During the dog days of Jose Mourinho's reign as manager of Real Madrid, he used to refer to his great nemesis Barcelona as "the beautiful children of football", as per Diego Torres' book Preparense a Perder. It was a disparaging remark. He despised them, and what really got his goat up was that everyone else in the football world—with the exception of madridistas—seemed to be enthralled with their brand of football and culture.
For several years, chiefly under Pep Guardiola's stewardship, the team played mesmerising football, which drew on the artistry of three great players in their prime, Lionel Messi, Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta, who, like the bulk of their supporting cast, were drawn from the club's youth academy.
It was an intoxicating brew for romantics, heightened by the fact that the club was run by its members (or their elected officials) while oil sheiks, Russian billionaires and hungry American investors ran most of the other big clubs around Europe. Barcelona also eschewed shirt sponsorship for over a century and had a tasty political backstory as the purveyor of Catalan identity. FC Barcelona—with the help of some favourable propaganda—was more than a club, as its motto professed.
Now, however, Barca seem to have lost direction. They have taken sponsorship coin from Qatar. The production line from La Masia, their youth academy, has dried up. They chase big-money signings to appease the jittery fan base, with Ousmane Dembele the latest—a 20-year-old player who scored six goals last season in the Bundesliga signed for €155 million, as per El Pais.
The rise of Real Madrid—with a thrilling band of young Spanish footballers like Dani Carvajal, Isco and Marco Asensio as well as a midfield triangle that dominated Barca during a 5-1 thrashing in the summer's Spanish Super Cup final—has put Barcelona's apparent loss of values into harsh light. The tables have turned with their great rival.
"The future beckons bright for Real Madrid while there is a sense of decline at Barcelona," says John Carlin, an author and El Pais journalist. "There is always a sense of symbiosis between the two clubs, when one rises; the other one tends to succumb to collective trauma. During the recent glory years of Barcelona, for example, Real Madrid succumbed to the aberration—in terms of the club's tradition—of signing Mourinho and Rafa Benitez as coaches. Now, quite clearly, it is Barca who are in disarray."
Victor Font, who was an early runner in the race for president of Barcelona in 2015, says part of Barcelona's problems has to do with the antiquated business structure of the club. It's an old boys' network. Directors aren't appointed because of what they know about football or about their ability to run modern corporations. Instead they get positions because they're rich and they have links to the president.
"If I'm someone who wants to become president," says Font, "I have to be a member and wealthy enough to be able to put up all the bank guarantees that are needed—15 percent of the budget. Taking round numbers if this year's budget was €700 million that would be €100 million, split it up amongst 20 directors is around €5 million per head. Those are the only requirements you need.
"You end up having good cules, good FC Barcelona fans, wealthy enough to put up the bank guarantees as directors, but they lack the relevant experience to govern the club. The track record they have in managing a multinational of the world of football is questionable."
Font mentions the club's vice president of football Jorde Mestre, the guy in July who was "200 percent" sure that Neymar Jr. was staying with Barcelona, as an example. "He knows as much about football as any member in the street could have. He's not a football guy, with a background in football yet he's a vice president of FC Barcelona."
Barcelona's forays into the transfer market over the last couple of years have been uninspiring, with Arda Turan, Lucas Digne and the unfortunate Andre Gomes, who has been pilloried by fans, among the players the club has signed who have failed to establish themselves.
Carlin singles out Gerard Deulofeu, who was added to the roster this summer, a player signed for €12 million, as per El Pais, who couldn't make Everton's starting XI, as someone who symbolises the decline of Barca.
"During the Guardiola glory years," says Carlin, "we used to bang on and on about La Masia—and how wonderful it was that Barca produced all these wonderful young players, that they didn't have to go into the transfer market to buy Messi, Iniesta, Xavi, for example. They just inherited them.
"There was a certain mystification of La Masia as this sort of factory of guaranteed production of Rolls-Royce players. Unfortunately, that has not been the case. It's a question of cycles and circumstances and good luck and bad luck."
Barcelona's board have, however, fallen down in their brief. They have two football jobs to carry out. One, they have to hold on to their marquee players. In losing Neymar to PSG, they have failed. Second, they have to secure the targets they make cow eyes at. Over the summer, coveted players included Marco Verratti and Dani Ceballos, who gallingly joined Real Madrid instead. Real Madrid also pinched Asensio from under their noses in the winter of 2014.
"You just don't get the sense that these guys are sufficiently adept at the sophisticated and complex game of negotiating and acquiring players," says Carlin.
"Not only is Real Madrid's football team significantly superior to Barca but also so is its board of directors. Real Madrid's Florentino Perez and Jose Angel Sanchez have been there for the best part of the last 15 years. They're maestros of this business of finagling, within the legal bounds of cheating and cunning and knowing when to apply pressure and when to let off. They completely outclass Josep Maria Bartomeu in this department."
The lack of a clear ideology is troubling, says Font, which is evident in the club's transfer dealings. He singles out the case of Xavi, the club's great ideologue. It is two years since he left after 17 years of service. The club has failed to replace him with a like-minded midfielder like, say, Verratti. "Instead the club hires players like Andre Gomes and Paulinho where their physical characteristics are more important then their technique," says Font.
B/R Football @brfootball
We noticed the Barcelona new boys needed some help with their keepy ups 😉 https://t.co/6tTJ7pVx772017-8-29 12:40:54
Barcelona's president Bartomeu took over from Sandro Rosell—who is currently languishing in a prison cell for alleged money laundering—in 2014. Bartomeu is under intense pressure. "Bartomeu's biggest mistake was to rule for too long 'against'—against everything the previous board did, whether it was good or bad," says Ramiro Martin, author of Messi: Un Genio en la Escuela del Futbol.
"It debilitated the club. Another mistake he has made has been that he hasn't followed the football line marked out by Guardiola, which gave the club so much prestige and titles.
"To become better, Barca's project had to be radical in its convictions, extreme, very loyal to Johan Cruyff and what he taught. What happened was when men who were not convinced arrived—like Rosell and Bartomeu—Barca abandoned that line. Barca must either be all or nothing."
Font concurs. The civil war politics at board level has affected the club's footballing philosophy. "People in the club who were aligned to Cruyff became enemies. One of the hidden agendas of the new board was to dismantle everything that was done by the previous board, which meant getting rid of talent and people like Pep Guardiola, Txiki Begiristain, Oscar Garcia Junyent and many more coaches in the youth teams that were part of this Cruyffism philosophy."
Font advocates re-building the foundations of the club by installing directors with one of three traits: Directors, he says, from the world of football who are responsible for the club's sporting decisions like at Bayern Munich; directors who have experience of managing modern, innovative corporations; and those with an appreciation of the Catalan heritage and values of the club and the role it plays in the world.
"You need people who have experience and capabilities that are relevant to manage the challenges of a sports club in the 21st century," he says.
B/R Football @brfootball
Ousmane Dembele's going to study at Messi University. ✏️ https://t.co/CRmDwBcckQ2017-8-28 18:55:39
Carlin cautions, however, against making too many bold or pessimistic predictions in the medium term about Barcelona's demise. Yes, the first team is in decline, but three or four years ago, commentators were writing off Messi. After Guardiola lost to newly promoted Numancia and drew at home to Racing Santander in his first two games as Barca coach in 2008, he was denounced as a neophyte. But then the team clicked and he went on to win 14 trophies in four seasons.
Barcelona may well emerge from the transfer window with an exciting signing. They have an easy opening fixture list in La Liga, which could see them extend the two-point advantage over Real Madrid (who dropped points at home at the weekend to Valencia) at the top of table.
Sure, the loss of Neymar has been traumatic but not as seismic an event as, say, the filching of Luis Figo by Real Madrid in 2000, argues Martin.
"No, it's not as troubling," he says, "because today Barca has Messi. And having Messi in your team is playing always with a card up your sleeve."
All quotes and information obtained firsthand unless otherwise indicated.
Follow Richard on Twitter: @Richard_Fitz