The Ernesto Valverde saga and everyone at their worst

FC Barcelona has a board that can screw up breathing. For those who have spent the weekend cave dwelling, there is some sort of Xavi thing going on, and a potential managerial shakeup that now looks like it isn’t going to happen. Of all of the awful, inhumane ways in which this endeavor could have been undertaken the club’s board, almost as if programmed to, chose the most open, undignified, inhumane way of going about it and has emerged with egg on its face.

This would be true even if Xavi had chosen to take over the club with immediate effect. In the past, in this space, came cautionary tales of money managers, accountants being tasked with managing humans, how poorly equipped they are to do it. We have seen it time and again, but this is the most egregious example, because it treats a man who is by all accounts kind and dignified, liked and respected by the players he manages, like shit on the bottom of a Gucci loafer, something to be scraped off as a P.R. move. The only thing as bad is the fanbase approbation.

We should be better than that, as a collective: board, club, supporters. We should demand, and comport ourselves with a modicum of dignity rather than claiming all bets are off as we have a misery contest. “I can’t watch this team!” “YOU can’t watch? When I do, I have to rinse my eyeballs.” “Last time I tried to watch, my eyeballs melted and ran down my weeping face at the horror of it all.” It’s the game of Barça Stigmata, writ large.

There was a time when we thought ourselves better than Real Madrid, however illusory the dream. We watched them make superstar signings for hundreds of millions of Euros, watched them fire coaches, watched their fanbase implode when results didn’t go their way as impetuous leadership ham-fisted its way through the world. We shuddered and said, “That couldn’t be us.” Well, it is now. The only difference is that Florentino Perez would have gotten his coach. Welcome to the world.

Football is entertainment, football is a business that at its best, will cut your throat and leave you where you have fallen. Ernesto Valverde knew when he climbed into the nest of pit vipers that he might get bitten when desperate men needed to do something to stop the baying hordes.

But Ernesto Valverde deserves better, from all of us. In the three years that he has run this team, he has taken a veteran (fancy way of saying “old”) group of players that nobody, board and fans, wanted to see jettisoned as many of them should have been by now, and won with them. Two Liga titles, and working on a third. This year’s wheezing, clunky group is at present leading the league, and qualified for Champions League. And that’s with injuries, adaptations and ginned-up solutions. People scream about how ugly it all is, and he just does his job, the job he was hired to do, the job he is being paid handsomely to do.

Football isn’t a bit of Hollywood cinema. You don’t get style points for the spectacle. A manager whose team played elegant, swashbuckling football but got relegated has done a poor job. Managers are judged on how they win. How well they win is for the narative. Teams that played beautiful, entertaining football, even as football is entertainment, don’t get bus parades or silverware. They get nothing except a long, rueful summer vacation, haunted by the spectre of individual and collective failure.

In his first season, his team came within a match of being unbeaten, a match that came after its Champions League debacle. They still pulled themselves up and almost pulled a draw out of the fire. The failure in Rome defined that season. Players win, managers lose. It’s easier to break down the failings of a manager than it is to break down the failings of players. Plus we’re fans of players. Jordi Alba got smoked for crucial goals at Rome and Anfield. Valverde out. Dembele missed a goal he should have scored, Messi was on the doorstep in Rome, ball at his feet, keeper at his mercy. Both snatched at the shot, and missed. Valverde out. And on it goes. It’s easier to blame the manager than it is the players. “He should have done … ” A match is set up by a manager, and played by his players. If they fail to execute, and Barça did at Rome and Anfield only in part because of managerial errors, in each instance the team was a single away goal from glory. And the manager gets the blame.

Valverde should have left the club in the summer, which doesn’t justify the treatment he is getting, from his employers and the people who support the enterprise. A smug board, confident that they could lure the most politically expedient new manager in the history of football, charged. No dignity, no humanity, no shame. And now that it seems that choice has said, “Not now,” there is triage to be done.

How do you un-spit in someone’s face? You don’t. You can’t. If that person has any dignity or pride, what do they do? Now that you have openly courted their replacement and been spurned, do you go to their house with a gift basket and say, “Well, we have to make the most of this. Accept this token of our esteem.” It’s vile. They don’t get to excuse that behavior by desperation, just as we don’t get to abuse someone because of the ghosts of a pair of Champions League falures. Barça Stigmata isn’t supposed to make us as base as the board that runs our club.

What will Valverde do? Who knows. Media rumor has him being angry at his treatment. And who among us wouldn’t be? Imagine sitting at your desk at work and your boss walks past, pointing at you and saying, “You’ll be sitting there once we sort a few details. What do you think?” If he chooses to stay, something that seems unlikely at the moment given that the rug has been pulled from under him, how does the rest of the season go? Do his players resolve to stick it to the people who dissed their Mister? What if the team wins a treble under the aegis of a manger nobody likes? Do we celebrate even less than the Luis Enrique treble was celebrated?

How does the club proceed, how do we proceed? The club has its own issues. What we should do is watch the team that we love, and stop acting like assholes. The board is good enough at that task. We should try to understand that crap luck, crap circumstances, poor player execution at key times and a rash of managerial errors have all led to where things are right now. It’s impossible, no matter how good it makes anyone feel, to point to one thing as the reason for all of it. Valverde rolled in to a club all set up for success. Then Neymar left and it all fell apart, for reasons not entirely of his own choosing, even as he was culpable. Many things can be true at once.

And this isn’t a defense of Valverde. It’s a defense of humanity, of understanding circumstance.

Would #Valverde Out make Busquets able to run again? Would it make Jordi Alba a defender, make Sergi Roberto as good at defending as he is good at making forward runs? Would it make Messi and Suarez able to press again, liberate Griezmann to be the player that he can be, rather than de facto left back. Will it make Pique 28 again and less error prone, or make Umtiti’s knees whole and Lenglet a complete CB. No. And all of this can be true even as it is also true that Valverde has made so many poor decisions, on and off the pitch and that it is time, past time for him to have left his post managing the club that we love. But anyone who thinks that necessity absolves an utter lack of class and dignity should strive to acquire just a bit of humanity.

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In my fantasy life, I’m a Barca-crazed contributor over at Barcelona Football Blog. In my real life, I’m a full-time journalist at the Chicago Tribune, based in Chicago, Illinois.