The Making of the ‘Messi’ Tragedy at FC Barcelona

Messi’s potential departure has shocked the footballing world. We take a look at what might have caused it. 

6 min read
Argentinian footballer and FC Barcelona star Lionel Messi.

The stands of the highest capacity football stadium in Europe are vacant as protestors stand outside, demanding the resignation of FC Barcelona’s president, Josep Maria Bartomeu. Inside, the club’s board scrambled to find a way to retain their ‘all-time greatest’, Lionel Andrés Messi.

The burofax sent by Messi on Tuesday, 25 August, declaring that he wants to leave the club exposed a massive wound in the soul of FC Barcelona. Don’t be mistaken, this wasn’t a captain abandoning a sinking ship or the byproduct of Barcelona’s humiliating 8-2 defeat against Bayern Munich in the UEFA Champions League quarter-finals or because of their first trophyless season since 2007-08. It has been years in the making.

While the exact reasons behind La Pulga’s potential departure have not yet been clarified by the player himself, it is certain that they have to do with the club’s recent downfall.

‘Messi’ Management

With a not-so-great recent transfer history of players and coaches, fans and critics have been quick to direct the blame at the Barcelona board, accusing them of being short-sighted.

After the recent sacking of Sporting Director Eric Abidal, there is no one on the board with any football experience on the field. It has also been rumoured that, even during Abidal’s tenure, he did not have much say in the major decisions that were taken at the club.

However, there are two incidents that particularly stand out.   

The first was when Abidal had accused the players of not working hard enough in an attempt to get Ernesto Valverde sacked. This led Messi, who rarely speaks on such issues publicly, speak up against Valverde, dismissing the accusation.

What followed was an Instagram post by La Pulga which said “Name the players or be quiet”, and a public war of words followed, forcing Bartomeu to hold an emergency meeting with Abidal and Messi. The problem was averted but since then, Messi started to be quite vocal about his grievances.

The Making of the ‘Messi’ Tragedy at FC Barcelona
(Photo Courtesy: Instagram Screenshot)

The second was during the coronavirus pandemic, in which FC Barcelona was particularly affected since the imposed lockdown had slashed income through ticket sales and television rights, forcing the players to take a 70 percent pay cut.

FC Barcelona players are one of the highest paid in La Liga, and they had to take a pay cut in order to support the club, which had exposed the financial woes that the club was going through.

However, Messi was not happy with the way “the board had tried to put the players under pressure to do what the players always knew they would do.”

Decreasing Reliance on Youth Players

During Pep Guardiola’s time, especially between 2004 and 2010, there was a major influx of young talent from La Masia – Barcelona’s youth academy. To put things into perspective, Messi, Xavi and Iniesta had all graduated to the first team from La Masia.

Since Guardiola’s departure, starting with Tito Vilanova, that influx slowed down drastically with only a handful of players making it to the first team in recent years. Critics have said that the club has failed to hold on to the academy’s promising stars.

During the 2009 Champions League Final against Manchester United, FC Barcelona had fielded 7 La Masia graduates in the starting line-up, contrasting to a mere 3 against Napoli in February 2020 and 5 against Bayern in August 2020.

Big Money Transfers, Disappointing ROI

FC Barcelona has always had big-name signings among its ranks, like Samuel Eto, Thierry Henry, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and recently, the likes of Philippe Coutinho, Ousmane Dembele and Antoine Griezmann.

Since their transfer ban in 2015 and the departure of Neymar in 2017, the club, despite its financial woes invested huge sums of money to buy players, especially to replace the Brazilian. Barcelona has reportedly spent over $1 billion in transfer fees since the 2013-14 season. Unfortunately, most of their buy-ins failed to live up to the price tag.

Philippe Coutinho. 
Philippe Coutinho. 
(Photo: IANS/EFE/Sebastian Silva)

The $170 million Coutinho made only 76 appearances for the club, scoring 21 goals and 11 assists, and was later loaned off to Bayern Munich, less than two years into his contract.

Another promising signing, Dembele, could barely get enough playtime as he was riddled with injuries through most of his tenure. Griezmann, who was signed for $135 million, has only been a shadow of what he was at his former club Atletico Madrid.

Bartomeu’s strategy, of throwing large sums of money to buy big-name players with the intent of replacing Neymar and building a team around Messi, fell flat on its knees. 

Out of Position

This also sheds light on the fact that some of the signings weren’t allowed to play in their natural positions, restricting them from unlocking their full potential. Dutch midfielder Frenkie De Jong has been often found in the depths of the midfield, not being allowed to go upfront, while Griezmann, who used to play as a second striker at Athletico, is found running up and down the wing.

FC Barcelona’s Antoine Griezmann in action during a Spanish La Liga soccer match between Atletico Madrid and FC Barcelona.
FC Barcelona’s Antoine Griezmann in action during a Spanish La Liga soccer match between Atletico Madrid and FC Barcelona.
(Photo: AP)
With the new signings not being able to shine, the responsibility to carry the team relied again on the old guard, who are in their 30s and, according to football algorithm, are well past their prime (with Messi being the exception). 

This has led to the club facing a series of crucial defeats, often resulting in getting knocked out of the championship race, the most recent being their 2019/20 season where they were leading the table for the most part of the season but towards the end gave way to Real Madrid.

Karim Benzema scored twice for Real Madrid as they closed the 2019-2020 La Liga title.
Karim Benzema scored twice for Real Madrid as they closed the 2019-2020 La Liga title.
(Photo: Twitter)

Coaches Not Given Enough Time?

The recent failures have had the Barcelona board point an arrow straight to the chest of the managers. Pep Guardiola had built a seemingly invincible team at Barcelona, which was later carried forward by Tito Vilanova and Luis Enrique, but it was towards the end of Enrique’s tenure that the imminent downfall started to show.

Former Barcelona coach Luis Enrique. 
Former Barcelona coach Luis Enrique. 
(Photo: Xinhua/Liu Yun/IANS)

In comparison to Enrique’s nine honours in three years and Guardiola’s 14 honours in four years, Valverde managed a mere four trophies in three years and his successor, Quique Setien, managing none in eight months.

If you look at their tenures, you would notice that the managers have stayed at the helm of the club for three years or less, which leaves the debate open – were the managers given enough time?

Whatever be the future of the club, it is certain that FC Barcelona will not be the same without Messi, and, maybe, he wouldn’t be the same without the club either. A club that has designed itself around its star player would suffer a major loss with this departure (if it happens).

But, what is certain is that the Spanish giants are heading towards a catastrophic disaster, that has been some time in the making. The hardcore supporters, however, would argue that the club just needs a few good wins and a few trophies to revive its lost glory.

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