Five Years on the Slide: Barcelona’s Decline Explained

On September 4, Lionel Messi announced his decision to remain at Barcelona for another season, putting a temporary halt to a transfer saga that has gained more and more steam since Barcelona’s 8-2 defeat to Bayern Munich in the Champions League quarter finals. 

In the weeks that have followed the humiliating elimination at the Estádio da Luz, Messi attempted to unilaterally rescind his contract at Barcelona by sending a Burofax to the club’s board, pointing to a clause in his contract that would have allowed him to leave on a free transfer before 10th June. The club held their ground, stating that any club interested in signing him would have to pay his €700 million release clause, an argument which La Liga themselves quickly backed up. 

When Messi asked to hold a meeting with the board to discuss an amicable exit, Barcelona rejected his offer, stating that they would only be willing to discuss a contract extension. Messi and his entourage maintained their position that he be allowed to leave for free, arguing that the aforementioned clause should be extended past June 10 in lieu of the season’s postponement due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the end, Barcelona prevailed – for now, at least. In an interview with Goal’s Rubén Uría, Messi conceded, “I am going to continue in the club because the president told me that the only way to leave was to pay the clause, and that this is impossible. There was another way and it was to go to trial. I would never go to court against Barcelona because it is the club that I love, which gave me everything since I arrived.”

Messi claimed in the interview that he “told the club’s president [Josep Maria Bartomeu] and he always said that at the end of the season I could decide if I wanted to go or if I wanted to stay and in the end he did not keep his word.” 

This isn’t the only time Bartomeu has failed to keep his word to Messi. On August 27, The Guardian reported that Bartomeu had told Messi’s father Jorge that he was willing to resign in order for the Argentine to stay at Barcelona. “The forward would have to publicly say the problem is Bartomeu, putting the onus on him to respond in a move seemingly designed to bring Messi into the open.”

Despite Messi’s public criticism of the 57-year-old chairman, Bartomeu has refused to step down and will likely see out the rest of his term until elections are held in March. He has, for lack of a better phrase, successfully extinguished this fire, but he is not out of the woods yet.

Last week, the Catalan police accused him of corruption for his role in the ‘Barçagate’ scandal. Bartomeu allegedly overpaid the third-party agency l3 Ventures six times higher than the normal rate of their service. The service in question: monitoring Barcelona’s social media and running a smear campaign against important club figures such as Gerard Piqué, former club captain Carles Puyol, and presidential candidates Agustí Benedito and Víctor Font.

Furthermore, one of the candidates for next year’s elections – Jordi Farré – has filed a motion of censure against the sitting president, which reached 7,500 club member signatures yesterday. It is unlikely that the ‘Més que una Moció’ will reach the threshold of 16,520 signatures by the deadline of September 17, but if they do, two-thirds of Barcelona’s 150,000 ‘socis’ would have to submit a vote of no confidence in order to trigger early elections and forego another six months with Bartomeu in charge.

Bartomeu first rose to power in July 2010 following the election of Sandro Rosell as club president. The two had studied together during their time at the ESADE Business School, and enjoyed a long relationship that would see Bartomeu serve as the club’s vice president until January 23, 2014. Bartomeu would eventually become president of the club following Rosell’s abrupt decision to resign hours after the Spanish national court judge, Pablo Ruiz, accepted a lawsuit that accused him of misappropriating funds in the transfer of Neymar from Santos completed seven months prior. Bartomeu took over the head role, but the months that followed his appointment were marred with heartbreak and despair: Tito Vilanova’s death, Barcelona relinquishing the La Liga title to Atlético Madrid in the final weeks of the season, and the departures of club legends Carles Puyol and Víctor Valdés in the summer of 2014.

But they bounced back in fashion the following campaign, winning the treble under Luis Enrique with the unstoppable attacking trident in Messi, Luis Suárez, and Neymar at his disposal. Bartomeu cruised to a landslide victory in the July election, picking up 54.6% of the vote in comparison to former president Joan Laporta’s 33%.

When trying to pinpoint the ‘beginning of the end’ for Barcelona’s arduous decline, however, a good place to start is the summer of 2015. Xavi Hernández and Pedro Rodríguez, two players who had risen up the ranks of La Masia to become key players in a system built around Messi, left Catalunya. Their replacements: Arda Turan and Aleix Vidal.

Vidal, who joined from Sevilla for a fee rising to €22 million, struggled to convince in his three seasons in Catalunya, being tried and tested at right back and winger before returning to Sevilla for €8.5 million three years later. 

Turan, who joined from Atlético Madrid for a fee rising to €41 million, would go on to be one of the most expensive and worthless investments in Bartomeu’s reign. Despite the fact that he had played as a wide midfielder in Diego Simeone’s 4-4-2, Barcelona decided to purchase Turan to replace the departing Xavi, who’s exit has left a gaping hole in Barcelona’s midfield that has never been replaced. The Turkish winger failed to impress in his two seasons in Catalunya, before being shipped off to İstanbul Başakşehir in January 2018.

Barcelona would go on to claim a domestic double under Enrique, although they’d suffer another blow the following summer with the departure of Dani Alves on a free transfer to Juventus. Messi lost a player who understood his movements and style better than anyone else on the pitch, and Barcelona lost a legendary right back whose absence in the position is felt more than ever today.

Perhaps the most damaging departure, however, came in 2017. Neymar, who had reportedly grown upset at playing second fiddle to Messi, left for Paris Saint-Germain for a world-record fee of €222 million. Barcelona have since spent a lot of money trying to replace Neymar – €145 million for Ousmane Dembélé, €160 million for Philippe Coutinho, €42 million for Malcom and €120 million for Antoine Griezmann – none of whom have come anywhere close to filling the hole the Brazilian left.

Still, Barcelona responded well under new manager Ernesto Valverde who took over from Enrique in 2017, dominating La Liga and coasting to a domestic double. Midway through the season, Messi signed his now infamous four-year extension that included the confidential clause allowing him to unilaterally terminate his contract at the end of each season.

Five months after penning that extension, Messi suffered one of the most humiliating defeats of his professional career. Having defeated Roma by a comfortable margin of 4-1 in the first leg of their Champions League quarter-final, Barcelona collapsed in tremendous fashion. Valverde’s conservative tactics and tepid substitutions combined to leave the Blaugranas suffering a humiliating exit from Europe, leading many to question whether Valverde’s tactics and his players’ mental strength was up to the task.

That summer, another legend departed the club in the shape of  Andrés Iniesta, someone who is also yet to be adequately replaced. Barcelona’s domestic success nevertheless continued under Valverde, winning another league title and making it to their first Champions League semi finals since 2015. However, once again, they would collapse at the finish line.

Having taken a comfortable 3-0 lead into the return leg at Anfield, Barcelona crumbled under an onslaught of Liverpool attacks. As Coutinho delivered a phantom performance in his former stomping grounds, Virgil Van Dijk and Alisson, two players whose transfers who were funded by the Coutinho sale, put in rock-solid shifts as Liverpool miraculously completed the remontada to book their ticket for the final in Madrid, where they would defeat Tottenham Hotspur. Barca’s domestic successes was now just paper over the cracks in a club that were widening with each passing month. 

Despite suffering two humiliating eliminations in the span of a year, Barcelona made the decision to keep Valverde as their manager. They limped through the first half of the 2019/20 season, dropping points to Levante, Espanyol, Osasuna, Athletic Bilbao and Granada, but they still managed to do enough for Valverde to keep his job and for Barcelona to head into the Spanish Super Cup in January as league leaders. The last straw came on January 9, however, when Barcelona lost to Atlético Madrid in Jeddah. Valverde was sacked and replaced by Quique Setién.

A month later, sporting director Eric Abidal claimed in an interview with Sport that the club had in fact begun to consider Valverde’s future after the stalemate against Real Madrid on December 18, claiming that “many players weren’t satisfied nor working hard and there was also an internal communication problem. The relationship manager-dressing room has always been good but there are things, as a former player, I can smell. I told the club what I thought and that a decision had to be made.”

Messi hit back at Abidal’s comments in an Instagram post in which he said, “I think that everyone has to be responsible for his acts and take responsibility for their own decisions. The players are responsible for what happens on the pitch, and we have been the first to recognise when we were not good. The people in the sporting directorate should also assume their responsibility and above all take ownership of the decisions they make. I think that when players are talked about, names should be given because, if not, we are all being dirtied and it feeds comments that are made and are not true.”

Despite losing 2-0 to Real Madrid on March 1, Barcelona headed into the Coronavirus break with a two-point lead in La Liga over Los Blancos. But the stoppage of football exposed the true extent of  the club’s financial troubles, leading Bartomeu to ask the squad to take a 70% pay cut. Catalunya’s biggest sports outlets – Mundo Deportivo and Sport – published stories that claimed the players were unwilling to take a pay cut. Once again, Messi took to Instagram to hit back, arguing, “Our desire has always been to take a pay cut, because we understand perfectly that this is an exceptional situation. That’s why it has surprised us that within the club people have tried to put us under scrutiny and put pressure on us to do something we were always going to do.”

Barcelona would go on to lose the league title on the penultimate matchday following a 2-1 defeat to Osasuna, prompting the captain to declare in his post-match interview, “We were a very erratic, very weak, low-intensity team…We lost a lot of points and today’s game is a summary of the season. If we continue like this, we will lose the game against Napoli.”

Even though the Blaugranas progressed past Napoli comfortably, they were torn apart and humiliated in the following round against Bayern Munich. Ronald Koeman was brought in to replace Setién, and reportedly told Messi in their first meeting, “Your privileges in the squad are over, you have to do everything for the team. I’m going to be inflexible, you have to think about the team.”

All of this resulted in Messi unsuccessfully demanding a transfer from his boyhood club. But there is, of course, another layer to the saga. Whilst Barcelona succeeded in using their leverage, namely the €700 million release clause, to keep Messi at the club for the coming season, the Argentine’s contract expires in less than 10 months. As such, Messi would be well within his liberties to negotiate a pre-contract agreement with any interested club in January and then join on a free transfer in the summer.

If that is the case, Barcelona will miss out on a hefty transfer fee that could have saved them from the economic distress currently plaguing their club. The club’s coffers have been reeling from the COVID-19 pandemic, having lost over €154 million according to La Vanguardia. By selling Messi, they could have reasonably landed themselves a nine-figure fee plus one or two Manchester City players in exchange such as Gabriel Jesus or Eric García.

This was the closest City have ever come to signing Messi, since their attempts to snatch him away from Barcelona began on September 1, 2008, on the day that Sheik Mansour purchased the Sky Blues. In his book “The Manchester City Years,” former executive Garry Cook claimed, “An executive made a comment like, ‘it’s all getting messy.’ Via the phone lines and the other communication lines, this somehow translated into ‘get Messi’. An offer was made for Lionel Messi of about £30 million. Needless to say, it was rejected.”

The four years that followed that deadline day mishap saw Messi and Guardiola enjoy the most fruitful spell of their career, winning three league titles and two Champions League trophies, revolutionising the false nine role, and building a style of football so dazzling and so effective that it has arguably changed the face of football forever. 

Both Messi and Guardiola have attained tremendous success since then, but neither have managed to replicate the lofty highs witnessed at the Camp Nou between 2008 and 2012. Both of their contracts are set to expire in 2021, and it appears Messi could well use his unique leverage to force Guardiola to extend his stay in Manchester. Guardiola, on the other hand, could use his own leverage to ensure that City wage another offensive for the Argentine superstar when his contract expires next year.

Messi could of course do what Robert Lewandowski did midway through the 2013/14 season and announce that he will leave Barcelona on a free transfer upon the expiry of his contract. But let’s assume that for the sake of simplicity Messi won’t want to add more controversy in what looks set to be another arduous season for the Blaugranas. Let’s say that he does the same thing he did last season and waits for the season to come to a conclusion before deciding his next move.

If that is the case, Barcelona have fewer than 10 months to convince Messi to extend his stay and pen a contract that would see him spend the rest of his prime in Catalunya. From the tone of his interview, Messi certainly didn’t sound like a person who’s currently contemplating going back on his word; he sounded like a person who’s been lied to, who’s been kept against his will, and who believes it’s time to cut ties.

The Argentine had begun preseason by skipping training and foregoing the club’s PCR tests, but he returned to training on Monday, joining up with the rest of the squad under his new manager. Unlike Setién and Ernesto Valverde, Koeman had a legendary playing spell in Barcelona, having won four consecutive league titles with Johan Cruyff’s “Dream Team” and scoring the winning goal in the 1992 European Cup Final. Moreover, in his 20 years of managerial experience, he has proven to have the necessary ‘cojones’ to administer a dressing-room clearout and expunge the ‘vacas sagradas’ from the squad. After taking charge of Valencia on October 31, 2007, he quickly froze out club legends such as Santiago Cañizares, David Albelda, and Miguel Ángel Angulo. Koeman was removed from his duties six months later, with Valencia barely hovering above the relegation zone.

It hasn’t taken long for Koeman to begin his ‘limpieza’ at the Camp Nou. 32-year-old midfielder Ivan Rakitić has returned to Sevilla for a fee of €1.5 million plus a potential €9 million in add-ons. 33-year-old Arturo Vidal looks set to rescind the final year of his contract at Barcelona and join Inter Milan on a free transfer. 33-year-old Luis Suárez is next on the chopping block, with the Uruguay international linked to a move to Juventus and Atletico Madrid. Koeman reportedly told Suárez he was no longer needed in a one-minute phone call, further angering Messi, who is one of Suárez’s closest friends in the squad.

It has been a year from hell for the Blaugrana outfit, who suffered their first trophyless season since 2008 and went through three different managers in nine months. But even in the fiercest of anger, it would be unimaginable for Messi to file a lawsuit against the club that made him into what he is today. Rather, he will stay put in Barcelona, counting down the days until he, and only he, is free to choose his next destination.

Over the years, Barcelona’s various transfer sagas have led to players such as Cesc Fàbregas, Philippe Coutinho and Ousmane Dembélé going on strike in demand of moves to the Camp Nou. For the first time in a while, they found themselves on the other side of the fence, watching in agony as their greatest ever player begged to be liberated from his contract.

In the end, Messi’s interview didn’t follow the blueprint of The Decision, when LeBron James announced his decision to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers and join the Miami Heat, where he would win two NBA Finals. Instead, it had the aura of the infamous scene from the 1999 workplace comedy “Office Space,”  when three disgruntled employees take turns demolishing a frequently malfunctioning printer in a field.

Only this time, it was a burofax machine.

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