The once almighty Barcelona is heading toward meltdown. Off-field problems have been coupled with a lack of success on the pitch as the team failed to win a major trophy last season and are stuttering under new coach Luis Enrique, who has become embroiled in a bust-up with marquee player Lionel Messi.
One week after the Spanish team’s appeal against a FIFA-imposed transfer ban was rejected and two days after its sports director was fired, Barcelona president Josep Bartomeu called for early elections to ”relieve tension” at the increasingly troubled club.
Folding to immense internal pressure, Bartomeu said Wednesday he and his board would run for re-election at the end of the season instead of seeing out their mandate until 2016. He pointed to the transfer ban for violating rules regarding youth players as the club’s major issue.
”I think this is one of the biggest problems the club has had in its history,” said Bartomeu, who called the FIFA ban ”out of proportion” and said he was planning to write a letter of complaint to FIFA president Sepp Blatter.
While many neutral soccer fans have enjoyed watching Lionel Messi and his teammates win again and again over the years, there are plenty in Barcelona increasingly anxious to return to the days when Pep Guardiola led the team to 14 of a possible 19 titles in a four-year span.
That frustration has been aggravated by watching Real Madrid win its 10th European Cup last year and seeing that team set a Spanish record with 22 straight wins to end 2014.
The sense of impending doom that has finally boiled over Camp Nou since the firing of Andoni Zubizarreta on Monday had been festering for more than a year, and it came to a head last week when the Court of Arbitration for Sport rejected Barcelona’s appeal against FIFA’s one-year transfer ban.
Until then, the club had insisted – and many of its fans had believed – that they would win their case and the harsh penalty would never be applied.
Now the reality of a season with no new players for an aging squad is settling in, although Bartomeu did his best to quell swirling rumors about Messi moving to Chelsea.
”There are a lot of things people are talking about,” Bartomeu said. ”I am sure other clubs would like to have Messi on their team, but we are very happy with everything and of course with Messi.”
Barcelona’s faithful will have their chance to express themselves at home matches against Elche in the Copa del Rey on Thursday before Sunday’s meeting with defending league champion Atletico Madrid. Many disgruntled supporters will have their handkerchiefs handy in case the team loses.
Barcelona greats Johan Cruyff and Hristo Stoichkov have already lamented the state of their former club.
”I believe Barcelona is heading toward chaos,” Stoichkov said Tuesday. ”There are too many controversies. I don’t understand it.”
On the field, the team has continued to churn out wins against minor opponents and can still challenge for titles.
That steady stream of lopsided scorelines and Messi goal records – this season he has broken both the Spanish and Champions League scoring marks – covers up the club’s biggest failure: its inability to keep top talent both on and off the field.
First, Guardiola left the club in 2012. President Sandro Rosell resigned last year, and top players Carles Puyol, Eric Abidal and Cesc Fabregas have not been replaced.
The most perplexing part of Barcelona’s decline is that most of the blows have been self-inflicted by the myriad of legal cases plaguing the club. Besides the FIFA penalty that has damaged the reputation of its once lauded football academy, Rosell left amid a lawsuit into the transfer of Neymar, while Messi is mired in a tax fraud case.
Messi, so far, is holding Barcelona together, but there have been reports that the club’s all-time leading scorer is not happy with coach Luis Enrique, fueling the Chelsea speculation.
The arrival of Luis Enrique – the club’s fourth coach in as many seasons – was labeled as a return to the Guardiola model of a player coming home. But his erratic lineup choices, which included resting Messi and Neymar for the first half in Sunday’s 1-0 loss at Real Sociedad that cost Barcelona the provisional league lead, have erased any comparisons other than unfavorable ones with Guardiola.
On Wednesday, Luis Enrique denied that his relationship with Messi had soured.
”I have the same relationship since the start of the season with all the players, nothing has changed,” the coach said.
When pressed on whether he had argued with Messi, he said: ”Things inside the changing room, on the field, stay there. I won’t confirm or deny them. That’s not my job.”
Now, the transfer ban until 2016 means that the club’s institutional crisis has finally spilled over to become a sporting disaster as well.
Zubizarreta’s latest batch of reinforcements from last year have not panned out. Even if Luis Suarez recovers his scoring prowess after one goal in nine league games, Barcelona has slipped in midfield and defense. Ivan Rakitic and Rafina are no Fabregas; Jeremy Mathieu and Thomas Vermaelen (still to debut because of injuries) are far from the second comings of Puyol and Abidal.
Mainstays Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta are showing their age at 34 and 30, respectively. Gerard Pique is not the dominant defender he was, and Dani Alves’ contract is up at the end of the season, pointing to his exit.
As Sergio Busquets has said, ”football evolves.”
”It’s impossible for things to stay the same,” the Spain midfielder said in November. ”We won’t see the best Barca again.”