Arthur Melo as a pure symbol of institutional failure

Right now, FC Barcelona isn’t a very good football team, which is no surprise given that it’s the main product being sold by a poorly run club.

People have various reasons that they offer, none more valid than any others, including mine. But from where I sit, the problems at FC Barcelona are systemic and wholistic. It isn’t any one player or single thing. It’s everything, but they can all be distilled in an ongoing situation, the one involving midfielder Arthur.

A slew of poor transfer decisions and devotion to popular players by a board with its nose to the wind, means that Arthur came and is in a situation where there isn’t much space for a player like him to succeed. No movement by old players, so no place to put the ball. No press, so he’s on an island against opponent counters. So he didn’t play. And when he played, he didn’t impress. Puig works better because he provides the movement to compensate for playing with a collection of granite monuments. Better than Arthur? Who knows. Different? Yep. Better suited to the tactical limitations of this team? Absolutely.

Meanwhile, sold to Juventus apparently against his will, Arthur has decided that he will not return to Barcelona to help his former teammates in their Champions League efforts. Instead he will hang out in Brazil, and presumably nap at home rather than on the substitutes bench. His decision is unilateral, and supported by a surprising number of Barça supporters. But support it or not, it’s difficult to find a better illustration of everything that is wrong at the club.

Rumors about his being on the market popped up as early as April, and there was outrage then. Now that he is sold, the schism is complete. There is a human way to work player transfers, a way to work with the player to make them understand that they aren’t going to have a future at the club. But the Barça board knows about as much about managing humans as we do about splitting an atom. Human failure has been one of the paramount accomplishments of this board. “Be happy to be here, do what we tell you and shut up” seems to be a management dictum, one that has failed time and again. And because the board represents the club, and so many conveniently forget that so does the team, it gets easy to choose sides against the club that many claim to support.

The reality is that Arthur has, just as club president Josep Bartomeu said, chosen to disrespect his teammates. What if they advance past Napoli, but suffer a couple of injuries to midfielders? Does the Rage of Achilles continue? Who’s the Odysseus who goes to plead with him to return to the battlefield? Arthur is having a tantrum and the team is the worse for it because of decisions and actions taken by the men who run the club. And we as supporters are forced to take sides rather than react as we should, rather than changing names and asking what we would think if a transferred midfielder decided not to return to a Barcelona run by Joan Laporta, and managed by Pep Guardiola.

Arthur was moved in a piece of fiscal skullduggery that had the added benefit of moving a player who wasn’t performing. Whether it was the system, surroundings or skill set is immaterial to the reality, which is that football is a business and players are bought and sold all the time. What makes this situation weird is that it happened before the end of the season as a complication of a global pandemic, and amid acrimony. Supporters say that “The board forced him out.” Name the last player transfer from a big, successful club whose path was strewn with rose petals? What does anyone think Real Madrid is going to have to do to get Gareth Bale out? But a mismanaged club yields a public transfer shitshow such as this one, and human failure leads to open revolt. And people get attached to players and what they represent instead of being appalled that a player is basically spitting in the face of his teammates.

That isn’t cool just because we think the board sucks. Sorry. But everything is polarized because of mismanagement. In almost every situation in which the board had the opportunity to make a human decision, it failed. The Valverde and Arthur situations are the most glaring, but don’t forget the public errors that angered Messi, the lack of leadership that made a senior player decide that he was going to a tennis tournament, irrespective of what anyone thought or said. The club has been falling apart for years from a management perspective. We’re fools for thinking the team isn’t going to at some point reflect that collapse.

That time is now.

Bartomeu gave an interview in which he said that the renovation of the first team is going on right now. No, it isn’t. But again, it’s optics. Everything about the way this club has been managed, even since Rosell assumed the presidency, is optics. For many, Bartomeu is a continuation of that time, rather than his own man. But however you look at it, optics have governed decisions and public statements. Only a fool would look at the team as it stands and suggest that anything like a renovation is going on. But that is important to say, so the club president says it. A renovation, of course, means different, and better. Look for those trophy parades any month now.

Barça could get lucky, ride a series of brilliant Messi performances in a Champions League that is now a collection of one-off matches at a neutral site, and lift the Big Ears in Portugal. It won’t mean the club was successful, nor will it mean anything to the way FC Barcelona has been managed to this point. It will just be luck. Arthur believes he is making a stand that is correct by refusing to return to the club that sold him to finish out the season. Supporters think he is right for making that decision, because the club did him wrong. Umtiti is injured, rumored to be on the block but the player wants to stay. The same is true of every player rumored to be available, from Rakitic to Sergi Roberto to Luis Suarez. A club’s inability to do the kind of transfer business, both in and out, that it needs to is a direct reflection of how the people who manage it function. Timid people make timid decisions.

The steady decline of Rakitic from when his value was almost 100m, just after the World Cup, has led to Sevilla maybe picking him up for 10. Umtiti refused surgery, which would probably have had more success than the path he is on, and maybe a different management team has a different, more effective conversation. A declining Jordi Alba, popular with the supporters, got a five-year extension rather than a good, hard look from the sporting team, which has made poor decision after poor decision. The Griezmann and Coutinho transfers should never have been made. Both purchases were made without a shard of consideration for current conditions. “Hey, should we sell Arthur or get players who can move,” was a question that was probably never asked, and it should have been. Would Arthur still be slow, defensively poor, fond of dallying on the ball and not anything like as good as we expected when the transfer was made? Possibly. But a litany of poor decisions have terminated in an inept termination.

And the board has failed again by not saying, “His contract is rescinded and he isn’t getting another penny from this club.” But sensing the public mood, they won’t even do that. Is there contract language that means they will have to pay him in the effect they rescind his contract? Possibly. But who allowed that language into the contract? It seems like everything is falling apart, because it is. A lot of people mate with a club and do so for life. Players come and players go, but their club is eternal. It can be run by the most avarice-slathered mound of goons and the faithful supporter will yell, scream and rant, fly the panolada until rotator cuff surgery is required, but the question of leaving that club just isn’t one that is remotely viable. And that’s that.

But how do we deal with decisions that we believe to be monumentally stupid, if we are supporting a club rather than a player. Well, we can’t. But that’s true even if we support a player, because the people who run the club don’t care about us, nor should they. We might know better, might think we know better, might shout and rail impotently, might do any number of things, but the reality is that we really can’t do anything.

Sure, we can stop supporting the club. The people running it won’t care. So that’s 10,000,099 Twitter or Facebook or Instagram followers. If you’re a soci and you leave, another will take your place on the season ticket waiting list, and another Committment Card-holding aspirant will keep the ranks intact. Because that’s just how it goes.

So now what?

Well, another year of struggle, for one. And not just because of a microbe. There is another censure motion in the works. Good luck getting 18k signatures, and even if early elections happen, who can travel for them right now? Is there anything that could make Bartomeu and the board resign? Hard to see it, or it would have already surfaced. So they will serve out the current mandate, which is a long time to have to deal with people who don’t seem interested in doing anything anyone outside of that cabal wants anything to do with. And that means that next season, you can count on lineup fixtures, which means that nothing will change on the pitch, either.

Visca, something or other, right?

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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.