It feels weird that the FC Barcelona season is only just now getting under way, mostly because since the team’s utter failure against Bayern Munich, what seems like a season’s worth of turmoil has been compressed into mere weeks.
There are culers new(ish) to the club, who might have come during Pax Guardiolus, or even later, during the steely tenure of Luis Enrique, who are now wondering what they have gotten themselves into. But chaos and ugliness are like the welcome packet for new culers.
Yet it is also at a time such as this that the schism, the separation between board and team is most evident, and not just on the org chart.
Since the 8-2 pummelling at the hands of Bayern Munich, Vidal, Rakitic, Semedo and Suarez have left. Messi has tried to leave. A censure motion has garnered almost 21,000 signatures from socis saying, much more directly than a hashtag, “Bartomeu out.” A former coach has popped up with not only the oddest Twitter profile picture, but a claim of funds owed, of more chaos in how he and his staff were dismissed. Amid all this, the club doesn’t have money, and has to sell to buy. Amid Suarez leaving, Messi, acting like the ultimate disgruntled employee, had bile to spit at the current board, echoed by former teammates. Oh, and this is all happening amid a pandemic.
Customarily, we would be breathing a sigh of relief that football is here to distract from the roiling cauldron of institutional chaos, but it isn’t any clearer on the pitch. The team went undefeated during the preseason, but in full honesty, none of the opponents were going to put the fear of any deity, even minor ones, into the hearts of supporters. The defense is almost the same as last year, absent the one person on the right side who could run or cover anything. The attack is almost the same as last year, minus the one person who scored goals with an effectiveness that bordered on obsession.
It’s Suarez and Semedo, both deeemd worthless by supporters who should know better, who should approach life and the game with nuance, that are illustrative of so much. Suarez is a man physically diminished. He can’t move as well, has seen the physical slippage manifest itself in a duller edge. Should he have been kept? No, not in the context of what this current Barça team needs, but he would have been useful, and it is in no way clear how the team is going to reproduce the double-digits in goals and assists that now reside in Madrid.
Semedo was a fullback, a defender who so many hated because he didn’t play like a winger, who failed at a position defined in culer minds by a great player in an ideal circumstance, played in the here and now by a player in circumstances as far from ideal as anyone could imagine. Unlike Suarez, who made a speech, hung out at his old locker and was feted even as he might be cutting his former team’s throat in a few weeks, Semedo just left. No speech, no snark, just gone. And it’s not that difficult to wonder if he isn’t happy to have everything about FC Barcelona in his rear view mirror, happier to be gone than the supporters are happy to see him gone.
Puig, the best midfielder the team had when he sparkled during the back half of a messy end of previous season, doesn’t even have a first-team number, while he does have a manager who initially told him to find a new home for a while, but now has added him to the roster. Umtiti and his unfortunate knees are still there, along with Rafinha and his bad-luck body. Both are set for new homes along with Jean-Clair Todibo, a CB who is young, fast, quick, has great closing speed, wins everything in the air and is fearless on the ball. That he is being sold because he is worth more to the balance sheet than he is on the pitch says everything about the state of the club right now, and the people who run it.
FC Barcelona right now is, off the pitch, mean, ignorant and excessive in every way. New B team signing Gustavo Maia was excoriated by insiders as a player so terrible he wasn’t even fit to be played as a joke. Yet played he has, and played well, scoring delightful goals and looking nothing like a joke. That’s the state of the ugly, ravenous entorno right now.
FC Barcelona right now is, on the pitch, uncertain.
None of the problems that existed last season have been solved. There was talk of a revolution, but highly paid geezers in a couple of key positions said, “Nope.” And the most highly paid of them all wanted to leave, felt that by leaving he could kick start a new future for his club, but the president prevented that. And in doing so, he created an enemy, an arch-nemesis of unsurpassing power who can both create and destroy. Bartomeu not letting Messi leave was deeply stupid, ego-driven and selfish, the action of a man who in saying he wasn’t going to be the president who let Messi leave, assured the success of the mechanism that has his lame-duck presidency in peril.
What might have transpired had Messi left? Would the revolution have in fact happened? Would Alba, Pique, Busquets and others have come to the same conclusion, considering their time up as well in a clean sweep? When Pep Guardiola came in and jettisoned Ronaldinho and Deco while putting Eto’o on notice, the message was clear: Do what I need you to or that will be you. Messi said during his interview that he felt it was time for him to leave, time for new, young legs and a different project. Bartomeu has never more completely failed in his stewardship than by preventing any of that from happening. A piecemeal revolution is usually just a mess, leaving people watching it to wonder, “What if?”
We will never know, because here those key players all are, in the same positions, just a year older and that lost step even farther away in the rear-view mirror. And here comes Villarreal, a team that in fact DID have a revolution, adding a new manager and gobs of new talent as well as an injection of pace from the likes of Pervis Estupinan, in addtion to the pace they already had, that will present a stern test for FC Geezer.
The football that should be a relief also has the potential to add to the chaos, should the team do anything other than emerge triumphant. Balanced on a knife’s edge is a cliche, but also a truism in the case of the current state of the club and the team around which it is forged. Right now, supporters separate board and team. On paper, the team looks promising, if a lot of stuff happens right and the manager can get players who haven’t been able to do certain things under previous managers, to do it under his tenure. He talks about a press, but key spaces of his debut XI are likely to be occupied by members of the 30+ club.
On the up side, Dembele is fit, Trincao has sparkled in preseason and Messi — spiteful and unhappy — is still Messi. Coutinho looks fit and ready, and Griezmann — well, let’s just not talk about him right now except to say he looks very Griezmann. De Jong is still impeded from his fullest flowering by an old man, and what of Pjanic, the newest addition to the FC Chaoslona roster. And supporters are energized by the still-unconfirmed reports that Serginho Dest will be coming, a 19-year-old savior for many who is in fact a young player who will need so much time to become something, dumped into a world that isn’t going to be at all interested in providing that time. Yikes.
Football is finally here, and it’s a blessing. But it has never been more ready to become a curse. Everything Messi does is going to be interpreted in a different way now, because he’s unhappy. Missed sitter won’t just be a missed sitter. Poor passes will have some extra sauce now. The team’s captain and talisman is also fiercely loyal and a consummate professional. Anyone doubting that he will give his all doesn’t understand anything about him. But it’s also fair to wonder if that all is conditional, if psychological unhappiness might dull an edge that should be sharp, though no fault of his own. And that’s weird to consider. Messi needs to win at football like he needs oxygen. Everything about his current state, his unhappiness to a degeree sufficient for him to want to leave the only club he has ever known, a family, is a question mark that could either propel the team to new heights or leave it foundering on the rocks of another season of failure.
Football is finally here. But who the hell knows what we’re going to get and never has it felt more like something we might not even want.