Riqui Puig is about so much more than a massive talent mishandled

When Ernesto Valverde was appointed manager of FC Barcelona, he came in saying the right things.

When Valverde was fired and Setien appointed manager of FC Barcelona, he REALLY came in saying the right things.

When Ronald Koeman was appointed manager of FC Barcelona, he came in saying the right things.

All the talk about respecting Cruijffian tradition, and playing football the right way, about wanting to work with talented young players and honoring La Masia was all bullshit, because managers are there for one reason and one reason only: To win and save their job. We delude ourselves because at one time in recent history, the club had a manager who wasn’t intereted in doing that above all else. But that time, like the football that it spawned, was fantasy.

The ugly, grim reality is that managers don’t give a shit about a club’s tradition. And despite what we think, they aren’t paid to. So when Koeman allegedly told Riqui Puig that he wouldn’t be part of his plans for this coming season, despite the midfielder having impressed in both pre-season friendlies, there can be chagrin, but there can’t be surprise.

Nothing Koeman has ever done has given any hope that he was going to come to FC Barcelona and do the right thing. Billed as a manager who makes hard decisions was always going to come up against the brick wall of iconic incumbents on high wages. It isn’t just water that takes the easiest path. It’s also fearful managers. There was talk of a revolution. So far, only Ivan Rakitic has left the club. Same players, same problems. Where is that revolution now?

The biggest tragedy of the Puig situation, if it turns out to be true, is what it does to La Masia. A craven, heartless board bereft of humanity doesn’t care about the young players in its charge, so why should the managers they hire? Play the geezers.

La Masia is supposed to build players for the future of FC Barcelona. And even if it doesn’t build the astonishing number of world-class talents that comprised those amazing Guardiola teams, there should at least be a progression, a path to the first team that at least gets talented players looked at. Puig did absolutely everything right. He moved up through the levels and grew at each one. He wasn’t big but he played huge. It’s safe to say that Barça B would have won that key promotion match had Setien not chosen to keep him as a mascot rather than letting him play, to the end looking for credit for saying the right thing rather than doing the right thing.

He got first-team opportunities under Valverde, and he impressed. No matter what anyone thinks of Gennaro Gattuso, the mid who stomped the terra like a pit bull, the man knows a gem, and singled out Puig after a pre-season friendly in which the Catalan sparkled like a diamond. When Setien came in, everything was a mess, but Koeman, with all his talk of the future, and playing talented young players, deluded us for a second into thinking things might be different. They’re the same. He doesn’t care any more than anyone else. A Masia player isn’t special, isn’t deserving of special care and consideration. He’s just another player. And when you think about physical football, you don’t think about a player who would need a stepstool to get in a defender’s face.

But you should.

What is a young talent at La Masia thinking right now? What is Ansu Fati thinking, having just hired Jorge Mendes as his agent? What are all the young players thinking, who are working to learn to play football the right way, looking to make the progression, thinking? It’s safe to say that thinking is different now. La Masia makes professionals. The bar is so high at the first team that more often than not, it makes professionals for other teams. But when you get a rare talent good enough to move into that first team, to find a place among the Messis and Busquets of the world, you don’t cast him out. You let him grow into a role on that team, with those players.

But Koeman is playing for now. He isn’t playing for La Masia, for the future, for what the club is trying to do in building a pipeline of talent that works its way toward the first team. Of all the players who have come out of La Masia of late, Puig has been the one. Even the most jaded observers have watched him ply his trade and said, “Woof!” He did everything right. His reward, if reports from reliable sources are to be trusted, his reward is to be cast out of the hothouse in which he was raised, the very place in which he was trained to play and excel.

This isn’t just a manager deciding, “Well, I have a style and he doesn’t fit.” When a manager comes to FC Barcelona, he doesn’t just come to a football club. It’s a tradition, a structure that includes a storied academy. But if you’re a mercenary, there is only your job to think about, so you don’t care if you do damage. You don’t care if Konrad, or Illaix Moriba are suddenly thinking, “Man, I could be Puig.” You’re going to be long gone by the time that bill comes due, so to hell with them. Mercenaries aren’t interested in tradition, or structure. Mercenaries are interested in doing their job for money, and getting paid. If the building blows up, a mercenary isn’t going back to save anyone.

Barça hasn’t had a manager who wasn’t a mercenary since Pep Guardiola. And it has gotten worse with each hire, because a shitshow of a board hires men with an eye toward having the team find success that will make money and save their asses, so everything is short-term. Even if you’re stupid enough to think that Puig shouldn’t be starting right now, you can’t be so stupid as to not see his talent and potential. But in the short-term world, you don’t care about that. You only care about now. So like the men before you, the quest is to eke out one more season from tired old legs that have been there before, rather than taking risk on building something amazing. You don’t look at the second half against Nastic and think, “Man, we should do that.” You look at the first half and think, “What can I fix from this moribund display to survive?”

Everything about that is wrong.

Puig isn’t Sergi Samper, whose ultimate level was debatable even before horrible luck with injuries derailed his bright future. Puig is being called Thiago 2.0, but the Catalan mid didn’t put a clause into his contract then take advantage of it when circumstances allowed, letting stupid men only interested in money latch onto doing a stupid thing. Puig is different, and that’s what makes it so much worse. He hasn’t had an injury, doesn’t have a contract clause, doesn’t have anything except talent that lights up a pitch, doesn’t have anything except a history of commitment to a club that doesn’t look to be interested in repaying that dedication and faith. As the club recruits young talents, what can it offer them, and how will this bullshit affect that recruitment? They aren’t just damaging the present. They’re also hurting the future.

A properly functioning board run by people who love the club would have seen the reports, summoned Koeman and said to him, “If you don’t want to have the shortest tenure in history, fix that. Now.” Instead there has been silence. And in silence, bad things grow. Even if this is all rumor and Puig is promoted and stays at the club, this is still a shitshow that should never have been allowed to happen. Even as the board faces a censure motion, it still has the job of stewardship, a task that encompasses present and future. That they are sitting back and letting this happen in silence says so much about who they are, even as we already knew, even as almost 21,000 slips of paper say it loud and clear.

Mercenaries don’t care, and Koeman is a mercenary, like so many of his kind. And every day at FC Barcelona, you wake up thinking it can’t get any worse. Then it does. What makes this so bad is that it isn’t about Puig. It’s about La Masia and every talent watching the first team and what is going on. Who in the system is as talented as Puig? Mercenaries often do more damage than they prevent, then they walk away from the burning building. They got paid, and they survived. The ruins are left for someone else to clean up.

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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.