Nothing about the FC Barcelona experience is like a modern club. As grim reailty goes, that is a good place to start.
The Camp Nou is, like the team, a construction zone. It’s in too many parts dusty, gray and musty, redolent with a scent that only a romantic would consider history. It’s just old. Common areas are dark and dank, bathroom facilities are ancient. Levon described it as “like a stadium in South America,” and he didn’t mean that in a good way.
The seats are as faded as the memories, molded bits of hard plastic. When you go to Camp Nou as a culer, if you look past the romance what you see is kind of a shithole, one that befits the state of the team and the club.
The entity and its supporters are gazing wistfully at sepiatone images of a better, grander time, when midgets stomped the terra. And people are still clinging to antiquated notions of play, of development of play, of how the game should be approached.
Everything about FC Barcelona is stuck in the past, and the Champions League match, the group stage opener against Bayern Munich, made that clear.
What people have forgotten about the Midget Era is that amazing group of academy players weren’t physical specimens, but they were footballing specimens, every one of them considered the best or among the best at their position. But as with modern stadiums, football, chastened by its destruction at the hands of the little people, has moved on. It is bigger, stronger, faster and more skilled. Watching Pedri face up Upamencano was like watching a kid facing a man. Bigger, stronger, faster. No amount of “playing the right way” will fix a fundamental inadequacy.
Barça isn’t anything enough. Matches on television are weird because they deceive. In person, the ease with which Bayern dismantled Barça was so much more apparent. It was startling how slow, as a team, Barça is comoared to Bayern, how ill-equipped it is to deal with a modern footballing side. Everything about Barça oozes, from ball movement to players. Barça was so slow that it looked like they were playing with nine. Bayern always had open space in which to advance the ball, open running space. Nobody on the pitch in blaugrana was fully competitive.
Football is a team game played by athletes. You need the horses to run a race. The first goal was typical of the night. The ball moved around with ease, finding its way to Müller, who took it, ran a bit, had all the time in the world. Busquets could see that he was about to shoot, and was running as fast as he could, moving at an almost hilariously slow pace that looked like slow motion.
Muller struck the ball and an almost apologetic Barça defender shied away. The ball glanced off him and nestled into the net. Even the Bayern goal celebration was a bit muted, like parents accidentally scoring against a youth team.
This was the entire match, one in which Barça didn’t register a single shot on target. Bayern would have worked harder in training that they did in brushing aside Barça, a match that should serve as a wakeup call, but won’t.
The day after, even that evening, the focus was on Koeman, on managerial inadequacy. But it was impossible to watch that match from the seats and imagine any manager in football preventing that scoreline, because Barça was just outclassed in every phase of the game. Tactics? You need the ball to employ tactics. You have to be able to do something besides chase the shadows of bigger, stronger, faster players.
The devoted will scoff, will rail against the idea of physical prowess and talk about skill on the ball and positioning. It’s all so much bullshit. Bayern were bigger, stronger, faster, more aggressive AND more skilled. It was everything. And Barça looked like what it was, what its stadium is: a relic.
It was as bleak, as sad as that, and it’s something difficult to fully take in on television. Barça is a neglected old house, a sofa covered in plastic but the springs are worn, the stuffing decayed. The pitch is glittering as the lights hit it. It’s amazing. But it needs a team worthy of it.
Sack Koeman? Go right anead. That isn’t going to make Busquets able to run, isn’t going to give Alba a clue or make Pique able to cover enough ground. It isn’t going to make Sergi Roberto less the mid-table player that he is, isn’t going to not embed Frenkie De Jong in the mucilage of a group that allows nothing like the potential that he has.
Like the Camp Nou, Barça is a teardown that begins not with players or a manager but with notions and ideas. You can’t run a modern football club like a neighborhood butcher shop, where the sidewalk cafe is furnished with castoffs found in a nearby alley. Luuk De Jong has no business wearing Blaugrana. We can make excuses for the likes of Eric Garcia, say, “But he’s only 20.” As if getting older will make him faster and physical enough to cope with the modern game.
Yes, the modern game. Football isn’t an anomaly being played the wrong way, just waiting for Barça to assemble the right group of players to set it right again. Football is a moving target and Barça is stuck in place. Nostalgia roams the halls more than notions of excellence. It even chose a past president, with the idea that he can return the club to what it was.
It isn’t until you tiptoe through piles if debris, watch old or not up to it players make comparably laughable efforts that you fully realize how utterly bereft Barça is. It has four captains, none of who should be even still at the team, never mind starting. Jordi Alba had to play with a fever, vomiting before the match, because the club doesn’t have an optiion. Would a braver manager have started Mingueza, gone three at the back, not played Alba? Maybe. But a better club wouldn’t have sold a fullback that it had just acquired, a fullback that would have provided options other than woeful inadequacy.
The match became fun when Koeman subbed in Gavi and Demir, but not fun in a way that was going to affect the outcome in any way. But the joy and energy they brought was a delight. They were fighting, and getting stuck in. They had the energy to try, and the supporters cheered that lone bright spot.
On television, this match was a beatdown. In the stands, walking through the stadium, it was symbolic, spasms of a bygone empire from a bygone era. Can the club be fixed? Not from my view. The nostalgia and lassitude are too firmly entrenched as everyone sits around waiting for lightning to strike again. Laporta talks about building a team from La Masia and people lap it up. But there isn’t a Xavi, an Iniesta, a Messi. A returning Masia talent is Eric Garcia, not a young Gerard Pique.
Meanwhile other clubs, purported allies, embrace modernity. The new Bernabeu glitters as it unveils Camavinga, a modern player for a modern game, and will welcome Kylian Mbappe next summer. Barça will do … what?
There isn’t a transfer or managerial change that can fix Barça. The club will do them, and there will be hope. But until FC Barcelona modernizes, it will remain stuck, an old athlete at the pub, talking about the moment when he was great. And people will listen politely, then leave to watch the young, strong athletes do their thing.