Sum­mer of dis­con­tent

Ney­mar’s depar­ture, Messi’s un­signed con­tract, un­happy fans: the prob­lems are mount­ing for Barcelona

World Soccer - - Special Feature -

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

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