Election season has come and gone, meaning we are at last in the realm of prognosticating whether or not the coming season will be anything like the previous one. Part of that is finding out who the new pieces of the club’s staff will be now that Josep Bartomeu has been elected for a 6 year stint and has a board to build. For fans, chief among those appointments is the Director of Football. Where Joan Laporta had gone with Eric Abidal in a bid to pull at the heartstrings of voters, Bartomeu never bothered to announce anyone, though there were rumors. After the election he duly appointed Robert Fernandez, a former Barcelona player and a manager of various clubs in Tercera, Segunda B, and Segunda over a 5 year period.
If they’re to be compared directly to Txiki Begiristain and Andoni Zubizarreta, clearly both Eric and Robert would be mediocre at best simply based on the facile nature of their names. Sure, it’s also true that Txiki is 5 letters, Zubi is 4 letters, and Abi is 3 letters, so one would think that the logical progression there would have swayed more votes than it did. Perhaps Laporta should have made a bigger point of mentioning that the next step would obviously be to name Alonzo Mourning—Zo—to the sporting director role after Abi’s tenure. Then would be M. Night Shyamalan, I guess. After that we’d have to get Prince circa “Love Symbol”. Once that was done, the position would be abolished.
Instead we have to consider Robert’s actual expertise in the field—thanks Barto. Beyond that is the very valid question of whether or not he will do a good job, but to answer that we must first define what is and isn’t a good job in the field. Is simply being a savvy guy with a lot of footballing knowledge? Is it having contacts throughout the European footballing community? Is it simply negotiation skills that make or break the man? And then even if we answer all of that, what, exactly, it means to do a good job as Barcelona’s Director of Football. Do we judge based on solely on titles earned? End-of-the year balance sheets? Youth team promotions? And, not the least bit incidentally, how do we even know who is involved in what dealings?
In order to answer some of these questions, let’s begin with the previous two Directors of Football and go in-depth about what their jobs entail and how we can view their accomplishments or failures in hindsight.
A quick note before we get truly started: for the purposes of this article, I’ll be referring to the “sporting director” role instead of specifically the Director of Football, which may be more specific and accurate in terms of FC Barcelona’s structure, but which doesn’t suggest the actual tasks the position requires, whereas sporting director is fairly clear. If you get confused, just refer back to this paragraph.
Going back to the question of who is involved with what, when Barça signed Ronaldinho, sporting director Txiki Begiristain was notably absent from the negotiations with the player, appearing in the background of a single shot in the documentary FCB Confidential after Ronnie had signed. The very next scene, however, starts with Laporta claiming both Txiki and Frank Rijkaard are working extremely hard in their capacities to sign more players. It’s an odd thought, but the nature of the sporting director role is partially reflective of the abilities of those surrounding the position and the economic situations in which one finds oneself. For instance, if Coach A asks Sporting Director B for Player C and Sporting Director B achieves that deal, what is the criteria used to determining whether or not Sporting Director B did their job? In today’s footballing world, the Sporting Director shouldn’t be and isn’t making decisions in a vacuum, so it is sometimes frustrating to see praise or vitriol directed specifically at a single member of a board. More specifically, the job that Txiki Begiristain did has to be reflective to some degree on the job that Joan Laporta did, positively or negatively.
Txiki’s involvement with the Ronaldinho deal must be assumed if we are to proceed at all with any sort of definition of a good or bad sporting director. In FCB Confidential, Rosell and Laporta speak about Ronaldinho while riding in a cramped car toward the Barça offices, never once mentioning Txiki, but stating that an offer had been sent; let’s assume that that means Txiki actually crafted, sent, and negotiated the offer. Further, let’s assume that about all of the deals made during his tenure between June 15, 2003 and June 29, 2010. Furthermore, let’s also assume this of his successor, Andoni Zubizarreta, and let’s assume this of any future sporting directors as well.
Those of you paying attention will hold up a hand and ask “What about Aleix Vidal?” and that’s a fairly good question since he was signed without a sporting director at all. In some ways you would be able to replace “Txiki” with “Laporta” and “Zubi” with “Rosell” or “Bartomeu” throughout this article, but as we’ll see further on, some of the institutional policies that do affect the squad are not related to the sporting director role, but instead go directly to the president. As such this article will not be dealing with Vidal’s transfer whatsoever, not only because there is no sporting director, but also because there is no resulting set of data (trophies, re-sale value, etc) to help us understand whether or not Vidal was a good or bad signing. That may seem a cop out, but it’s the only way that we can remained focused on the greater issue at hand.
So we can now define a good sporting director as someone who actively negotiates good deals for good players. Okay, but teams, especially Barça’s, are not made up entirely of transfer targets. Youth teams also play a major factor, but a club like Barça has dozens of staff working full time to identify, train, and prepare young players for the step up to the first team. Can we really put all of that at the feet of the Sporting Director? If a youth player flames out, is that the Sporting Director’s fault? Flip that around and if a promoted player turns into a world-beater, should the Sporting Director get to grin and snap a selfie with that player holding a bundle of trophies and post it on Instagram with the caption “Can’t believe I signed this guy”?
Theoretically, the only reason not to promote a promising player is economic, but with squad size regulations, there are questions of immediate contribution to the team since locking up a valuable roster spot for a developing talent can be costly in terms of wins, draws, and losses. For example, in the summer of 2005, Barça spent a grand total of €0 while introducing 3 new squad players and selling off or loaning out 9 players for a profit of €10 million. That sounds like a grand bit of business, but see if you recognize any of these names: Pitu, Javi Martos, Ludovic Sylvestre, Paco Montañés, Andrea Orlandi, or Ramón Masó. All of those players were on the field at some point in the 2005-06 season—a year in which we won the league and the Champions League. Joan Verdu and Jordi Gomez were also in the squad and while they made minimal appearances for the team, they did go on to have decent careers elsewhere, with Jordi Gomez still plying his trade in the Premier League. Unquestionably, these players were failures at Barcelona, but it would be harsh to say that the sporting director should get dinged for such showings by marginal youth players. On the other hand, does Txiki get to smirk and point at the next name on the list of players introduced to the squad that year? It would be insane if you just wrote off Lionel Messi, of course, so we have to consider that a positive for Txiki, right? That means, in essence, youth promotions are freebies, with no real negatives for sporting directors. If they work out, you’re a genius, but if they don’t, you’re off the hook because they can be shipped out for minimal losses and replaced by transfers. Because of squad sizes, you’ll likely end up paying for that in terms of squad depth and likely worse showings in the league or knockout tournaments, so it pretty much all works out in the end.
So we’ve covered transfers and youth promotions, but what about recouping your losses or actually flipping those youth promotions into solid sales? It can be unnerving to think of players as assets in a great game of financial chess, but a sporting director has to be worth something at the outgoing negotiating table as well. A classic example is Zubi’s handling of Alexis Sanchez, which achieved a €42.5 million fee from Arsenal. Given that the club had shelled out €26 million for Alexis 3 years earlier, a €16.5 million profit is rather good. Coupled with the concurrent sale of Cesc Fabregas to Chelsea for €33 million, the Sanchez sale financed the Luis Suarez move that paid rather large dividends on the title front. Getting rid of players is not quite as hard as buying them if your goal is simply to push them out the door, so selling players for something akin to their market value is a major positive for a sporting director.
Before we round this out and actually get to the individual accomplishments of past actors and any projections we may have for future sporting directors, there’s one tiny thing that has to be considered: trophies. If a sporting director spends a kajillion dollars, but wins a thousand trophies, is that success or failure? Given that the entire point of this thing we call football is to win trophies, it would be hard to ding a sporting director for, you know, accomplishing that, but at the same time, budget certainly controls some of the trophy haul. Ramón Rodríguez Verdejo is a great example of that. Better known as Monchi, he is the brains behind Sevilla’s rise to the top of the second tier clubs in Spain and few would argue that he is anything other than a genius when it comes to his job. He has consistently out-performed his budget, creating vast profits for Sevilla and all but removing the fears of relegation that were realized as recently as 2000-01. It would be silly to assign Monchi a lower value for his stewardship simply because Sevilla has never won the league, but with greater budgets comes greater expectations and to be the sporting director at Barça requires at least a few full-fledged sporting successes or your tenure is considered a failure. This is not necessarily because the job is easier, but rather because the budget is so much larger that failure is failure on a very expensive scale. The baseline expectation is to compete for titles, not simply qualify for a European spot.
Since Joan Laporta was elected in 2003, the scale of Barça’s financial advantage over smaller clubs has dramatically increased, but roughly speaking the dollar-for-dollar (or euro-for-euro) comparison is close enough to consider each season comparable to all the other seasons since then. With that in mind, one potential approach is to compare individual sporting directors via their signings and the trophies earned during their tenures. However, it is not sufficient simply to assign blame or praise for financial undertakings in a vacuum because an outlay of 0 euros, such as during the previously mentioned 2005-06 season, forgets that the previous year the team spent €74.2 million on transfers and the year before that spent an additional €50.5 million. A full consideration of what occurred would include that the team’s results moved from 6th in the league in Gaspart’s final year to 2nd in Laporta’s first year (€50.5m) and then league champions the next year (€74.2m). The team was stacked with talent at that point and Laporta’s third year required only minor reinforcements in the guise of Mark van Bommel, Santi Ezquerro, and the up-and-coming Lionel Messi. With that squad, the team won a European and league double and made a €10 million profit on transfers.
It is therefore important to consider the sum total of successes within a director’s tenure so that their full project is considered. In order to do that, one must consider all of their transfers (both in and out), the total spent in order to achieve those aims, and the titles won. First, though, let’s start with results of their tenures. How many titles were won and what was the average finish?
It is striking how much better the Zubi teams appear to have been than the Txiki teams. After all, the average finishes for Zubi teams is way higher than the averages for Txiki teams. However, if we’re looking at it from titles in absolute values, then the Txiki years fare much better than when you consider average finish:
Leagues: Txiki 4/7, Zubi 3/5
UCL: Txiki 2/6, Zubi 2/5
CDR: Txiki 2/7, Zubi 2/5
And here’s the Gaspart years before that: 0/3 for all categories. That suggests that Txiki’s teams started in a hole that they had to work their way out of and no amount of magic fairy dust was going to suddenly make them world beaters. Significant structural changes to both the club and the approach to the game itself were required. Unless Laporta really was guilty of massive fraud, then those changes have paid dividends for years, up through the present. That would mean that Rosell and Bartomeu—and thus Zubi—profited not only from the administration’s behind-the-scenes work, but also from the staff’s work with the team. In essence, there are always going to be fans who think like Ricky Bobby: you’re either first or last. Sure, you can come in second, but who will remember that as compared to titles?
Before we approach the question of finances, another key point to make is the youth promotion side of the equation. Of the players who started the 2014/15 Champions League final, 4 were promoted from the youth ranks under Txiki and 2 (Pique and Alves) was signed for €5 million and €32.5 million, respectively. Of those who started the 2010-11 final, fully 9 of the players were signed or promoted by Txiki. Mascherano was the only player signed that year by Zubi and the other player—Xavi—was promoted during the Gaspart years.* Another salient point is that during the 2005-06 final in Paris, the only players in the squad who weren’t a Txiki era promotion or transfer were the aforementioned Xavi and Carles Puyol. Given that it was only 3 years removed from the Gaspart years, that’s a pretty quick squad overhaul.
It can be difficult to give credit where credit is due after a particular actor leaves the scene, especially when it is combined with acrimonious political maneuvering by presidents and the constant, superficial media coverage that inundates modern sports fans at every turn. With every passing day, there are self-serving visions of the past that grow or shrink, depending on whatever the hashtag response to the latest news is. Supporting or criticizing the actions of a sporting director appears to reaffirm to the greater world, especially to that special and self-obsessed Twitter world, one’s allegiance or lack of support for their boss. It is easy to lose perspective simply because perspective is so hard to gain in the first place.
Another factor that hasn’t yet been considered: who appoints the managers? Both Txiki and Zubi were in charge when Guardiola and Luis Enrique won trebles; Zubi was the sporting director when Guardiola won a subsequent Champions League and also when Pep left town. The fickle nature of fandom suggested that in mid-season, more than 60% of supporters wanted Lucho out as coach; instead down went Zubi and the rest, as they say, is history. Only that history is incredibly important in judging the actions of the greater administration. Did Guardiola leave because the cracks were visible or did he leave because he was the visible crack, burned out after 4 consecutive years of intense work? The team “dipped” with Tito Vilanova’s illness and subsequent departure from the bench, yet the team itself was solid enough to remain one of the best in the world, going so far as to win the league title in 2012-13 with Jordi Roura in charge for large portions of the season. The shellacking by Bayern Munich took place in the semifinals of that year and has to be contextualized as the perfect storm of injuries, illnesses, and fatigue in one of the toughest—if not the toughest—competitions in modern football. Still, instead of demoralizing the team and signaling the end of an era, it led to a revamp that culminated 2 years later in a triplete. This suggests that while coaching is a major factor, neither the manager nor the technical staff are of particular interest to our discussion here, so instead of judging sporting directors on whether they appointed popular managers, we should focus on the results that they achieved through the markets.
In order to attempt to quantify the transfers and visualize what some of these nuances I’m discussing look like, I’ve created a quick overview of both Txiki’s and Zubi’s “good” and “bad” transfers.
For all the bluster, Zubi had a pretty solid track record when it came to signings that worked out.** While not everyone will agree that Ibrahim Afellay was a good transfer, his low price tag couple with a few good performances in important matches earned him an overall positive score. The negatives Zubi had were clear, with Vermaelen being the most troubling given his obvious injury problems even during the medical exam he received when signing. Judgment mistakes are bad, but Txiki’s judgment was at least as bad. The only thing is that work ethic or locker room compatibility can be extremely hard to predict and Txiki’s greatest failures were hardly poor players, they just lacked the motivation (Hleb) or the willingness to adapt (Ibra). The outlay on Ibra was rather incredible, but had he performed as well as many of us thought he could, it would have been a pittance compared to his value. Instead, we were left with what amounted to early season Suarez plus a few bust ups with the manager. That hardly seems Txiki’s fault, right? Henrique and Keirrison, on the other hand…
In terms of sales, it should be noted that David Villa’s move to Atleti for a paltry €5 million was probably more of a salary dump than anything. With time left on his contract, Villa was well within his rights to demand that salary so if any team couldn’t pony that up, he had no incentive to move along from a winning team where he was earning beaucoup dinero. One assumes that Atleti was willing to stump up €5 million and take on Villa’s salary, so in some manner of thinking, it was a blessing to get rid of a bit time salary for an increasingly bit part player. Still, €5 million for David Villa in an era when Gervinho went for ~€11 million seems a bit low, so he gets dropped in the bad transfers. Txiki’s only bad exits were the frees that Eto’o and Saviola escaped on and that Eto’o deal was part of the Zlatan deal, so it might be a wash anyway, depending on how you think of it, so you could say that Txiki at least got that part right (we got paid more for Fernando Navarro—€6 million—than we received for Villa? Hot damn! And we brought in van Bommel on a free, won a Champions League, then sold him for €6 million? That’s a Monchi move right there!).
So, to recap, the Bartomeu/Rosell years have been flush with trophies, but used more cash to generate those trophies than the previous administration while also capitalizing on the youth products that the previous administration installed in the team. Zubi was also involved in large scale recouping of expenses, nearly doubling the income from sales that Txiki achieved over a larger number of years. Txiki, meanwhile, developed a world class squad from the ashes of a political, economic, and sporting nightmare and did it quickly while relying heavily on internal infrastructure and making heady buys in the early days of the administration. That petered out later, with foolish moves for luxury pieces that didn’t pan out.
If I were to choose between the two, I would likely select Zubi simply because the squad is already formed, but Txiki clearly had a track record of pulling youth talent into a squad. That that is not the case in his similar role at Manchester City is more a comment on the state of the English youth setup than it is on Txiki’s talents and that expenses are higher there too is indeed more a function of the Premier League’s financial prowess and Manchester City’s ownership than it is Txiki’s negotiation powers.
So we finally return to the question of whether or not Robert Fernandez will do a good job in the sporting director role. What seems to be required is immense improvement in La Masia’s output and a great working relationship with Luis Enrique, whoever is sitting in the B team coach hotseat at the moment, and the director youth football to ensure that the youth system was functioning along similar lines to what Lucho wants to see “graduating” into the first team rotation. Even producing quality role players would greatly alleviate the need for massive spending each summer, reposition Barcelona once again as the global leader in youth development, and give Barcelona the cohesion that it seems to have lost throughout the Rosell and to date Bartomeu administration. This is by no means an easy task and it is hard to fathom that it will be anything but a rocky road at first.
We do, however, at least have the tools with which to judge Robert’s actions in the future. Unfortunately for most everyone, we have to rely on the immediate reactions we always relied on until at least a full season is in the books and even that might be a premature way to judge a project.
*For the purposes of objectivity, here’s a breakdown of the players: Villa was technically signed by Laporta’s team before they moved on, so that is why he counts while Valdes and Iniesta had made various appearances for the first team in the last year of the Gaspart era under Louis van Gaal, who his credited with bringing them up. In fact, Valdes made 20 appearances in 2002-03, including 6 in European competition, but was technically still a youth player through all of that because he wore the number 26 jersey as Roberto Bonano’s understudy. Robert Enke wore the number 25 that year, but made just 1 league appearance in all of his time at Barcelona. Iniesta made 9 appearances in 2002-03 and then gained full squad status the following year, Txiki’s first year.
**This is obviously a subjective list and more than a few readers will notice notable absences from the lists. I’m speaking mostly about Cesc Fabregas, whose transfer from Arsenal to Barça is not listed; this is because while many were against it or thought that the price was too high, Cesc’s contributions to the team were fairly solid and his price tag ended up being about right within the framework of the modern market rather than a gross overpayment as many of us were guilty of claiming on first sight. Add in that he played for 3 seasons and was sold for just €1 million less than he was brought in for and there is some justification for calling him a good signing rather than a bad one. Still, I took into account all of the negative aspects of his transfer as well—role in the team, on-field contributions in the second half of seasons—and it felt net neutral, so I left him off all the lists. This happened to some other players as well, with the sale of Dmytro Chygrynskiy the most notable absence on the income sheet. Even if you end up with 1 or 2 extra players on the lists, the analysis would still end up extremely similar. Also, you won’t see Bojan listed anywhere simply because I have no idea what eventually transpired with his loan moves; pretty sure we ended up paying money to shuttle him around, but I honestly have no idea how much. €12 million here, €13 million there, uh, okay, cool, but then maybe there was some nonpayments because it was all accounting tricks and assigning values to players put some columns in black and, bah, I give up.
A further note: Monchi, the go-to for people wanting to talk smart-guy-in-a-little-office, was just 30 years old and around a year removed from his playing days when he was hired as Sevilla’s sporting director. 15 years later and he’s still around, winning trophies (albeit Europa Leagues and not Champions Leagues) and making tidy sums for his medium-sized club. Any fears that Abidal was too inexperienced to be a sporting director simply based on his age or time away from the game were probably unfounded, but it certainly would have been a quick turnaround from playing to suit-wearing. Txiki last played professionally in 1999—incidentally the same year Monchi last played professionally—and then took the reigns of Barça in 2003. Abidal, for those of you wondering, retired in December 2014, just 7 months prior to being selected by Joan Laporta as his campaign’s sporting director. I was not overly concerned by that, but it was quite the horse for Laporta to hitch his wagon to. It obviously smacked more of politics and populism than it did Moneyball, but if Abidal were to be half the suit that he was player, he’d have done excellently.
For the record, Robert Fernandez last played in 2001 for Cordoba. He then managed Valencia B, Cordoba, Orihuela, and Alzira. One hopes that in his 14 years away from the playing field he’s been able to develop and maintain contacts within the footballing world that will aid him in his job with Barcelona. That, of course, remains to be seen, but assuming he isn’t hit by the same train as Zubi was, he’ll do rather well, despite the expectations of the masses.