Has the sun set on Barcelona’s glory years?

Richard Fitzpatrick reflects how a perfect storm now envelops the former superpower

The Camp Nou, Europe's largest stadium, is falling apart. Barça's chief executive Ferran Reverter took over the day-to-day running of the club in July, as part of a new management regime. Last week, he claimed that the stadium couldn't have opened last season – which was shuttered because of the pandemic – because there were 44 structural "issues" that would have imperilled fans, including the risk of falling debris. Repairs to the stadium's third tier are ongoing.

An earlier inspection by an environmental firm revealed that there was a “really serious” hygiene problem at the stadium, adding “inside the ground was in a deplorable state”. Pigeon nests in the roof of the stadium were full of excrement. The nests, which had been there for years, had attracted flies and mites. Bird faeces were found in areas where food was prepared for fans. Immediate action was recommended, but the firm never heard back from the club.

Crap in the eaves of the stadium, crap on the pitch as well: after Barcelona's traumatic summer, in which it was forced to lose its greatest-ever player, Lionel Messi, to Paris Saint-Germain, the team's performances have been insipid. They lie seventh in the league table. In the Champions League, they lost their opening two group games to Bayern Munich and Benfica, both 3-0 defeats; in neither game could Barça muster a shot on target. Failure to reach the knockout stages of the competition for the first time since 2004 seems likely.

Messi's departure has exposed the poverty of Koeman's idea

Barça misses Messi's goals, and the goals guaranteed by his strike partner Antoine Griezmann – who the club was also forced to offload during the summer to cut back on wages. The pair accounted for almost 50 per cent of the team's goals last season, 38 and 20, respectively. According to club coach Ronald Koeman, Messi "disguised everything": apart from his goalscoring, he created space for team-mates because he was so heavily marked; if the ball was passed to him, he rarely lost it, giving those around him a breather; and he struck the fear of God into rival teams.


Messi’s departure has exposed the poverty of Koeman’s ideas. He’s not a modern coach. He’s a martinet, who took over in August 2020 with credit in the bank because of his legendary playing career at the club in the 1990s. His status and bolshie personality were useful last season in standing up to Messi, who ran the club like a silent dictator, but now, without Messi, Koeman is floundering.

The team's defence is flaky, forcing Koeman to revert to five at the back, which makes its play ponderous. Barça's metronome, Sergio Busquets, has been overrun in several games so far this season; meanwhile, for Spain, he was voted "Player of the Finals" earlier this month in the Nations League finals, which begs questions about Koeman's management of him.

Barça’s midfield – which also features Frenkie de Jong and Pedri, the breakout star of the Euro 2020 finals during the summer, who has just renewed his contract with a “sheikh-resistant” €1 billion buyout clause – should be a strength. Instead it’s a weakness.

Koeman is getting harangued by the Catalan sporting press for abandoning Barça's rapid, short-passing philosophy and his failure to use wingers. Up front, there is little spark. In a 1-1 draw against Granada last month at the Camp Nou, Koeman finished the last 15 minutes of the game with central defender Gerard Piqué and Newcastle United reject Luuk de Jong, a lanky centre forward who's only useful for painting ceilings, up front.

Fatally, Koeman lacks support from the club's new president, Joan Laporta, who was ushered into office last March following elections. Koeman isn't Laporta's man. He's an inheritance from Laporta's predecessor and sworn enemy, Josep Maria Bartomeu.

The club's finances are in disarray. The club ran up losses of €481 million last season. It still owes Messi €52 million in unpaid wages

Last May, Laporta told Koeman during a 28-minute season review meeting that he was giving himself 15 days to find a replacement. When Laporta couldn’t find one, handicapped by the club’s perilous financial state, he was forced to persevere with Koeman, but persistent leaking of their conversations has left Koeman’s authority completely undermined.

Their marriage of convenience remains in place so that Laporta can buy himself time. The club’s finances are in disarray. The club ran up losses of €481 million last season. It still owes Messi €52 million in unpaid wages. Its salary base ballooned during Bartomeu’s seven-year regime, most notoriously with the four-year, €555 million contract renewal given to Messi in 2017, “the pharaoh’s contract that has ruined Barça” according to El Mundo.

Money was tossed away like confetti at a wedding ceremony. The combined salaries of Juventus' squad only covered the wages of four Barcelona players. Transfer fees were wasted on three of the five most expensive signings in football history: Griezmann, Ousmane Dembele and Philippe Coutinho. Commissions paid to football agents averaged between 20-33 per cent , according to Reverter, when the industry norm is 5-10 per cent.

Reverter previously worked heading up MediaMarkt, a German electronics company. According to respected El País journalist Ramón Besa, he’s the most important person at the club now that Messi has left and given the club’s finances are in such a perilous state.

Reverter said last week he was shocked at the lack of transparency within the club, citing deletion of emails of ex-employees within 90 days of their leaving the club and that former board members didn't use club laptops. He has also complained about fees paid to journalists by the club and the splitting of invoice payments to bypass governance structures. (Bartomeu spent a night in prison last March, as part of an ongoing police investigation into financial corruption in the club; his mentor and predecessor Sandro Rosell, who resigned in 2014 because of irregularities over Neymar's transfer to the club a year earlier, spent almost two years in jail before being acquitted as part of a money-laundering investigation.)

Things could go several ways for Barça: it could disappear as a European force like the once mighty Milan. It could lose its romantic member-owned status. In June, it secured a €525 million loan from Goldman Sachs to help service its debts. Today, a members’ assembly will vote on whether to greenlight a €1.5 billion stadium overhaul (to be approved by a referendum). By putting itself on the hook for over €2 billion to investment funds runs the risk that the club could fall into the hands of its creditors.

Javier Tebas, president of La Liga and a vocal critic of Laporta, sees more trouble in the institutional hysteria which has enveloped the club than its financial problems. Before the pandemic the club was earning €1 billion in revenue. If it regains its earning potential, its debt-to-income level will be roughly 1:1, which is better than, say, PSG's and more than 70 per cent of Europe's clubs.

The loss of Messi has damaged its brand. According to Spanish economist Ivan Cabeza, Messi probably generated between €130 million and €200 million a year for the club. Laporta, who campaigned in the spring with a pledge to keep Messi at the club, seems unperturbed, however. "I see Messi very happy in Paris," he said.

Laporta's only football strategy is a bet on La Masia, the club's youth academy

Laporta has started a subtle campaign to discredit the Argentine icon, saying he’s convinced that Messi was negotiating with PSG for a long time before joining the club in August, which contradicts the Messi camp version that their man had no Plan B when the club U-turned on its decision to keep him at the club.

The night before Messi's tearful press conference which drew to a close a 21-year association with the club, Laporta was dining with Real Madrid president Florentino Pérez and their Juventus cohort Andrea Agnelli in Botafumeiro, a Galician seafood restaurant in Barcelona, as the three plotted to keep alive hopes of a European Super League. Barça fans despise Laporta for hitching his wagon to Pérez's star, captured in a "slave of the enemy" banner that adorned the gates of the Camp Nou in protest at Messi's departure.

Laporta's only football strategy is a bet on La Masia, the club's youth academy. Several young players have already been blooded by Koeman this season, including 17-year-old Gavi, who was sensational on his debut for Spain against Italy earlier in the month.

The greatest hopes rest on the 18-year-old shoulders of Ansu Fati, who moved to Spain from a dirt-poor existence in West Africa as a six-year-old. The talented forward has broken several records, having become the youngest scorer in Champions League history and for Spain's national team. He's got cojones. When senior players like Coutinho and Sergio "Kun" Agüero declined to wear Messi's vacant No 10 jersey, he seized it.

Last Sunday, he scored a spectacular equalising goal against Valencia in La Liga and shortly afterwards won a penalty that led ultimately to an important 3-1 win. It was the first time he started a game for the club in nearly a year, as he’s returning from a serious knee injury, which required several operations (nobody from the club will confirm the exact number).

He'll need to be in goal-scoring form again tomorrow for the historic clásico fixture, as Real Madrid – buoyed by a crucial 5-0 midweek win away in the Champions League against Shakhtar Donetsk – visit Barcelona smelling blood.

Karim Benzema - The Good and the Bad

There is a concerted media campaign by the Madrid sporting press to secure Karim Benzema a Ballon d'Or award next month in Paris. The 33-year-old French striker has been in the best form of his career over the last few years, having emerged from the shadow of Cristiano Ronaldo when the Portuguese star left Real Madrid in 2018.

Benzema has scored 20-plus goals in La Liga each season since then. This season alone, he has racked up nine goals in eight games as well as providing seven assists in a team that has been performing patchily. Always more of a No 10 than an out-and-out killer, his assists are works of art.

Benzema has also been excelling for France since his return from a six-year exile after his alleged involvement in attempting to blackmail former international team-mate Mathieu Valbuena. The court case which will decide his fate began earlier this week and if found guilty French prosecutors are looking to hit him with a 10-month suspended sentence.

Gerard Piqué - Love Him or Hate Him

Gerard Piqué always divides opinion. He has a staggering array of commercial interests off the pitch, which include a revival of the Davis Cup tennis tournament. It's not always clear where the lines are drawn, however, between his business interests and his football career. It was announced his company Kosmos Holding bought the Spanish TV rights to Ligue 1 football shortly after his old team-mate Lionel Messi moved to PSG to capitalise on "the Messi effect".

In Barcelona's dressingroom, he annoyed his fellow captains, Sergio Busquets, Sergi Roberto and Jordi Alba, by unilaterally taking a pay cut in August, forcing them to follow suit. The gesture endeared him to Barcelona's fans and the club president, Joan Laporta.

The Catalan press believe Piqué’s direct line to the president is undermining head coach Koeman. Piqué’s problem now – after a glittering career, including a World Cup win with Spain in 2010 – is that his body is betraying him. He turns 35 in January. He’s endured two knee ligament injuries over the past year. When Koeman substituted him after half an hour against Benfica in the club’s humiliating 3-0 Champions League defeat earlier in October, his face, as they say in Spain, was a painting.