As tough jobs go, it’s difficult to think of a more complex and thankless one than sporting director. At least coaches get to do the work on the pitch, get to share in the victory parades and champagne showers. Being a sporting director is an unending sea of blame.
When you are an unpopular sporting director such as Andoni Zubizarreta, the stakes are even higher, because you have a lot more to contend with. Recently there have been two excellent interviews with the former Barça sporting director, a man who will have to go through life with tire tracks on his back. One is at Grup 14, translated from El Periodico. The other is at Total Barça, translated from an extensive Marca interview.
The sense that you get from both of them is of a thoughtful, dignified man who loved, and loves, the club. There seems to be no ill will or resentment, only the calm reflection of a man who understands that even as he did exceptionally well, he could have done even better. He supervised the biggest spending summer in the history of the club, moves meant to preempt the two-window transfer ban, decisions that carried the added effect of being functionally irreparable for two transfer windows.
What is even more fascinating is that Andoni Zubizarreta is only a few moments of panic away from possibly being the best sporting director in the club’s history. If he was still on the job, he would have been the one to spearhead the deals for Arda Turan and Aleix Vidal, two players who complete an already world-beating Barça side.
Supporters always tend to focus on what wasn’t done, In many ways this is fitting for ZubiZa, an ex-keeper, that special breed of player who can stop 9 shots but if the tenth gets past him, he is judged to have had a bad match. Supporters feel rage, and the keeper feels shame. “My greatest defeat was Guardiola’s departure,” Zubizarreta says in the Marca interview, even as supporters can honestly acknowledge that he would have had about as much luck stopping that train as slowing down the AVE express train from Barcelona to Zaragoza.
In an Internet world that runs on hostility and recrimination, we will never know what happened in those boardrooms — the decisions that were taken, moves that were and were not made. And this is true even as a fan base, even now, excoriates Zubizarreta, who was working with a coach that he recommended, to try and build a good team. Enrique had the advantage of being a Mister type, a strong hand that was needed to help heal a damaged squad after a year in which anything that could happen, did. Over the clarity of time it’s clear that Tata Martino was a caretaker manager, a man described in the Marca interview as ” honest, coherent, consistent, able of accepting a very delicate role at a very difficult time for everyone else. He was always loyal to the club and the dressing room.”
January was when it all seemed to fall apart but again, there is perspective. ZubiZa described the seeming atom bomb between Messi and Luis Enrique as a “small flare up.” As we can all recall then, it was Armageddon, and Messi was all but out the door and there was a hue and cry for the firing of the team’s new coach. On Barça Twitter, people were saying that there was a two-match ultimatum, that Luis Enrique was as good as gone, and should be. In the midst of that shitstorm, two things happened, and only one should have: early elections were called, and ZubiZa was fired.
When asked about the FIFA ban by Marca, this is what ZubiZa had to say:
They asked me about the FIFA ban at Anoeta and I responded with something obvious: the one who knows my work best is Bartomeu, who had been the director responsible for sporting matters during Rosell’s presidency. The one who knew most about the team plan was he. Two days after, came the club’s decision.
It is no surprise that, back then, he says that he felt alone, and picked on. ZubiZa had few defenders then, and those who did had to tread carefully over two of the key planks of the Barça fan base, hostility and hyperbole. When he was flung under the bus by a thoughtless board as a sacrificial lamb, a few people called it for what it was: a distraction. It was like giving someone a big project at work, then firing them after they came back from lunch, because of a glitch in a line of code. As he said in one of the interviews, it was January, and a sporting director is usually judged on his work in June. But it also sounds as though he quite clearly understands the complexities of being technical director at a club such as Barça, to the good and the bad. Yet the inescapable fact is that he helped build a team that culers now celebrate to high heaven, a team that won the Treble and was a clunker of a match away from doing the sextuple.
And as with Laporta, ZubiZa’s fate was shaped, in part, by a transfer not made. He said that their initial target was Kun Aguero instead of Luis Suarez. (Recall that Laporta settled for Ronaldinho when David Beckham couldn’t happen.) When Aguero wasn’t going to pan out, Suarez became the one. Then he bit Chiellini, and the list of suitors cleared out a bit. Barça struck while the iron was hot. Many will believe that Liverpool could have been haggled down in price on Suarez, that he was damaged goods and the club overpaid for him out of desperation. This is another knock on Zubizarreta, part of a sea of disdain that still exists today, even in light of what has happened with the team that he helped build.
But Zubizarreta’s work as sporting director, judged as a complete body of work, was excellent. The coach came that worked with the team that worked within the club structure and philosophy to kick the crap out of everybody and everything last season, and looks on course to do the same this season. Now let’s have a quick look back, in grievance bullet points:
— Douglas: It’s difficult to think of a more reviled player who has played so few minutes. If he played more, an obvious nickname for him would be MacGuffin, that plot element that isn’t really the point of the drama. The animosity toward him is completely out of proportion to his pitch time and cost. Luis Enrique didn’t have a single transfer come in that he didn’t approve, even as this one is usually considered all on ZubiZa. Douglas was a low-priced punt on pace and Brazilian ball skills. Whenever he got time, he was tentative. When he began to show signs of something or other, he got injured. Twice. The punt didn’t pan out, and he will be gone in the summer. Transfers fail all the time, and Barça have a litany of them, from Overmars to Keirrison to Henrique. As the stick still being used to flog a sporting director, it’s a pretty weak one. But don’t exempt the coach from that flogging.
— Eusebio and the B team: What a mess that situation was and is, in the wake of the cabal that worked to damage one of the fundamental planks of the success of the team. ZubiZa was definitely part of that, and should accept some of the blame, as should the board, who back then overrode the technical staff on key decisions. Would ZubiZa, given full power of decision have jettisoned Eusebio? Good question. Hard to believe that one perceptive enough to recommend Luis Enrique would be on board with Eusebio, if left on his own.
— No CB: Barça needed a CB, went the hue and cry, and ZubiZa didn’t get one. It’s worth considering the circumstances of that situation, while we note that Pique and Mascherano are still the gala XI CBs. The false austerity program of the board affected everything, but most notably signings. Without loose purse strings, a sporting director is powerless. Despite all of the rumors about this player, that player and so and so being “interesting” and the like, the money was never going to be shaken loose for the necessary signings. So the team didn’t get the reinforcements that it needed. Was ZubiZa guilty of being too much of a company man, and not saying “If they would give me the money I would show you what I could do?” Yes and no. Never bite the hand that feeds you. But what he and the staff did when they finally got money makes a rather eloquent point.
Never forget that a sporting director isn’t independent of the board. We remember well the days of Txiki B., and a coach who was like a fop in a shoe store. “I’ll take one of those, and one of those, and … “Anything Guardiola wanted, Laporta made sure that he got, from Zlatan Ibrahimovic to Dmitro Txigrinski, the last expensive CB that Barça plumped for. The only impediment between us and a superstar of choice was writing a check. Rosell and his board made an austerity war against Laporta a reality. “Look at the damage that spendthrift did!” We didn’t know how false it all was until the details of the Neymar deal made themselves apparent.
— Thiago: The negotiating committee that agreed to the link between playing time and buyout clause was crazy. ZubiZa was part of that group. But how bad a decision was it? A club should never keep a player who doesn’t want to stay. Would he have stayed had he gotten playing time sufficient to trigger the higher buyout clause, or would he have been held hostage by a big clause? And would he have still agitated for a way out when Guardiola came calling? Presumably the “Thiago or nothing” demand wasn’t contingent upon price. Maybe. But it has been said before that in balance, everybody who could screw up that situation, did, from technical staff to player and his entourage. So everyone wound up making the best out of an undesirable situation. The club got decent money for the player (who was overvalued by most of the Barça fan base, but this isn’t unusual), and the player got his wish to leave the club.
— Guardiola: The one that ZubiZa, it is now clear, feels worst about is the inability to retain Guardiola as coach. This was, as with Thiago, never going to happen but it’s illustrative that ZubiZa is still beating himself up for it.
— Sales: There is a general belief that the club didn’t get enough from the sales of Alexis Sanchez and Cesc Fabregas, a notion that is debatable. It isn’t as if the half-season performance of Fabregas was a secret, or his desire to see the back of Barça. Same with Sanchez. With big clubs and big fees, the world is limited to who can pay a fee, and the needs of the people who can pay that fee. Bidding wars are a thing of the past, despite fanbases who believe that every player is worth at least EUR 50m. This just isn’t so.
ZubiZa made mistakes. But from this chair he is, in many ways like one of the coaches he helped bring to the club, in Tata Martino, a coach who came within 5 goals of being in with a shout at a treble, leading a squad that was emotionally, mentally and physically damaged. Martino is considered a failure, and a running joke among the Barça fanbase is the Martino bbq outings. As with ZubiZa, it’s the two H’s mentioned above: hostility and hyperbole. Guardiola’s legacy is, many think, tarnished by some bad calls against Inter Milan in that famous Champions League shootout. Much more easily forgotten is the blown offside call that would have been the difference in the Liga title-deciding match between Barça and Atleti.
As a sporting director, Andoni Zubizarreta is in that same category, and he shouldn’t be, just as Martino shouldn’t be. Context is crucial. One worked wonders with a busted squad. The other, once the restraints were removed, helped build a treble-winning squad that is still dominant today.