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Barcelona’s past 30 years and parallels to today
It’s important to put the present of a club into some sort of context: history tells us why things happen the way they do. There's more information up to 2012 because I think people already know a lot about it since then.
Honestly, if I was a Barca fan I would have hope - you just can’t be on top forever (not saying it’s acceptable to be so bad), all teams go through cycles of good and bad, ups and downs. Their time will come again and as discussed below and judged by history, it will always come with endless crisis and drama with patches of incredible triumph. There will be another era, and another end to that era too.
Remember what Pep said in 2012:
Asked what he would say to the young Barcelona fan crying for the first time last night [after exiting the Champions League], Guardiola replied: "Welcome to the club – there will be many more times, too."Origins: Nunez and Cruyff
In 1988, Josep Lluis Nunez had been president of Barcelona for ten years - a conservative and stingy man. That year, the ‘Hesperia Mutiny’ occurred: the entire Barca squad called a press conference at which they demanded the resignation of the board, as a result of Nunez’s refusal to pay competitive wages, amongst other, dodgier business practices. Nunez reacted by sacking almost the entire squad, and the manager for good measure.
Nunez’s next move was the appointment of Johan Cruyff. Cruyff, who had cemented his status as a hero among fans with his stint as a player there in the 70s, was a huge success. He changed the entire culture of the club and constructed the foundation on which Barca’s recent successes were built. His team won 4 straight La Liga titles as well as Barca’s first European Cup. They were so good that they were known as the Dream Team.
However, Cruyff also had a massive ego and needed to get his way, which was a recipe for disaster in his relationship with Nunez.
In his heyday Cruyff was far too popular to sack. Nunez knew, though, that all he had to do was bide his time. The Dream Team came to a dismal end in 1994, after they lost the Champions League final that year, which they had been heavily favoured to win, 4-0.
Cruyff responded by dismantling the team and starting over, bringing in more young talent from the academy and foreign stars like Luis Figo, a serious young Portuguese player. The experiment didn’t quite work out, and results continued to slip. Cruyff was the kind of man who didn’t suffer fools at all, and he treated the salivating press pack that covered Spanish football with undisguised contempt when he felt they deserved it. They now felt free to give him some back.
Cruyff and Nunez’s disagreements became increasingly public, and in 1996 finally culminated in his acrimonious departure, which is reported to have included a rant in vice-president and super fan Joan Gaspart’s office in which Cruyff smashed a chair.
Pep, quédate: Guardiola
Cruyff had picked Pep Guardiola out of Barca’s youth team to become the on-field leader of the Dream Team. Cultured, charismatic, a natural leader and a fiercely committed Catalan nationalist, he very quickly attained cult hero status.
The politics of Barcelona and Spanish football in general meant that he also made powerful enemies, both inside and outside the club. Many associated with the conservative club hierarchy did not like how outspoken he was. Increasingly, they worried about the soft power he wielded, fearing he would turn it against them if he perceived them to be acting against the interests of the club.
An example of the difficulty Guardiola posed Nunez: at the end of 96/97, Nunez was being typically ham-fisted about extending Guardiola’s contract, which was due to expire, and Pep was prepared to pack up and leave at the end of the season.
At the big ceremony held at City Hall to celebrate Barca winning the Spanish Cup, star player Luis Figo led the fans in a chant of Nosotros te queremos, Pep, quédate, quédate, quédate (“we love you, Pep, stay”). Rather ironically.
With the threat of an upcoming re-election campaign looming over him, Nunez could hardly afford to lose such a popular player. He backed down and Guardiola signed an extension.
In a way, those in charge at Barca were right to worry. Guardiola was unusually powerful for a player, and he never kept quiet when something struck him as wrong, even if it meant criticising those running the club. So it was almost inevitable that the whispering campaign against him began almost immediately as he came to prominence.
Vice-captain and club hero Luis Figo’s contract was up for renewal at the end of 99/00. Negotiations had stalled over the board’s usual penny-pinching ways. Meanwhile, Real Madrid presidential candidate Florentino Perez was campaigning on the daring but surely impossible promise of bringing Figo to Madrid.
In early July, Figo was still insisting that he would remain at Barca in an interview with local media.
But the pre-contract that was said not to exist did, in fact, exist. Perez won, Madrid paid Figo’s buy-out clause, and pig heads flew.
Figo’s departure led to a period of madness: at board level, as new president Gaspart spent money like a madman to try and make up for the loss of Figo, bringing in ever more hideously over-priced, sub-standard players on huge wages; and throughout the fanbase, as the fortunes of the team took a nose dive.
“It's a sign of the times at the Camp Nou that Serra Ferrer could declare his satisfaction at a "hard fought victory" and claim that with two wins on the trot, Barcelona are starting to get things right. And against those giants of world football Club Brugge and Osasuna, too.”The new manager, Llorenc Serra Ferrer, had no power, leaving control of team affairs largely in the hands of four Spanish veterans, led by the hugely influential but increasingly burnt out club captain Guardiola.
Nov 2000 - Sid Lowe
Guardiola was nearing the end of his endurance. As El Pais commented in the late 90s, Barca could not simply continue to use him as a symbol in the morning and a scapegoat in the afternoon. The departure of his good friend Figo (the godfather of his first child) and a string of other fellow homegrown players and veterans saddened him, and he grew increasingly isolated in his struggle to assert the voice and image of Barca that he believed in. The environment grew ever more toxic.
In 2001, Guardiola chose to leave Barca at the end of his contract. Many believed he was jumping before he could be pushed.
The departures of heavyweights such as Figo and Guardiola and chaos at boardroom level had led to a team who were often unmotivated, disorganised, and who no one any good really wanted to join. Fans described the team as 'Puyol and ten other blokes’, future captain Carles Puyol being the lone voice in the desert fighting against apathy and incompetence.
“Barça don't have a discernible first eleven, Luis Enrique is out injured, most of the fans never wanted Louis Van Gaal back in the first place, and the club is wracked by internal divisions, hidden agendas and economic difficulties which the president Joan Gaspart only seems to be making worse.
The knives are out for Gaspart. His three-year presidency has reaped three managers, endless crises and no trophies - not even the Copa de Catalunya. And what little credit he had left was definitively lost with his ridiculous response to last week's derbi events [Figo and the pig’s head]; a response that even drew criticism from the vice-president of the government, Mariano Rajoy.”
Dec 2002 - Sid Lowe
“Van Gaal is gone but FC Barcelona are still a complete shambles. Not surprising really: what they really need is a change of president. Anyone really, just not Joan Gaspart - the man with a supporter's club named in his honour.
A Real Madrid one.”
Feb 2003 - Sid Lowe
“On Saturday night FC Barcelona were beaten 2-1 by hated rivals Real Madrid. It was their first league defeat in a Camp Nou derbi for twenty years… Madrid have broken a twenty year run which was, quite honestly, about the only thing Barça fans could still cling to.”Revival: Laporta and Rosell
Nov 2003 - Sid Lowe
The presidential elections in 2003 brought about a revolution: Elefant Blau, the protest group which had tried to unseat Nunez and his ilk unsuccessfully in the past, won. Their leader Joan Laporta (a Cruyffista - the young lawyer of Johan Cruyff) became president. His right-hand man Sandro Rosell became vice-president and immediately set about using his connections to renew the squad. Laporta’s team of young professionals, determined to bring the club into the 21st century, was a breath of fresh air in an institution that badly needed it.
Johan Cruyff’s promotion of young players from Barcelona’s academy to form essentially a new team in 1996 didn’t go so well that time, but Cruyff’s innovative approach to youth development did change Barca for the better.
In the dawning days of Laporta’s revolution Barca’s homegrown players got together and made a pact. They were sick of winning nothing, of foreign star players being indulged and locker room chaos. They agreed that from then on, they would rule the side. This agreement sowed the seeds for one of the best teams ever. The key figures of this group were two young Catalans, Carles Puyol and Xavi Hernandez.
Rijkaard’s new team started the 2003-04 season appallingly but he managed to hang on and turn results around by mid-season.
Barca finished second, one place above the Real Madrid Galacticos, and Ronaldinho became a massive fan favourite. More than anything else, the amount of fun he seemed to have showcasing his skills on the pitch brought a sense of joy back to the Camp Nou at long last.
So the young, energised and modern board had finished second - but Laporta and Rosell fell out over who should have the final say in transfers and the role of Johan Cruyff, among other things. The conflict became bitter and personal.
In the season after that (04-05), Barca signed Deco and Samuel Eto'o, completing the Rijkaard template. A team inspired by the brilliance of Ronaldinho, the flair and bite of Deco and the lethal finishing of Eto'o finally pulled it together to win the league after five seasons of nothing.
Bitter break up and the aborted start of an era: Laporta and Rosell
Despite the success, vice-president Sandro Rosell resigned from the board at the end of the season, citing broken promises and inability to work with president Laporta. From being friends and partners with Laporta to sworn enemies in the space of a few years, the spectacular break-up of their friendship has shaped Barca ever since. From that day onwards, Rosell worked to bring Laporta down (and was eventually elected president in 2010).
To be entirely fair, there's plenty to dislike about Laporta.
Sid Lowe wrote in October of 2005:
“[Laporta is a] paranoid football president who thinks he’s a national one. [It] emerged that director Alejandro Echevarría (and Laporta’s brother-in-law!) is a member of the Fundación Nacional Francisco Franco - an organisation dedicated to the former dictator who ruled Spain with an iron fist for almost forty years. Having a director who's a member of the FNFF is a bit of downer for a club whose self-identity is all about Catalanisme, democracy and opposition to Franco. “Echevarría is not, never was and never will be a member of the Fundación," [Laporta] insisted. Not the brightest decision ever - after all Barça could always claim that their democratic identity means that anyone, however politically embarrassing, can join up, whereas lying leaves no way back when the evidence is suddenly [presented].”However, after this revelation supporters didn’t hound Laporta too much at a game… “thanks not least to 18-year-old Argentinian Leo Messi - yet another New Maradona, except that he might actually be up to the task and he's the only one named after a Mr Man”, Lowe’s first mention of him.
Almost as embarrassing, in fact, as Laporta's ludicrous claim that: "Echevarría can't possibly be a Francoist because he was only 10 when Franco died". And this guy's a lawyer, for Christ's sake.”
Laporta also was furious with Pique for joining United at 17 - he vowed he’d never return (and of course changed his mind four years later).
The following season (05-06) was even better. The introduction of the fearsome frontline of Ronaldinho-Eto'o-Messi gave Barca new weapons to break teams down with. Leo broke into the first team with a bang, with electrifying performances against Juventus, Real Madrid, and especially Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. Barca finished the season by winning a double, with the Champions League trophy returning to Barcelona after 14 years away.
Many of the nice things we heard about Guardiola’s team were being said about Rijkaard’s, back then. Barca had the best player in the world in Ronaldinho and the upcoming superstar in Messi. It was supposed to be the beginning of an era.
Decline: But Messi
By 06-07, things started to go wrong. That’s the problem with winning: no matter how driven you are, everyone’s less hungry after they’ve eaten.
Ronaldinho was joyful but never that driven. Whatever the reason, Ronaldinho, who had always liked a party, fell so far into an unprofessional lifestyle that he began to miss training sessions.
Eto'o got a serious injury, and fell out very publicly with Ronaldinho over the latter’s preferential treatment, general laziness and the fact that the club were committed to protecting his reputation with lies. This feud went all the way up to the boardroom - Rosell had very strong connections with Ronnie’s people, and Laporta and Eto'o were at this stage still pals.
While all around him floundered, supporters increasingly pinned all their hopes on the injury-prone but brilliant 19-year-old Messi. Leo scored a hattrick against Madrid in March 2007, one for every goal Barca let in at the other end. If he could have dragged Barca to the title, he would have. But his body kept betraying him.
Almost inevitably, Barca drew 2-2 with local rivals Espanyol at home during the second to last round, all but handing the title to Madrid.
At the start of 07-08, Barcelona finally ended a long-running and by then farcical transfer saga by signing Thierry Henry from Arsenal. (This combination of words will become annoyingly familiar.)
Henry was welcomed like a hero and immediately had to fill in for Eto'o because the latter suffered another serious injury in pre-season. He struggled to fit in, unfit and desperately missing his daughter.
The slackness that had crept into the team the season before became painfully apparent, especially when it came to Deco and Ronaldinho, two of the team’s key players. For fans who kept faith with Ronnie and with the reassurances of the club’s own media, it was a shock to read in reputable papers stories about him missing about 50% of the scheduled training sessions and partying away his evenings. Rijkaard had finally had enough and began to leave him out of match squads, using fitness as an excuse.
All this came to a head when fellow Brazilian Edmilson gave a rant about there being 'black sheep’ in the locker room. You can imagine the press feeding frenzy that followed. Frank Rijkaard, whose players loved him for treating them like adults, was too distracted by family problems of his own to sort out an increasingly lazy, disaffected and conflict-ridden locker room. And so on it went.
In May, Barca faced the ugly prospect of having to give Madrid, who were already champions, a guard of honour at the Bernabeu. Rather than have to do this, Deco and Eto'o both earned what looked like deliberate yellow cards in the game immediately before the Clasico, enabling them to miss the game. This really pissed the fans off, sealed Deco’s fate and led to Eto'o falling out with Laporta.
Immediately after a 4-1 defeat to Madrid, Laporta sacked Rijkaard in a transparent attempt to save his own skin. The club finished third place, 18 points off Madrid. The entorno (”environment”, Cryuff’s word for the combination of media, former players/managers, power brokers and fanbase that makes Barca such a special basketcase) was in complete uproar, torn apart by disagreements and infighting.
As writer Phil Ball said at the end of 07-08: “Barcelona will want to sleep for a while, but hope that the nightmares cease. Adversity builds the character, and they can only hope to bury the negatives, take the few positives, and learn from their mistakes.”
The Fairytale Years: Pep Guardiola
President Joan Laporta remained a canny political operator in crisis mode. He knew that the continuation of his presidency hinged on making the right managerial appointment. In this task he was guided, as always, by his guru and idol Johan Cruyff, and by sporting director and ex-Dream Team player Txiki Begiristain.
Rijkaard’s replacement? Pep Guardiola.
Pep Guardiola had returned in 2007 to the club of his life where he’d been ballboy, trainee, player, captain and symbol to manage Barca’s B team, which had just suffered the indignity of relegation to the murky depths of the 4th division (this is even a parallel to how badly Xavi’s Qatar team is doing!). All his friends had told him that it was a potential career and reputation ruiner, and to stay away. But he knew what he had to do.
In desperation, and perhaps remembering an exchange a year earlier where Guardiola had expressed his willingness and readiness to take on the Barca job next year, Laporta now turned to Guardiola. In response, he got a list of demands.
Guardiola might have been taking on his first senior job, but he knew Barca. He knew he needed real power if anything was going to change, and he knew the board needed him to rally the fanbase. They gave him what he wanted, including the assistants and physios he named, Tito Vilanova as his second in command, an end to opening training sessions, and moving first team training away from the Camp Nou. From the day of his appointment, the power balance inside Barca changed.
The day after the appointment was announced, two club members launched a censure motion against the board, essentially a vote of no confidence. The campaign was hard-fought and dirty, accusations of Sandro Rosell’s involvement abounded, and Laporta emerged intact by the skin of his neck. The Guardiola maneuvre had saved him. For now.
Next came a painful clear-out. 7 members of the first team departed, including Ronaldinho and Deco, two key members of the Barca team that won a double just 2 years ago. They were replaced by a number of not high ticket but highly astute signings, the pick of which were young former La Masia defender Gerard Pique and rightback and all-around dynamo Dani Alves.
Guardiola looked at Rijkaard’s squad and saw a good team in its bones, even if it was in need of a refresher. He set about doing this by making sure that the key members of his new team were on board.
Unsettled players like Henry and Gudjohnsen were brought back into the fold, and most importantly Guardiola forged a quick and unbreakable bond with Leo Messi by taking his side in the absurd dispute between Messi and the club over his participation in the 2008 Olympics. Unlike the board, Guardiola saw that the club’s best interests were served in the long term by keeping Messi happy, rather than pissing him off over a short term conflict. (Sound familiar?) He made sure he was an ally to Messi from the beginning, invested in his development as a player and a person.
With the departure of Ronaldinho, the club captaincy was now held by four La Masia grads who had all been around for a good while (Carles Puyol, Xavi, Victor Valdes and Andres Iniesta). At the beginning of the season, the squad included 11 homegrown players, a state of affairs not seen in Barca for some time. The rumoured La Masia pact was coming to fruition, in the hands of a manager who would turn Barca into a team centred around homegrown talent.
Guardiola was in a good position to evaluate whether any of his former charges at the B team were ready for the first team. He chose two seemingly unremarkable kids and began starting them over more established and popular players. Far from welcoming this initiative, criticism and skepticism were the predominate initial responses, which Guardiola blithely ignored.
The two kids were Pedro, who went on to play a major part in Barca’s trophy haul of the next 7 years, and… Sergio Busquets.
Most significantly, Pep Guardiola saw from the very beginning that young Leo Messi was the key component of his new team. He made sure that they understood each other, and rather than simply paying lip service to his importance, he continuously devised tactical changes to maximise Messi’s potential. The most significant of these changes was having Messi interchange with Eto’o and spend more time in the central no 9 role.
Pep had turned a demoralised rabble into something nobody could have ever anticipated. He had arrived with absolutely clear ideas of how he wanted the team to play, and he only needed to convince his players to buy into the high intensity pressing/passing game.
Barcelona entered into a swap deal with Inter in July 2009 to exchange Eto’o and a very large pile of cash for Zlatan Ibrahimovic. It was not a popular decision and at the time, Pep Guardiola famously explained away this decision by saying there was a lack of “feeling” between him and the Cameroonian. While the two of them had gotten off to perhaps the worst possible start (with Guardiola declaring that he wanted to sell Eto’o in 2008 and then changing his mind) and there had been hints of tension between these too-honest men during the season, this explanation didn’t stand up entirely to scrutiny even then.
The truth, as is often the case with Barca, was a lot more murky and complicated. The driving force behind the swap deal was two-fold. The first was the board. Laporta had previously been close to Eto’o but fell out with him over the way he ruled himself out for the memorably awful Madrid game in April 2008. The other person who had ruled himself out that day by getting deliberately booked, Deco, was cast off by Barca in 2008, while Eto’o bought himself another season by staving off interest from other clubs with his wage demands and performing well enough to convince Guardiola to give him a chance.
The board also had complicated financial imperatives for wanting rid of Eto’o. They pushed for him to go even more than Guardiola did, a fact which is completely forgotten now, because everyone was happy to let Guardiola take the blame at the time.
Then Zlatan came but ultimately Pep couldn’t make him work with the squad. Pep decided that Messi needed to play in the middle, and having tried and failed to make that work with Ibra, he knew that Ibra had to go.
Bitter Break Up Continues: Laporta and Rosell
In 2010, Laporta finished up his 2 terms as president of Barca. He was replaced by his ex-friend Sandro Rosell, who had spent the years since their falling out trying to unseat him by whatever means necessary.
Sandro Rosell’s entire presidency was about not being Joan Laporta. Laporta expanded membership and embraced globalism, so he used xenophobic justifications to restrict it to locals only. Using some creative accounting, he accused Laporta of nearly bankrupting the club and used the alleged state of the finances to justify a policy of austerity and introduce a paid shirt sponsor for the first time in the club’s history. Laporta was a rabid Cruyffista who had made Cruyff the honorary president of the club; Rosell stripped Cruyff of this position almost immediately.
In 2013, Barcelona’s radical ultras Boixos Nois returned to the Camp Nou - Laporta had banned them.
Rosell used the club as a tool to further his epic vendetta, going so far as to orchestrate an extraordinary lawsuit filed by the club against Laporta and his board for alleged financial mismanagement. (A lawsuit which was thrown out by the courts.)
Guardiola was wary of Rosell from the start. He did not approve of the lawsuit against Laporta and publicly said so. Worse, one of the first things Rosell did was to sell Dmytro Chygrynskiy against Guardiola’s wishes, citing the club’s need for cash. When Pep asked Rosell for squad reinforcements, particularly in defence, stories surfaced in the board-friendly media about how Pep didn’t want more signings because he wanted a smaller squad. This forced Guardiola into talking about the need for reinforcements in public.
Pep had gone through the same routine with Laporta in 2009. The difference there being that Laporta buckled and signed the defender Pep was after. Rosell never did.
"The way [Barca] is organised, there are only two options: either you’re the power or you aren’t the power. And, against my wishes, I have been forced to pick sides.” - Pep Guardiola to Marti Perarnau
Even during Laporta’s presidency, it could be argued that he was having to do too much, in part because others were doing too little. But at least Laporta was biddable, and they largely agreed on major issues.
With Rosell, there was either disagreement or a general deafening silence
In February 2011, Barca lost 2-1 to Arsenal in the first leg of their Champions League last 16 matchup. The furore that followed was typical Barca: it was the end of the world, this team was worse than the previous versions, this team was never any good, Messi and Iniesta were over the hill, Barca was in crisis. Pep asked for time because he knew his players.
In 1992, Cruyff’s Barcelona, with Pep in midfield, had won Barca’s first Champions League at Wembley Stadium. 19 years later, a team built on Cruyffista principles by Guardiola had come back to Wembley to close the circle.
In 2014, president Rosell resigned in disgrace over multiple scandals. He was replaced (unelected) by vice president Bartomeu.
The Beginning of the End: Bartomeu
In 2015, things went off the rails, despite the eventual result.
Club boards survive by putting up scapegoats. The board fired sporting director Zubizarreta - his assistant, one Carles Puyol, resigned his position. The Court of Arbitration for Sport confirmed FIFA’s sanction for Barca’s clear breach of the Transfer Regulations. Messi followed Chelsea on Instagram.
The local media reported some sort of conflict between Messi and manager Luis Enrique, along the lines of the locker room unrest rumours which were running wild since Barca lost to Madrid. There were further rumours that Luis Enrique had to be talked out of initiating disciplinary action against Messi by the other three captains (Xavi, Iniesta and Busquets). Local media fanned the flames of a supposed Messi v Enrique conflict and suggested that Enrique’s hiring was all Zubizarreta’s idea. One section of the local media was effectively in bed with the board.
The Rosell/Bartomeu board saw many instances of misconduct such as the Qatar shirt deal, the Neymar deal, breaking its promise to renew Eric Abidal’s contract after his illness, the failed lawsuit against the former board, secret deals signed with banned and fascist ultra groups, firing and reshuffling members of the medical and technical team against the wishes of the players, repeatedly misleading members about the state of Barca’s finances before and after 2010.
And finally: stealthily changing the bylaws so that anybody wishing to initiate a vote of no confidence against the board had to gather the signatures of 15% of all members in 5 days, instead of just 5%.
The FIFA ban was the first time they were rattled, and then Messi was on their back, which is the one thing they can’t survive, coupled with bad results. Bartomeu then called an election for later that year in January.
Of course, then the results got better in 2015 and they won everything.
By the time of the election in July 2015 this was no longer the case due to their success. Laporta was running against Bartomeu (Of the signatures Laporta needed to collect to stand, Cruyff’s support for him was not registered). Guardiola, Cruyff and Abidal all publicly supported Laporta. Bartomeu won.
The central conflict that everything to do with Barca has revolved around for the past 30+ years is Cruyff v Nunez. They’re both dead now but that hasn’t changed a thing about the persistence of the conflict. The “modern” version of this conflict began with the rift between then-president Joan Laporta (Cruyffista) and then-VP Sandro Rosell in the 00s. The current board is a continuation of Rosell’s presidency, which began in 2010. Rosell’s presidency was controversial for many many reasons, among them his board’s open conflict with Pep Guardiola both during and after Guardiola’s extremely successful tenure as manager. The current president became president because Rosell resigned in disgrace and then had his position confirmed thanks to Luis Enrique’s on field success. Oh, and because his board sneakily changed the rules to make it harder to get rid of them. The board has repeatedly clashed with Leo Messi, both by members of the board making really dumb public statements and through their proxies in the local press. every time the fans become unhappy with the board they repeat the magic trick of firing someone else to take the heat off.
The board has treated Messi poorly for so long, making him a scapegoat in the morning and a saviour in the afternoon, taking it for granted that he wouldn’t want to leave.