Summer of discontent
Neymar’s departure, Messi’s unsigned contract, unhappy fans: the problems are mounting for Barcelona
Outside Camp Nou, long queues were forming. Inside, Barcelona were winning – but that didn’t stop some socis lining up before the game, and after it, to sign a petition demanding a moción de censura (a vote of confidence) against the president Josep Maria Bartomeu. Agustin Benedito, the man proposing the moción admitted that it was difficult, but insisted that he was on course to collect the 16,570 signatures necessary to force it through.
The second time he set up stalls at Camp Nou, Barca also won. The season could barely have started better, with Barca winning their first six games in La Liga to establish a seven-point lead over Real Madrid – and, even at this early stage of the season, that’s a hugely significant gap – and they started their Champions League campaign with a 3-0 victory over Juventus.
Yet despite all this, many fans are determined to see Bartomeu depart – although whether there are enough to actually force the vote of no confidence remains to be seen.
Writing in the sports newspaper AS,
Barca only found out Neymar’s intentions during a pre-season tour of the USA...the players had known since Lionel Messi’s wedding
Santi Gimenez recently said that they should hand out shovels with Barcelona membership cards, so supporters could dig themselves a trench to occupy. He had a point too, This is a club partly defined by what came to be known as the “entorno” – hidden and not-sohidden interests, that swirl of pressure, power and politics that surrounds the club, an almost permanent civil war.
Some tension is inevitable, crisis almost permanently latent, and there has certainly been cause for complaint – even more so than usual. Calling it a crisis is not such an exaggeration.
Every day things seemed to be going wrong for Bartomeu. Every time he tried to make things better, they got even worse. Never mind the supporters, someone seemed to have handed him a shovel and he just kept on digging.
The day that Barcelona presented Ousame Dembele, they opened the doors to the fans at Camp Nou. Up in the stands, they waited. And waited, and waited, and waited.
It later emerged that there had been a problem with the paperwork that delayed Dembele’s unveiling. As the minutes ticked by, the supporters grew more and more irritated – and they were irritated enough as it was.
Soon the chants began and they were familiar ones: “Bartomeu, dimisión!” (Bartomeu, resign!) It was supposed to be a happy occasion, but it ended up like this. Another day, another mess.
There have been plenty of them over a disastrous summer and the list doesn’t make for pretty reading. They chased Arsenal’s Hector Bellerin and didn’t get him. They chased Marco Verratti from Paris Saint-Germain and didn’t just not get him – they, of course, soon found
PSG coming back for Neymar.
When the stories broke, vice-president Jordi Mestre said that he was “200 per cent sure” Neymar would stay at the club. He didn’t. Instead, he left, having paid the € 222million buy-out clause. In an attempt to defend and protect Barcelona, La Liga refused to accept the payment...which Barcelona themselves accepted just a few hours later.
Barcelona said they had only found out about Neymar’s intentions during the club’s pre-season tour of the USA. The players, on the other hand, admitted that they had known since Lionel Messi’s wedding. No one had thought to tell the directors. Or if they had, they didn’t want to. From the US, Gerard Pique had announced: “Se queda” (he’s staying).
But Neymar didn’t stay, although his move had been delayed long enough that when it finally went through, he was due an additional “loyalty” payment – no laughing at the back there – reputedly worth € 26m. Barcelona refused to pay and a battle began.
Not long after, Neymar said Barcelona deserved better directors than the “joke” directors they had. And, here’s the thing. However annoyed supporters were with him, many agreed. Bizarrely, they were actually on his side on this one. Others suggested that while he was the last person in the world allowed to say so, that didn’t make him wrong.
A few days later, Barca announced they were going to take legal action against Neymar. That very afternoon, he was back in the city at a birthday party with other Barcelona players. Pictures of them, friends together, flooded social media. Messages that made reference to “se queda” made light of his departure, and the very public display of affection brought the division between players and board sharply into focus.
That seemed to be reflected in perhaps the worst part of all. Twice Bartomeu announced that Lionel Messi had renewed his contract with the club. But he hadn’t.
He claimed that it was just a case of finding the time, the right moment, to announce it formally and take some photos. After the tour, he said. Before the season, he said. But it never happened.
Bartomeu insisted the deal was agreed, but the fact that it was not publicly signed was a concerning one. If the photo hadn’t been taken, there must be a reason for it. Some feared the worst.
Even if Messi does want to stay – and most assume he does – the failure to sign it all off is telling. At the very least, he does not want to be used politically.
Maybe he wants to see what happens with the vote of no confidence first? Maybe he wants Bartomeu out? Maybe he doesn’t want this president boasting that he closed this deal? Whatever he says now will be huge politically – and that may well be a political responsibility he does not want.
Whatever the outcome, there is a simple, scary bottom line: in three months Messi can negotiate with whoever he wants. At the end of the season he could walk away for free. So can Andres Iniesta. Bartomeu claimed that Iniesta had agreed to a contract renewal. Asked if he could confirm it the next day, Iniesta replied “no”. In its simplicity it said much.
There was more in a summer marked by Neymar’s departure and the sense of weakness and uncertainty that it created around the Catalans. This was only deepened by the nagging feeling, put bluntly, of incompetence and repeated
failure. Barcelona informed Real Sociedad of their intention to pay the buy-out clause for Inigo Martinez and then, at the last minute, pulled out.
They chased Nice’s Jean Seri, having ruled him out earlier in the summer when they were still pursuing Verratti and thus missed the deadline on a clause that would have made signing him easy. But then they pulled out of that too, leaving the player publicly admitting that he was devastated, having been convinced that he was off to Camp Nou. So last minute was the decision that El
Mundo Deportivo, a newspaper extremely close to the president, had two different covers within half an hour: “Seri signs”, then “Seri doesn’t sign”. Barca alleged that this was a technical decision and he just wasn’t the right player. It didn’t wash.
It’s not normal to be on the verge of signing a player that you don’t think is the right target anyway.
By then they had signed Paulinho. The poor Brazilian had not done anything wrong, but he was attacked mercilessly as if his signing symbolised everything that was wrong: a 29-year-old arriving from China at a cost of € 40m.
Soon, the critics were changing their mind on that one, at least, after he scored two games running, but with the € 222m from Neymar burning a hole in their pocket, prices everywhere were heading skywards and Barcelona never seemed to be fully in control of the market, even if, after he effectively went on strike, they finally got Dembele from Borussia Dortmund – for an initial € 105m. As if to sum it all up, he then suffered a tendon injury in just his third game for the club which will keep him out for at least three months.
So there’s no Dembele and there’s no Philippe Coutinho either, of course.
All summer Liverpool insisted that they would not sell the Brazilian, no matter what, but Barcelona kept briefing that they would try. On the final day, with countless other names suddenly appearing on the scene – they tried, and failed, to get Angel Di Maria from PSG – they made one last try. Predictably, they failed.
The next day Barcelona held a press conference to explain their activities over the summer. At one point the sporting director accidentally referred to “Leo’s departure” instead of Neymar’s.
A Freudian slip over Messi perhaps, but one that didn’t go unnoticed.
With the €222m burning a hole in their pocket, prices were heading skywards and Barca never seemed fully in control of the market
Gone...Neymar joined paris Saint-Germain anticipation...fans await the arrival of Ousmane Dembele
Injured...Ousmane Dembele is hurt against Getafe
Pressure...club president Josep Maria Bartomeu
Frustration...fans are getting angry
Next move...Lionel Messi is out of contract at Barcelona next year