In thinking of the current situation that Barça and its supporters find themselves in, there isn’t a better analog than current (soon to be former) Juvenil A coach Victor Valdes, and where he finds himself right now.
Floating around Twitter is the buzz that he will be fired on Monday and is fine with that, because the club that he returned to isn’t the club that he left.
Valdes’ suggestion, true or not, has taken wing among a cadre of supporters who back him 100 percent, who think that the club isn’t that club and more’s the pity, because it should be. Bartomeu out.
Back when the club sold the shirt, there were many of us who screamed and railed against it, suggesting that the action opened up a pit to Hades, lubricated with avarice. Calmer, more grounded/cynical/take your pick supporters said that we were just being silly and romantic, that the club needs all that money to be competitive, particularly in the face of the influence of the petroclubs. Ideas of an unsullied shirt front were for children, who didn’t know anything about the necessities of the real world.
In the here and now, those people seem like sages. The ludicrous transfer sums that the club has been splashing around, combined with the salaries necessary to keep the top players content, means that FC Barcelona has to, essentially, print money. Ideas of the old club, a Catalan football club with mighty, home-raised sprites that did battle against the monied hordes are as archaic as black leather boots, as archaic as a passionate keeper who returns to a club to find that everything is different.
That Valdes didn’t do his homework before returning to Barça is on him. Many of us have been writing about how the club is, how the board is, for some time. The players want a treble, the board wants a billion Euros in revenue this fiscal year. Everyone has their goals. In order to do that, the necessary behavior is incompatible with the calm club (yes, even under Sant Laporta) that many would expect, even as the more cynical would suggest that That Barça has never really existed, its creation like a footballing Narnia, spun from the minds of enchanted supporters.
Barça is a business, a multinational based in Catalunya. It has been that way since the current board took over, and was behind schedule in becoming that way. Don’t forget that Laporta sought approval to sell the shirt, because he understood fiscal necessity. He had some romance in his soul, but he was a businessman, just as the club that he presided over was a business.
Guardiola, the Masia XI, the winning, the great players in their prime obscured a lot about that time, made it more romantic than it should have been. Barça was already a business and a big one. Revenue has grown under the current board. Winning costs money, and lots of it. It’s easy for people who don’t have to run something to have great ideas about how it is being poorly run.
But business doesn’t have a heart. If keyboard jockeys like me can see that Barça doesn’t have a heart, and probably can’t have one if it wants to do everything necessary to provide for its cash-intensive future, what the hell was Valdes thinking? When Carles Puyol was approached for the role of sporting director, he said, “Thanks but no thanks. I have other stuff pressing that wouldn’t allow me to, blablabla.” But maybe, just maybe, Puyol understood what Valdes didn’t, which is that you can’t go back again.
Geezer bands reunite, and fans fill in the gap between halcyon days and the wizened, diminished has-beens on stage. Nostalgia does amazing things for us. As supporters, we crave Those Days, even in a world that has made that return impossible. There is no getting that band back together, no reunion of romance, playing the right way and trebles.
Eric Abidal, in his playing days, was always the pragmatist. Dani Alves spanked cross-pitch balls with Messi, dazzling the crowd during warmup. Abidal just put in work. And during the match, when Alves was doing lovely things, attacking and linking with Messi and Xavi, Abidal was holding it down in the back, sweeping up where necessary, wiping out danger that reared its head and absent teammates not in place to manage it.
When he returned to the club as part of the sporting department, it was always with that same pragmatic mindset. He was going to effect change, but the change that he could, working not only from within, but within the structures presented to him by the current state of the club. Not the way he wanted things to be, but the way things are. Pragmatism matters in the face of cynicism and avarice, and you do what you can.
The Barça board is the kind of manager that manages work, but not people. It says, “Your job is your perk. Isn’t your salary enough? What more can we do?”
In my early days as a manager, part of that growth process was attending a multi-day course in which we were taught how to manage. On the first day, a newsroom leader came in to teach us and asked, “What is being a manager?” We all replied with things such as, “Ensuring that goals are met,” “Managing the work so that employees are most effective,” etc, etc, nonsense. Our instructor said, “Nope. It’s people and their problems. Happy workers will move the building to left if you ask them to. Unhappy ones won’t move anything. You can’t manage good work from unhappy employees.”
Barça has all the signs of a business that has forgotten how to manage people. Money is flowing in, results are good there, but the workers aren’t joyful and the bosses don’t understand why. Valdes should have known better, just as we all should. He is us, craving something that isn’t there, railing against its absence, wondering why management just won’t listen to him, won’t make him happy so that he can be the best that he can be at his job.
It ain’t that kind of club any longer, and can’t be. FC Barcelona not only has to print money, but it has to present a calm, unruffled surface so that sponsors aren’t worried. Sponsors don’t like turmoil, won’t give piles of money to a place that is in turmoil. This requires some status quo, even when that status quo might not be the ideal thing. It requires chasing a marketing transfer such as Neymar, even when it’s clear that the move would create a host of other problems. It’s so much that so many romantics think is wrong, but that the money managers will say, “Look at the balance sheet.”
We find hope in the past or the future, Laporta or Victor Font, we have belief that they will be the ones to restore purity and magic, to banish money managers from the boardroom. But whichever of them succeeds will almost certainly be taking over a club that will have grabbed at least a billion Euros in revenue, and how the hell do we keep THAT going? And maybe, just maybe, purity and romance are as illusory for them as it was for Valdes.
For supporters, football is about romance. The Guardiola period was about Xavi, and triangles, and inspiration that comes from “Gladiator” videos or Coldplay songs. It was winning in the right way. The next treble was all wrong. Wrong board, wrong football, wrong coach, wrong tactics. It was an impure treble. Same with the next double. Not only was it impure, it missed out on the biggest prize of them all. We want nostalgia and romance, and don’t really know what to do with the reality that those things are impossible now, that we have to take what we can get.
Valdes should have known what he was getting into, just as we should understand what we are now a part of. It doesn’t mean that it’s right, doesn’t mean that a glittering institution should now be a gilded husk devoid of any soul. But as a certain coach said after a shameful defeat, “It is what it is.”