It only goes to show how high Barcelona have set their own standards in recent times that they can attract such stinging criticism when they suddenly stoop to the level of many other leading clubs.
But it also speaks volumes about the effect Jose Mourinho and Real Madrid are already having on their eternal rivals that the Catalan giants feel it necessary to resort to the lowest tricks of the trade in their attempts to sign the player they covet.
The Spanish champions’ pursuit of Arsenal’s Cesc Fabregas this summer has quickly descended into one of the more unsavoury sagas in recent memory. To date, it has achieved little except to undermine much of the good will and prestige the club has built up after recent seasons where their team played some of the finest and most successful football in living memory.
For those in need of a quick reminder, Barca have been pursuing their former academy graduate almost ever since he burst onto the scene at Highbury as a fresh-faced 16-year-old, upping their interest in the central midfielder in the past year, as he became the Gunners’ talisman and a bona fide world-class superstar.
As last season drew to a close, Fabregas got the ball firmly rolling as he informed manager Arsene Wenger and the club’s board that he would quite like to join his boyhood club this summer, if the opportunity should arise. Former Barca club president Joan Laporta reacted to the news with barely suppressed glee, and after some preliminary posturing from both clubs, eventually faxed over an offer of £29 million.
Arsenal rejected the bid out of hand, and in the process attempted to close the door on any deal:
"To be clear, we will not make any kind of counter-proposal or enter into any discussion,” the club said in a statement. “Barcelona have publicly stated that they will respect our position and we expect that they will keep their word."
But Barcelona haven’t kept their word. While another official bid has yet to be lodged, the club—under newly-elected president Sandro Rosell—have resorted to the almanac of underhand tricks in order to try and sign their player.
It is impossible to find a player or member of the club’s board who hasn’t tapped up Fabregas through comments to the media. This is partly due to reporters eternally asking the question, but a respectful "no comment" when Cesc’s name arose could and should have sufficed.
In recent times the antics have become even more erratic or, dare it be said, desperate.
Earlier this month, after taking out a £130m bank loan to cover some alarming cash-flow issues, the club publicly declared their remaining transfer budget for the summer, £42m.
This is an extraordinary move presumably intended to either lure Arsenal into making a counter-proposal or, more probably, spur Fabregas into becoming more hard-line in his attempts to extricate himself from his current contract.
Barcelona went on to sign Sevilla utility man Adriano for an announced fee of £8m, which is perhaps another thinly-veiled attempt to scare Arsenal and increase Fabregas’s desperation by reminding them that the club, and their millions, wouldn’t stay interested forever. A more recent link with World Cup star Mesut Ozil presumably had a similar intent.
To this point, neither player nor English club have budged. Fabregas has remained commendably dignified in the press since making his initial declaration to the club (save for one intoxicated post-World Cup-winning photograph showing him in a Barca shirt) and has not attempted to force his current employers into a sale.
“It's not up to me anymore,” Fabregas said before the World Cup, in what remains his public stance on the issue. “It's just now about Arsenal and whoever it has to be and that's it. I don't want to say anything else.”
There might be more than a month left until the transfer window closes, but the general consensus now seems to be that Fabregas will stay at the Emirates for at least another 12 months. As recently as this week, Rosell admitted Barca’s troubles in sealing the deal were partially self-inflicted.
“Arsenal don't want to listen to offers or sell and they are not putting the player on the market,” Rosell revealed. “There was a strong dispute a few months ago and they have not forgotten it.”
The question now, then, is why did Barcelona feel the need to resort to such depths in order to try and get their man?
The view around the Nou Camp is that, as a former La Masia graduate who was stolen away from them at a young age, the club are well within their rights to employ any and every trick in the book in a tit-for-tat attempt to prise Arsenal from their biggest asset.
They believe, rightly or wrongly, that the rules are different because of Fabregas’s history.
Even if it were true, that isn’t an acceptable explanation.
And it would be to ignore the wider issues at hand. Last summer, Barcelona conducted their transfer business in a markedly different manner, remaining tight-lipped on their main targets, and only concluding their business later in the window.
Even in the face of Real Madrid’s almost unprecedented world-record purchases of Kaka and Cristiano Ronaldo, Laporta and co. remained calm as they looked to add to their treble-winning squad.
“We already have the best player in the world, Leo Messi,” Laporta explained at the time. “But the most important thing that we have is a team that works. For our rivals, it’s normal that they do their best to be more competitive than they were last season. Like I told you, they sign names, and we have a team.”
Negotiations with Valencia were opened over striker David Villa, but not concluded as demands proved prohibitive (a deal was finally concluded for the player, at £33m, almost a year later).
Relatively late in the window, a blockbuster deal with Inter saw Zlatan Ibrahimovic arrive in exchange for Samuel Eto’o and a hefty chunk of change. But despite the Swede’s somewhat mediocre first season, Barca still edged their arch rivals to win La Liga yet again.
This summer, however, the mood seems different. Real Madrid have a new manager, Jose Mourinho, who was perhaps the catalyst for the changing perception of Barcelona as a club.
The Spaniards turned on the sprinklers at the Nou Camp during Mourinho and then-club Inter’s celebrations of their controversial Champions League semifinal victory.
The club later claimed it was all an unfortunate accident, but the suspicion remained that it was an act of poor sportsmanship towards a former club employee (Mourinho was Sir Bobby Robson’s translator at the club in 1996) who has seemingly gone out of his way to antagonise the Nou Camp faithful since becoming a managerial name in his own right.
Are Barcelona now running scared of a Mourinho-led Madrid? It seems possible, especially as the "Special One" has won league titles with regularity at every major posting he has had. This summer, it seems to be Barcelona more than Real who are trying to sign "names"—Villa, and now Fabregas—while Madrid are acting more methodically in the acquisition of reinforcements.
The pursuit of Fabregas, who would seem to struggle to get into Barca’s first 11 just as he has done for Spain, has the smell of a vanity project as much as a genuine move to improve the squad—especially at the sums being offered.
But such projects are almost par for the course when changes in club presidency are at hand.
Outgoing president Laporta’s late moves in the transfer market—first signing Villa, then ramping up the pursuit of Fabregas—could be seen as an attempt to add a final flourish to an overwhelmingly positive spell at the helm, while simultaneously robbing Rosell (his former sidekick, turned outspoken opponent) of the opportunity to make an early impression.
But with Fabregas unsigned at the time of the July handover, Rosell had a clear window to bring fans the player they want, albeit while trying to handle the club’s clear cash-flow problems. Instead, he now looks resigned to the first major damaging defeat of his young reign.
Add in Mourinho’s return to Spain and Real Madrid’s continually evolving threat, and Rosell is treading a dangerous path as he attempts to continue the success of his predecessor.
Will the growing pressure from Real see Barca’s declining code of conduct become a regular occurrence? Only time will tell. But it already seems to have cost them dearly in their first battle of the season—to sign Fabregas.