Deja vu time for van Gaal at Barcelona


Euroscene/Paddy AgnewAll in all, this has hardly been a good year for Futbol Club Barcelona. As Spanish football heads into its traditional two week end-of-year break, "Barca" is in uproar, with fans, club members and the media calling for the resignation of both president Joan Gaspart and Dutch coach Louis van Gaal, notwithstanding a 4-0 drubbing of Maiorca last Saturday night.

In theory, the most recent uproar has been prompted by a run of poor league results which had seen Barcelona go into Saturday night's game in 13th position in the Primera Liga, just two points off the relegation zone.

Ten days ago when Barcelona crashed 3-0 at the Nou Camp to little Sevilla, thousands of fans started waving their white handkerchiefs in a traditional, Hispanic gesture of protest at the team's fifth successive league game without a win.

In practise, however, one suspects that the ongoing disquiet at Barcelona has as much to do with the excellent centennial year enjoyed by arch-rivals Real Madrid as with their (admittedly poor) league form.

Whilst Real Madrid have been strutting their all-star stuff on the international stage to win both the Champions League and the Intercontinental Cup, Barcelona have had to look on, empty-handed and only partially consoled by their current 10-match unbeaten run in the Champions League.

Worse still, Real summarily dismissed Barcelona in that modestly named "Dual of the Century" when the two sides met at the semi-final stage of the Champions League last April.

Then, too, when the sides met last month for yet another clash of the giants at the Camp Nou, the game not only ended scoreless but Barcelona also suffered a subsequent, humiliating two-match ban on the Nou Camp after rowdy Barcelona fans had held up play for 13 minutes when attempting to pelt Real's Portuguese star (and former Barcelona player) Luis Figo as he tried to take a corner kick.

Just to rub further salt into the wound, the likes of Brazilian World Cup winners Cafu and Rivaldo, not to mention Italian veterans Roberto Baggio and Paolo Maldini as well as emerging stars such as Argentine Andrés D'Alessandro and German Michael Ballack turned out at the Santiago Bernabeu last Wednesday night for a Real Madrid v Rest of World fixture, held to celebrate Real's centenary.

All of which might go some way to explaining why the fans are unhappy and why the Spanish press has been rife with low-key headlines such as "The Camp Nou Burns" (El Pais), "The Final Judgment" (AS) and "A Humiliated Barca In Total Crisis" (La Vanguardia). Major focus of the discontent is van Gaal, one-time genius at Ajax Amsterdam but in recent years a man whose not inconsiderable non-achievements include failure to qualify the Netherlands for this year's World Cup finals (Irish fans know something about this).

Whilst van Gaal has been calling for the support of everyone, "the club, the president, the fans and the press", a pretender sits waiting in the wings in the shape of Argentine Carlos Bianchi. The latter has delayed accepting a job at Argentine club Boca Juniors until he sees which way the cookie crumbles at Barcelona.

This is van Gaal's second coming at Barcelona since he coached the club for three seasons from 1997 to 2000, winning two league titles in that period. Notwithstanding the good domestic results, that relationship ended badly with the Catalan fans accusing him of being over-reliant on Dutch players, being unappreciative of a talent such as Brazilian Rivaldo and, probably worst of all, having failed in the Champions League.

Ominously, though, van Gaal now seems to be at loggerheads with both his talented Argentines, Juan Roman Riquelme and Javier Saviola, prompting memories of his regular disagreements with Rivaldo three seasons ago.

When the surprise news came through this summer that van Gaal had been reappointed at Barcelona, Rivaldo immediately packed his bags and headed for AC Milan. Never one to let bygones be bygones, Rivaldo last week commented: "The only way out for Barcelona is a change of coach. He has to go and soon. Van Gaal is a bad coach. He does stupid things. He's the only coach in the world who doesn't want me in his team."

How's that for Christmas spirit?