Real Madrid concluded their summer purchases on July 14, with the announcement they’d added the exciting, young Spanish midfielder Dani Ceballos to their roster. The club had beaten Barcelona in a tussle for the 21-year-old, who reportedly cost €16.5 million from Real Betis, per Marca (in Spanish). Real Madrid’s manager Zinedine Zidane now had the rest of the summer to concentrate on bedding in his new squad players.
Meanwhile, in Catalonia, Barcelona’s transfer dealings had hardly gotten off the ground. They had only added one player to their squad—Gerard Deulofeu was returning to the club after they exercised a buy-back clause with Everton.
Remarkably, a little over a week before the Ceballos signing, Barcelona announced a reorganization of their sporting operations, (the club run a multi-sports organisation, which caters for more than a dozen sports, including football). Josep “Pep” Segura was installed in a new position as general manager for football.
It has taken Barcelona’s board a couple of years to fill the post. Johan Cruyff’s son, Jordi, was originally considered for the post, per El Pais (in Spanish), as was Monchi, who for years fashioned miracles by renewing Sevilla’s squad with scant resources before being lured to AS Roma this summer. Hesitancy meant Barca’s board missed out on a good man; their indecision has been a recurring failing.
The thinking behind the creation of Segura’s post was sound. It means the club have a man who can link the philosophy of every team in the club, harking back to the days when Cruyff, manager of the club’s “Dream Team” in the early 1990s, unofficially held the post. Cruyff ensured each team, from under-8s to the first team, adhered to the same footballing template.
The problem was the timing of Segura’s appointment in the middle of the transfer season. “It was like the English expression ‘to change horses midstream.’ You couldn’t really understand it,” Santi Gimenez, a Barcelona-based journalist with Diario AS, said.
Previously, Segura had been in charge of Barca B, the club’s reserve team, and their third-string team. He has been involved with the club since 1997, excluding a long interlude overseas. He spent three years at Liverpool FC as the technical director of the youth academy—where he was highly regarded before being ousted during the regime change that ushered in Brendan Rodgers as head coach in 2012, per The Independent. He also had a successful coaching stint in Greece, where he piloted Olympiakos FC to a Greek league and cup double in 2009.
Segura’s promotion as general manager for football meant the club’s sports director, Robert Fernandez, who has been responsible for guiding football transfers, was demoted. Fernandez, who played for Barcelona under Cruyff in the late 1980s and amassed 29 international caps over a decade on the Spain national team, would now have to report to Segura, which has created tensions.
"The truth is Robert Fernandez and Pep Segura don’t get on very well," Gimenez said. "They don’t have a good relationship—it doesn’t flow."
The testy relationship between the pair has created an immediate logjam in an organisational structure that was already unwieldy
According to the club’s chain of command for football transfers, Segura reports to director of professional sports Albert Soler, a former politician who doesn’t come from the world of football. Soler reports to the president and the board, which has a Football Area Technical Commission that signs off on transfers. It includes several directors like Jordi Mestre—who famously claimed he was "200 percent sure" Neymar Jr. was staying at the club a couple of weeks before the Brazilian departed for Paris Saint-Germain—as well as former Milan stalwart Ariedo Braida.
"Look, the thing with Braida is also absurd,” Gimenez said. “Braida was taken on as an international market assessor. He does reports about players, but nobody follows his advice. And the proof is that he goes on holidays in August, the busiest month for transfers."
It is unclear where the decision-making power lies. Is it with Segura, who, according to Victor Font, a potential presidential candidate at FC Barcelona in the near future, has yet to sign a contract? Or with Fernandez? Or with the Football Area Technical Commission?
The bureaucratic model creates a decision-making process that is "erratic," Font said, which explains all the dithering that went on over the summer with key potential signings. The club’s new head coach, Ernesto Valverde, for example, only named one player publicly that he wanted to sign—Real Sociedad’s central defender Inigo Martinez, per Diario Sport.
The club went after Martinez but pulled out inexplicably at the death. No one outside the club knows why. Gimenez discounted the rumour that Lionel Messi vetoed the move because it would jeopardise the prospects of his compatriot Javier Mascherano staying at the club as a back-up centre-half.
Barcelona left Jean Michael Seri dangling at the altar, too. On Spanish transfer deadline day, Barca made an unseemly last-minute lurch to sign former Real Madrid player Angel Di Maria from PSG, much to the annoyance of its hardcore fans, which also floundered. Gimenez says that Fernandez can’t be blamed for the cock-ups, though, as he has no say in negotiations.
"It’s like the hunter who goes to hunt with his dog," he said. "The dog finds the prey, and the guy shoots and misses. So what do you do? Kill the dog? It’s nonsense. Robert didn’t negotiate. It was directors like Jordi Mestre, Javier Bordas."
The most glaring transfer mess was the club’s inability to sign Philippe Coutinho from Liverpool, which Segura had promised was "close" in mid-August, according to RAC1 (via Goal.com). The saga ran all summer. The first of Barcelona’s three bids was made on July 20. It was rejected and followed up by a statement from Fenway Sports Group, Liverpool’s owners, that Coutinho was not for sale.
Barcelona made a final, fourth push on Spain’s transfer deadline day. It was repelled.
Last Saturday, Soler claimed Liverpool wanted €200 million, according to the Mirror, which Barcelona were unwilling to pay. Lu Martin, the cult Barcelona football writer and journalist, says it is one more falsehood that Barcelona’s board has made, including club president Josep Maria Bartomeu’s statement in the summer that Messi had signed a contract renewal, which he had yet to do, per ESPN.
The latest twist in the farrago is that Bartomeu claims Messi’s father has signed the contract and it just needs to be rubber-stamped by his son, per Diario Sport.
"Liverpool never asked for €200 million because they never negotiated with Barcelona," Martin said. "Coutinho was never for sale by Liverpool. Another lie by this board. This junta lives on lies."
Some critics claim that Segura has been tainted by the failure to secure Coutinho, given his history with Liverpool.
Font isn’t so sure about that narrative. "I wonder if this is truly the case or not," he said. "I wonder is Coutinho someone who Pep Segura thought was a good signing for FC Barcelona, or was it Robert Fernandez that wanted Coutinho to come? Because what my intel tells me is that Segura and Fernandez have very different opinions about this. It could very well be that Segura does not agree that Coutinho should come to FC Barcelona."
Barcelona have shielded Segura from the flak over the summer transfer failings. It was noticeable that the board sent Soler and Fernandez out to bat at Saturday’s press conference on their poor performance in the transfer market. Fernandez—who, according to ESPN FC's Sam Marsden, rashly promised that "one more player comes in, and if it’s possible, even two" at Ousmane Dembele’s presentation a week ago when none have been forthcoming—looks like a dead man walking.
"The board want to protect Segura," Font said, "and he wants to protect himself as well from the mess. It’s fair that he is not blamed for everything that has happened because he was not part of the planning process. I should assume that during the last eight weeks since his [appointment] was made, regardless of whether he has signed a contract or not, he has been party to discussions, negotiations, the processes. He should carry part of the blame as well.
"It’s also true that if things go south and end in crisis, the current president and board will need a scapegoat. It will be better to use Robert Fernandez as a scapegoat, as Andoni Zubizarreta [who was fired as sporting director in January 2015] has been in the past, than anyone else.
"Pep Segura is a guy who knows a lot about football. He’s a hard-working guy. His work ethic is good. The question mark is: Is this guy, who was an assistant of Rafa Benitez at Liverpool and has been working at many different clubs before, someone who belongs to the FC Barcelona philosophy and model? I question that."
All quotes and information obtained firsthand unless otherwise indicated.
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