Xavi getting to grips with massive challenge at Barcelona

Legendary former star’s young tyros will have nothing to lose when they face great rivals Real

In June 2020, Noelia Romera was fired by Barcelona because she was doing her job.

Romera was the club’s compliance officer. Week after week, she went along to her seniors in the club to report on problems. Boundaries that were being crossed. She was a nuisance. The board of directors didn’t want to hear the bad news she was telling them. Maybe if they got rid of her, the bad news would just go away. It didn’t.

In October 2020, Barça's president Josep Maria Bartomeu – Romera's old boss – resigned. He was drowning in bad news. Corruption within the corridors of power at Barça was rampant.

According to the club's lawyer, Jaime Campaner – who came in as part of a new management regime under president Joan Laporta in March 2021 – it was at "grotesque" levels. Romera has been vindicated. In October 2021, a Spanish court ruled that she had been unfairly dismissed.

In February 2022, Barcelona released an internal “forensic” report about corruption within the club. The report was subsequently handed over to Catalonia’s prosecutor’s office. The investigation found that more than €30 million had disappeared as a result of unexplained payments. The works: false accounting. Inflated transfer fees. Hush payments. What was disturbing was that the corruption wasn’t the result of isolated incidents. It was part of a culture. A way of doing business at the club. Everyone got their cut.

According to Catalan radio station Cadena Ser, for example, the agent in the middle of Malcom's transfer to Barcelona from Bordeaux in 2018, got €10 million for a reported transfer fee of €41 million. The market rate for football agents in a transfer deal is 5 per cent. Malcom is one of dozens of mysterious players who have sailed through the club since the turn of the century.

He was an uncapped Brazilian winger who scored one goal in La Liga before being sent off to Zenit St Petersburg to spend his winters in Russia. Few people remember him in Spain except for his distinctive name (chosen because his father admired, but couldn't spell properly, the name of civil rights leader Malcolm X).

A chain of events has led to Barça's spectacular collapse as a force in European football. They foolishly picked a fight with Paris Saint-Germain. They caved into Lionel Messi's exorbitant salary demands, which inflated the club's salary base. Several embarrassing defeats in the Champions League, most notably against AS Roma and Liverpool, forced them into panic buying.

For example, Barcelona effectively paid twice the market rate for players such as Philippe Coutinho, Ousmane Dembélé and Frenkie de Jong. For several years, the club was led by a weak president, Bartomeu. Messi – until he left last summer – stepped into the power vacuum, operating like a silent dictator.

When the Covid-19 pandemic hit in March 2020, Barça had to shutter the football stadium, the club museum and merchandising stores for more than a year, cutting revenue streams. Their fragile finances were badly exposed.

The club has been swimming in debt for years. Last year, they posted losses of €481 million. Endemic corruption is a feature of that financial malaise. They don't have the robust financial health of, say, eternal rivals Real Madrid.

Cap on salaries Madrid president Florentino Pérez prudently kept a cap on salaries, refusing to rise above

€17 million net for star players Karim Benzema, Eden Hazard and Gareth Bale. Pérez sold at great profit – in a deflated market – players such as Raphaël Varane and academy graduates, Martin Ødegaard, Sergio Reguilón and Achraf Hakimi.

Barça’s fans still haven’t come to terms with Messi’s exit. It was inexplicable to them. He wanted to stay. They didn’t want him to leave, but he’s gone. The club couldn’t afford to pay his salary (even though it was half the figure of his previous contract). His exodus has left a lot of rancour.

Club president Laporta – who once enjoyed a close relationship with Messi – and Messi’s family aren’t talking to each other. Although Messi might be unhappy in Paris, he won’t be cutting short his Parisian adventure to return to the Camp Nou.

Messi's departure has left an obvious gap on the pitch. How can you replace a player who has scored 762 goals for your club? Last December, Barça crashed out of the Champions League group stages for the first time since 2000. They only only scored two goals in six matches. Bayern Munich, who topped their group, scored 22 times in the same number of pool games.

To stay afloat financially, Barça had to take out an emergency €595 million loan from Goldman Sachs. As well as shedding Messi, they offloaded Antoine Griezmann, exchanging him on transfer deadline day for Luuk de Jong, Sevilla's third-choice striker. An embarrassing swap, but a measure of Barça's position in the world. At the time, one director said the club would have swapped Griezmann for Donald Duck if necessary – Barca were so desperate to get Griezmann's salary off the books.

In October 2021, head coach and club legend Ronald Koeman was thrown on the campfire as a sacrifice to the God of Poor Results. Koeman never had the confidence of newly-installed president Laporta, as he was an inheritance from the old regime. It was only a matter of time before he got the sack. A few weeks later, Xavi Hernández, another club legend, took charge of his first game as Barça's new manager.

After such a tumultuous couple of years – including endless controversies, Messi's shock departure, shameful results, the arrest of ex-club president Bartomeu in March 2021 – Xavi's return was greeted with universal warmth. Not even the return of Johan Cruyff in 1988 or Pep Guardiola in 2008 as head coach has had such a unifying effect.

Xavi’s credentials were impeccable: Catalan-born; an academy player; 17 seasons on the first team; synonymous with the greatest Barça team in history because of his metronomic style of playing; a man who exudes confidence, with clear ideas about how Barça should play.

There were quibbles in some corners, including reservations by Laporta, that he lacked top-flight management experience, having only spent a couple of years coaching in Qatar with Al Sadd, but he was the obvious choice. "The Anointed One", more than 10,000 fans showed up to his unveiling.

Xavi has had work to do. After the sacking of three coaches in less than two years, arguably things could hardly get worse though. The team Xavi inherited were lying ninth in the league table, closer to the relegation zone than to the league leaders.

Slowly, he has started to build a recognisable style of play, a return to Cruyffista principles, including a high press, that have brought the club success in the past. The team are playing with more intensity. With more self-belief. The ball is circulating more fluidly than under Koeman. And let's not be naive: the club's busiest winter transfer in history – including the nostalgic return of Dani Alves (see panel) – has had a significant impact.

In have come a new forward trio, all from the English Premier League. Ferran Torres was the most notable signing. A statement of intent. Barça mustered up the money to lure him from Manchester City (it was a good piece of business by City, selling a player they bought for €22 million 18 months earlier for €55 million).

Laporta was full of bluster about the transaction, boasting Barça were “back” as a force in the transfer market. Torres isn’t the kind of player to build an empire on, but he has good trajectory, including 12 goals in 21 games for the Spain national team. He only turned 22 a couple of weeks ago.

Adama Traoré, who has come initially on loan from Wolves, has been starting on Barça’s other wing. Traoré is a Barça academy graduate, who debuted on the first team alongside Xavi, before moving to the English Premier League in the summer of 2015. He’s proving to be a useful (and cheap) short-term fix. To date, Xavi has been alternating him with Dembélé. Both have different strengths.

The revelation of the winter transfer window has been Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. He was a low-cost, opportunistic signing who has hit the ground running – he scored a hat-trick on his full debut.

‘Killer’

He’s the “killer” the club have been missing since they sold Luis Suárez to Atletico Madrid in 2020. Xavi has described him as “a blessing from heaven”.

In January, Barça had scored 40 goals in 30 games. In February, the team scored four goals each in four big wins: against Atletico Madrid, Valencia, Athletic Bilbao and away against Napoli in the Europa League. Suddenly scoring goals isn't a problem anymore.

Barça’s financial problems haven’t disappeared. It’s unlikely they will have the muscle to make a big summer signing. A new shirt sponsorship deal with Spotify (with a €5 million annual increase on the pre-pandemic deal the club had with Rakuten) suggests, though, the market believes there is power in the Barça brand beyond Messi.

From a playing perspective, what gives Barça's fans hope is an extraordinary generation of players pushing through, including 17-year-old Gavi (who dazzled against Italy in his debut for Spain in October); Ansu Fati, who has assumed Messi's No 10 jersey, although he's struggling with injuries; Nico, a bustling midfielder (and the son of Súper Dépor legend Fran); and Pedri, a player with magic in his feet, who reminds Xavi of Andrés Iniesta. Tomorrow, Xavi's kids will get a tilt at Real Madrid in the Bernabéu. Real Madrid are romping towards their 35th league title, 15 points clear of Barça in third position.

Without marvelling, Real Madrid's success this season has been built on extraordinary goalkeeping by Thibaut Courtois; a fine new central defensive pairing in Éder Militão and David Alaba; Casemiro, Toni Kroos and Luka Modric playing from memory in midfield; and in particular plenty of goals from La Liga's top two scorers, Benzema and Vinicius Jr.

When the teams met in January in the Spanish Super Cup, Xavi fielded seven players under 22 years of age. Barça lost 3-2 in a thrilling game that went to extra time. It was Real Madrid’s fifth Clásico win on the trot. Expect plenty of goals again tomorrow. Xavi’s young tyros will have nothing to lose.

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