Barcelona's ex-manager took training on Monday morning, if only because he wasn't the ex-manager just yet. Besides, someone somewhere had to act with a little dignity. And what if it didn't happen? He certainly wasn't about to make the decision for them, so Ernesto Valverde drove into San Joan Despí not long after 8am. At 11, he was out on the training pitch as normal, players gathered in a circle around him, which was one way to say: "goodbye . . . probably." By the time he drove out again, he knew, it was likely to be for the last time. But not because they had actually told him.
On Thursday night, Valverde’s team had collapsed again. While they played better than they had so far this season, he got booed every time he appeared on the big screen – 2-1 up with nine minutes remaining against Atlético Madrid in the Spanish Super Cup in Jeddah, Barcelona lost 3-2: echoes of Rome and Anfield, that recurring nightmare. Three times was too many. Two already had been, but to almost everyone’s surprise, the club didn’t act in the summer, instead keeping their coach. They did act now, just not particularly well. “A bit ugly,” was Andrés Iniesta’s verdict; “unpleasant,” he called it.
Valverde has a contract until the end of the season with an option for another year that no one anticipated activating. Barcelona are top of the league, where they finished the last two seasons, but as Pep Guardiola put it: “It’s a special place where winning the league is not enough.” And here’s the truth, which may feel odd outside Spain but feels entirely logical inside it: no one was suggesting he should continue beyond this season. Regardless of who they blamed, most thought he should not have got to this season: Anfield was The End. Yet, having survived until now, supported by his players and useful for his president, logic said he would get to that point.
He still could, perhaps – and, yes, at this point, these pages are waiting too. But how, after this pantomime played out in public? An operetta, El Mundo called it.
Saudi Arabia had stung. It prompted an urge to do something, anything, and to be seen to do it, not to wait any longer. July was a long way away and this hurt now. There was regret, too, that they hadn't acted sooner. The timing limited their room for manoeuvre, but at least there were 10 days until their next game. What happened next was open, broadcast: Barcelona's CEO, Óscar Grau, and sporting director, Eric Abidal, met Xavi Hernández in Qatar. They were in a hurry and needed a response soon. To his surprise, they offered him the job they know he wants in the future with immediate effect; to their surprise, he said no.
Aligned with Víctor Font, who will stand in presidential elections in two years, Xavi does not entirely trust these directors. The timing wasn't right, he felt. Ronald Koeman, whose position has always been to make himself available after the Euros, an appointment considered a fait accompli, felt the same way when they went back to him with a new chronology. And so, on it went. Still, no one had said anything to Valverde, but he had read all about it.
Things could never be the same again, even if they did try to turn back, carry on regardless, pretend nothing had happened, use the old trick of blaming it on the press. This couldn’t be normalised now, however much Valverde was out there carrying on like normal; however much that character has been central to his success at Barcelona – if it can be called that. And, for all the complaints and the criticism, it can.
The summer he arrived, Neymar left, the succession plan in pieces. “For the first time in nine years, I feel inferior to Madrid,” Gerard Piqué admitted. The best players were getting older and that team had gone, even if some of its members remained, diminished in some cases. Some were indulged from above, although Valverde too stood accused of the same: dressingroom support is a virtue easily turned into a vice. For all that, Barcelona won two league titles, miles ahead. They forfeited an historic invincible season because a friendly, imposed by the board, took precedence over their penultimate game.
But if he was perfect in a crisis, creation was something else, especially when his authority and room for manoeuvre was reduced; there were things that he could change and things he could not and did not. At a club occupied by identity but seemingly without the conviction to impose it from above, with that famous “entourage”, results are not enough. Not when you have Messi, whose final years can sometimes feel wasted. Expectation was perhaps exaggerated but excellence eluded them. The results they really wanted were not enough either. And Rome and Liverpool happened. Now this did. It was absurd that defeat on Thursday should start this but once it had, it was not easy to stop.
As Valverde took training on Monday, so the candidates circled, some seemingly thrown into the air at random. You name them, someone else had named them. This ran and ran, information and rumour intertwined. Some of it sounded absurd, but then . . . no Xavi, no Koeman, so on to Massimiliano Allegri, Roberto Martínez, and Quique Setién. Gabriel Milito, Thierry Henry, and Marcelo Gallardo. Mauricio Pochettino, who had said he would sooner work on a farm than manage Barcelona. Francisco Javier García Pimineta, the B team manager. For now, at least. And then, well, we'll see.
Josep Maria Bartomeu’s car arrived. Valverde’s agent arrived. After training, president and coach – still – met. There was no news, not immediately. Maybe Bartomeu had expected Valverde to resign. Hurt, humiliated, exposed, he would act. On a point of principle, he would walk, tell them where to go. Maybe that’s what Bartomeu hoped; it would have made it easier. But he didn’t. Valverde remained Valverde. A board meeting followed and the cars were followed too, endless photos of men at the wheel and a lingering feeling that no one was. At three o’clock the meeting began, but with no announcement over when it would end, when any of it would.
It was mid-afternoon on Monday, Barcelona’s ex-manager was still their manager and everybody was waiting for the final line of chronicle of a death foretold. – Guardian