18-year-old told the club's official website. “I’m very happy. It was a dream come true to play with them.”
With the bench, Xavi among them, comprised entirely of academy graduates, perhaps the future of Barcelona lies in their homegrown stars—despite the big spending. The new manager, Luis Enrique, was identified by Bartomeu and Co. as the man to return the club to success of the Guardiola years, and he seems keen to give young players their chance.
After another academy graduate, Sandro Ramirez, scored in last weekend’s win over Villarreal, Enrique told reporters (via Goal.com): "I'm pleased to see that the youngsters are helping us so much. We are happy for Sandro and with all the hard work that the young players are doing."
As Munir added: “Luis Enrique has told me to keep doing what I do, and so I’ll keep working for more chances. He tells us to work hard and get better every day. He’s a great manager.”
When the summer transfer window closed on Monday evening, so too did Barcelona’s last chance to buy a player until January 2016. Barring an unlikely CAS decision, for the next 16 months, the club will have to survive and compete with the squad it has now, along with the players who it can blend in from the academy it holds so dearly.
In a way, it could prove the ultimate test of the tenets the club has always presented to the world. If the philosophy of the club—and its investment in the next generation—is really the root of long-term success, then removing the ability to sign other talents perhaps gives them the greatest platform to prove that—even as their European rivals, particularly Real Madrid and Bayern Munich, continue to flex their financial strength.
It should not be forgotten how far Barcelona have come in recent times; how they were dragged into the 21st century by the vision and ambition of successful men like Laporta and Rosell. Similarly, however, it shouldn't be ignored that sustaining success can prove to be every bit as hard, if not harder, as delivering it in the first place.
Before they can sign another player, Barcelona may have to absorb and implement the lessons of the past few seasons if they are to become “mes que un club” once more.